FriendsLearn Founder & CEO, Bhargav Sri Prakash gave up his career in hedge funds in the US to focus on the design of the virtual reality based mobile health game—Fooya. “I launched this mission-focused start-up six years ago, shortly after my first daughter—Ammeya—was born. It triggered my compulsive obsession about the influence of media and advertising on children’s food habits. Children are constantly targetted with brilliant and sophisticated campaigns to become addicted to processed food that is high in sugar, salt, fat and preservatives. We want to help children eat healthy and to develop active lifestyles in a personalised way through artificial intelligence. We are working on raising awareness on the harmful effects of consuming processed foods”.
Bhargav grew up in Chennai and was a junior national tennis champion in India, having represented the country in international tournaments. He has an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy. He then went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he graduated with a masters in automotive engineering. He sold his first company in automotive simulation technologies to a Detroit based OEM and exited his second company in educational gaming before he co-founded and ran a US based Hedge fund called Nirmana Capital Partners, LP. In 2011, he was invited to serve as a fellow of the Kauffman Foundation, which is when he started FriendsLearn with a vision to improve the health of children globally. “I am a firm believer in the power of capitalism in combination with design-thinking, to solve our world’s greatest problems”. He splits his time between Chennai and Palo Alto. The company’s R&D Innovation centre is in Chennai.
Bhargav delivered an Oral Ignite talk announcing significant improvements in diets among middle school children as the result of Fooya during the 2015 Stanford MedicineX Conference. The presentation, “Neuropsychology based Behaviour Design through mobile health gaming”, focused on the company’s major breakthroughs in designing interactive and immersive mobile entertainment, as well as the scientific methods in achieving statistically significant health outcomes. His talk highlighted results from a study of outcomes during the nationwide ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science camp, where researchers found improvements in the diets of middle school campers at various university sites across the country.
The study results showed a 17% reduction in the consumption of processed food, a 4% reduction in sugar-sweetened beverages and a 7.6% increase in the consumption of fresh fruit, over a three-day period, as a result of a single exposure to Fooya!. “We have pioneered ways to target the behaviour centres within the prefrontal cortex of children, conditioning children to make healthy lifestyle choices,” says Bhargav. He is, today, regarded as a pioneer for inventing Learnification as a method to embed learning within environment after his six-year journey. The Fooya app has won many awards. “Many children spend several hours a day playing video games (15), especially on mobile devices. These have become a platform through which to teach children about health in a fun and enjoyable way”.
In simple terms Fooya! is a video game which made its first appearance on Facebook. To stay alive, the players are required to throw specific healthy food items (fruits, dairy products, vegetables and grains) to destroy enemies and dodge unhealthy food items (fries, burghers, sodas ) that put hurdles in their way. The young players subconsciously learn about food items and the harm they can do to their health. “The players try to destroy the enemies by making them fatter by eating junk food. They stay alive by consuming healthier foods and end up understanding what happens when they eat a hamburger along with a fully whipped creamy milk shake and french fries.” The game works at several levels according to the age groups. At the end of each level, a nutritional chart lists contents of each item consumed during the game for children between age three and 13.
After having spent the last four years on successful clinical research & iterative product development in the US, Bhargav is excited about the opportunity to create a product innovation from India, which can have a major social impact and also become a world leader. The technology is backed by statistically significant health outcomes in multiple randomised and controlled clinical trials undertaken by groups of independent scientists in the US, which have been peer reviewed and presented at leading academic medical conferences such as Stanford School of Medicine’s MedicineX, Childhood Obesity Conference, ObesityWeek, among others. In 2016, FriendsLearn won recognition from the Stanford School of Medicine, for its clinically proven innovations during the MedicineX Conference, as well as from the prestigious EAT Forum in Sweden.
Bhargav is now ready to introduce this technology and game to India. Childhood obesity is reaching alarming proportions in this country as well with a 22% prevalence rate over the last five years in children and adolescents aged between 5-19 years. A new report by a commission formed by the World Health Organisation has identified “marketing of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages” as a major factor in the increase in numbers of children being overweight and obese, particularly in the developing world. Says Bhargav,” We have focused on creating a highly entertaining and fun product for kids, who enjoy our method of improving their health.”
Fooya is a paid mobile app, costing R600, which was launched in the US two years ago and so far has seen 50,000 downloads. The company is in talks with doctors, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, schools and public health sectors in India to take the application further. It has invested R34-70 crore in app development and clinical trials. The app was launched in India two months ago and clinical trials are going on.