Dennis Ai (’13) spent the summer of 2011 in New York, working 80 hours a week as an intern in Goldman Sachs’ Hedge Fund Strategies group. His days consisted of writing reports and modeling trends on Excel—it was tedious work, but it seemed to be justified by the payoff, a handsome summer salary and the future earnings that would come now with “Goldman Sachs” on the resume. The internship concluded with a trip to the Hamptons, to the home of one of his program mentors. For a weekend, Ai woke up to the smell of gourmet coffee, spent his days at the beach, and slept next to the house’s “candy room”, which was, as the name suggests, a room filled with candy for the Goldman employee’s children. “It was awesome,” Ai said, recalling the experience, “but I realized then that personal wealth isn’t my first priority.” Having laid the foundation for a successful career on Wall Street, Ai decided that he was done with investment banking. “You know when Steve Jobs told John Sculley, ‘Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life?’ (Jobs wanted Sculley, a VP at Pepsi, to become the CEO of Apple). That summer, that really resonated with me.”
Returning to Northwestern in the fall, Ai chose to refocus his technical background in computer engineering (Professor Doug Downey calls him an “all-star in the department”) away from finance and towards start-ups. In January, he launched a social review site called Mavenize that would personalize movie and restaurant reviews by restricting them to only your friends. The company faded but the idea was sound: Facebook recently announced plans to incorporate a similar service when they launch Graph Search in the coming weeks. Ai moved on, knowing that failure was acceptable in the industry that he had now committed himself to. He took the time, for example, to embark on a trip from Boston to Austin aboard the StartupBus, where he and a team devised a product and business plan during the three-day trip to South by Southwest.
With the inspiration from his previous two ventures in mind, Ai decided that his next initiative would be more personal. Ai admits to being someone who dealt with childhood obesity; he also came to realize that video games can dramatically impact young people’s behavior, most often in unhealthy ways. Why can’t, he asked, they be used to promote healthy living instead? Using image-processing technology being pioneered at Northwestern, Ai and sophomore Christian Yenko are in the process of developing a game for Apple’s app store that simulates the effects of a child’s eating habits through an avatar. The game, which they’ve called JiveHealth, calls for its users to take a picture of the food he or she is about to eat with a smartphone or tablet; an algorithm the pair have devised, with help from NU Professor Ollie Cossairt, then analyzes the image, assigning nutritional value to the food being consumed. From there, the nutritional value influences how equipped the player’s avatar is to deal with the game’s challenges. Candy and sugar water, not surprisingly, don’t score too well. “It’s a challenging problem. There are so many possible inputs,” but unlike the way he felt about his work at Goldman, “it’s also a really fun problem,” says Ai.
JiveHealth is currently a semifinalist in the Partnership for a Healthier America’s End Obesity Childhood Innovation Challenge. The PHA is chaired by Mrs. Michelle Obama; if Ai and Yenko are chosen as finalists (you can help the cause by voting for them here), they will present JiveHealth in Washington to the First Lady and other prominent healthy living practitioners in both the public and private sectors. Ai plans to put his computer science background to use when he graduates from Northwestern in the spring. Whether he does so as a member of an established tech company or by continuing to work with JiveHealth remains to be seen. “I’m really excited about where the digital health space is going, with the Nike Fuel Band and so many other innovative things. In five years, I hope that JiveHealth is right in the middle of it.”