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Niraj Jetly, COO and CIO, NutriSavings

Niraj Jetly, COO and CIO

As COO and Chief Information Officer at NutriSavings, Niraj Jetly and his team have pioneered a way to make healthy food both affordable and understandable, and are building a new ecosystem which is changing the game for corporate health costs and employee productivity in the process.

A spin-off from corporate services giant Edenred, Nutrisavings has harnessed data technologies, nationwide grocery partnerships,…
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How is your team changing the game within your industry sector?

When we launched, there were several research sources which showed that the health of employees depends far more on what you eat than on how often you work out – yet there were very few solutions, if any, based on nutrition. You could attend seminars on how to cook healthier; you could get recipe books; you could be coached by dieticians. But you’d generally need to leave your workspace to attend those sessions, they weren’t scalable; and they asked people to do something they were not doing already. They also did not address the fundamental problems of affordability and confusion for the consumer.

Several research papers showed that the average American finds it much easier to file their own taxes than comprehend the nutritional fact panel of a food item in a grocery store. Go and pick up any food item; I bet you will not have heard half of those words in your life.  We know that sugar is generally bad for us – but it turns out that there are about 200 different words for sugar. Meanwhile, we found that there was a perception that certain brands were healthy, and certain brands were unhealthy – but that just isn’t true. There is in fact a wide range of nutritional value across the products offered by the same brand.

To decipher this confusion, we recruited a panel of dietitians, and we created an algorithm based on prior research which takes into account all food items and all nutritional information on the packaging. We were able to generate a nutritional score between zero and hundred; the higher number, the healthier the item.So for instance, our participants in the NutriSavings program can download our mobile app, scan the bar code of any food items in grocery store with their smart phone, and get the nutritional score right then and there.Using input from our panel of dietitians, users can also immediately learn what it is about that item that is good for you, and what you should watch out for.

But we do not tell someone not to buy this or that. Instead, the app will also show you healthier alternatives; foods with a similar taste, but with higher nutritional scores, as a gentle nudge in the right direction. But we also recognized that the absolute nutrition score of any food item was not as important as the change in score over time for participants, so incremental behavior change, and the ability to track that change, is the exciting game changer for large employers.

Many people do want to diet, but to do it they need to log their food intake – and who has the time to log 1000 meals per year? We can actually manage an individual’s pantry, and provide the log and the trends for them. We had to figure out a way that is scalable- so we built a network grocery stores – 10,000 nationwide – which we actually built connectivity with. Once we have permission from participants to reach out to grocery stores, we can use their rewards cards as unique identifiers and track the items they’ve actually bought. In addition to the primary benefits of health, we are passing along discounts from those stores to the members for items which show good nutritional scores – so healthy food has become more affordable.


What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your organization or industry sector?

Food is very diverse; very fragmented; and hard to comprehend for many people – it’s also very politically driven. So fear of taking risks is one of the biggest challenges to innovating in this industry. Fear of failure in general is the broader challenge – its human nature; you don’t want to be on wrong end of decision making process.

The scale of the problem of unhealthy eating, and the confusion and lack of education surrounding it, is intimidating for companies. So we took the challenge and broke it down into small boxes.  People are surprised to hear that I did not use new data technologies when we started NutriSavings; but what we did was use them in different ways. It was the business model we needed to primarily solve, so we used technologies my team was familiar with.


How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture, and how is it being optimized?

Nutrisavings is a spinoff from a large parent company, Edenred, and the innovation culture is very different. When you’re a publically held company you tend to be more conservative. For me, there are two kinds of innovation – technology-driven, and customer-focused. Edenred has a strong innovation philosophy called “Customer Inside,” and we have built on the idea of focusing on a customer’s journey, and focusing on it step by step to figure out how to improve it.

I believe innovation requires one more attribute in your teams – not taking ‘no’ for an answer. ‘No’ is just the beginning of a discussion at Nutrisavings. But a key to being disruptive for us is going with your gut. I like that famous story about Henry Ford, where he was asked: “Before you built you automobile, did you go and ask what people wanted?”, and Ford responded to the effect of, “No, because people would have said they wanted faster horses.” At some point you need to stop asking and use your gut feeling. If you, as my business partner or client come with a question, I will not say I have all the answers– but we will tell you we will figure out answers together. The mindset is more important than the tools.


What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

Big data and personalization. Eventually, our nutritional scores for the same food item will be different for different individuals, depending on their unique needs. If any of us has prior conditions or allergies, the recommendations change. The cloud is helpful because it gives you scale, but I’m not looking for analytical technologies which can process large amounts of data which can create actionable personalized content for my audience. Keep in mind we are trying to create a scalable model scaled throughout the country – so if you are buying spinach or eggs or chicken, I need to give you relevant and easy to understand content.


Can you share a specific innovation strategy you’ve recently encountered which you find compelling?

The pace of technology innovation is breathtaking. I’m scared to go to bed because, I know when I am sleeping, the world around me is constantly changing. And I don’t want to miss it! This is best time to be in technology. And there are so many exciting new business models; such wonderful applications for things like crowdsourcing.

What Tesla has done with its battery technology and its open innovation approach is very interesting. Patents create turf wars, which can put constraints on innovation, but we’re seeing the end of turf control in some industries. With the approach Tesla is taking with open innovation, imagine the multiplier factor we’re going to see; it’s mind-boggling.

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