Food & Beverage Perspectives
Natural Product Apps—An Untapped Market Opportunity?

Natural Product Apps: An Untapped Market Opportunity?

Mobile applications, colloquially called apps, are popular for fitness, but so far, functional food brands haven’t tapped this market.

Recently, I interviewed an entrepreneur who was building an app that would use genetic data to make the diet and fitness regime recommendations specific to the individual. A question popped into my mind: Why doesn’t someone in the functional food industry build a similar app?

Mobile applications, colloquially called apps, after all are now near ubiquitous. We use an app to order a cab, book a room, measure our heart rate, check the calorie count of food that we intend to eat, check how much cholesterol will be derived from food, etc. Many of us use fitness apps integrated with our phones and wearable products. We can download these on our mobiles. Apps have become integral part of our lifestyle.

Most of us want to eat healthy. Many prefer organic food. Natural products, herbs and lifestyle literature are well appreciated. Then why is it that natural products related apps have not gained popularity? After all, we do buy many functional food items online on Amazon, eBay and others.

In the health and lifestyle category, fitness apps are the most popular. They are well designed, user friendly, give simple outputs like calories burnt, distance covered, heart rates achieved, basal metabolic rate and other such parameters. The platforms of Amazon, eBay and others are extensively used because navigation and purchasing is easy and convenient.

It is not that there are no apps on herbs, medicine and natural products. There are some electronic marketplaces created by individual companies for the purpose of selling their products online. Others are in the form of mobile friendly ebooks. These contain information on products, medicinal uses along with scientific background material. But the download rate of these apps is quite low. 

It is not as though there is little interest in natural products. Natural products have quite a few diehard supporters among the greens and vegans consumers. Many either used or bought a functional food product at least once in their lifetime.

We will though concede that globally, functional food products haven’t become a rave. Many people continue to have doubts on their efficacy. The natural products and functional food industry is conscious of this concern. The industry is fragmented with a preponderance of small players. Most have limited capital at their disposal. However, the industry is full of entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives studying and promoting functional food products.

Many companies based in North America and Europe especially are actively engaged with scientific institutions.  Together they have written dozens of papers, conducted trials validating medicinal properties of individual natural products.  Many companies are sharing these scientific papers and reports on their websites. I have seen a few sites carrying videos too. But websites alone are not enough. The likelihood of a skeptic discovering a supporting scientific paper is quite low.

Simple, well-designed and well-promoted apps are more likely to be downloaded and discovered than finding a scientific paper on a static website. The app, of course will need to be user friendly and should address a user need. It also needs to be available on both iPhone and android phones.

Building a great app does not require a ton of money. There are plenty of examples of startups building awesome platforms. These have acquired worldwide popularity.

At the heart of an app lies the algorithm, which in simple terms can be defined as a sequence of instructions that enables the software to yield a defined output. The first step in app making is to prepare a detailed process map that captures the key elements of a product property and its impact.

Very simply put, if we intend to build a blood sugar management product app. The starting point could be capturing insulin level data. Tracing the impact of a nutraceutical on insulin levels would form part of the algorithm. Unlike a scientific paper, the information is placed sequentially.

This could include capturing the chemical constituents of the individual products, the action of each ingredient on an individual body part and so on. The link between each ingredient and another and its impact on a body part—in this case the pancreas—will have to be clearly plotted.

This first document is generally created by a business analyst. The analyst will gather the information from the natural product ingredient expert and the supporting scientific team. This analysis document is then used by the software writing team. This team creates the app system design, write the code and builds the app. It is teamwork between analysts and software engineers. The role of the natural products team of domain experts is critical. Without their help, producing a meaningful app will be well-nigh impossible.

Once the app is ready, it is tested and rolled out. From then on, it is marketing and promotion. Digital marketing is the way to go. All the social media channels and technologies like virtual reality, even augmented reality and machine learning can be leveraged and incorporated in the code.

Why don’t some of you in the functional food space take a shot at building an app for a nutraceutical product? I am sure there will youngsters in the Silicon Valley who will be willing to give you a hand at this. Believe me, the task may appear to be daunting but can be accomplished.

Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Tata Consultancy Services, an IT outsourcing company in Asia, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herb, “Holy Herbs." He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service.

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