Giving Back Calories: An Interview with Troy Hickerson
In a time when food production has never been higher, it’s a surprising and sobering fact that many children in the world today suffer from malnutrition. A recent joint report issued by UNICEF, WHO, and the World Bank Group estimated that over 200 million children under the age of 5 worldwide suffer from either stunting (defined as failure to grow both physically and cognitively due to malnutrition, leading to a shorter height) or wasting (defined as being too thin for a given height). At the same time, the report estimated that 41 million children under 5 were actually overweight. The problem isn’t necessarily the total amount of food in the world; if all the food in the world were theoretically divided between everyone we’d all have 2,800 calories per day. Instead, the issue is one of food access.
While many aid organizations around the globe have worked to tackle food inequality, Troy Hickerson decided to attack the problem from a different angle. Noting the motivational power of engaging in healthy behavior for the sake of others, he co-founded Active For Good (originally called Calorie Cloud) to allow people to “donate” the calories they burned by being active, in the form of nutritious therapeutic food packets. Since its creation, Active For Good has launched two programs, the Workplace Activity Challenge for adults and UNICEF Kids Power for children. I spoke with Troy about Active For Good’s origins, along with the company’s evolution over time.
What was the original inspiration behind Active For Good?
Troy Hickerson: The original project came about after we found out about a ready-to-use therapeutic food called RUTF back in 2009, when it became a standard of care for kids under six years old who had severe malnutrition. It was revolutionizing the way these kids are cared for, it was pretty amazing. Traditionally the treatment plan would be a hospital bed with a feeding tube, and sadly a lot of the kids wouldn’t make it. A group of creative doctors with Doctors Without Borders said “you know, maybe we could come up with a better way,” and I think they watched their own kids eating Nutella and said “hey, let’s take the same fortified milk formula, add some nutrients, and mix it with peanut butter to give it a shelf stable life.” A couple years later and after a good number of studies, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, and the UN Council on Nutrition issued a joint statement saying that was the only way they were going to treat kids who were severely and acutely malnourished, or the most severe and dangerous form of malnutrition where kids are on edge of not making it and need immediate intervention.
That was really what got me and a couple good friends rallied behind the cause. My good friend Mark Moore talked his wife into letting him quit his job at the US Senate, he was actually the guy UNICEF came to looking for Senate appropriations dollars to fund this kind of intervention. He’d sit through a lot of meetings but he thought, “if this is true, let’s see what we can do.” So we started a nonprofit called MANA Nutrition, which was basically a manufacturing company. We got some great funding out of the UK, and the goal at the time was to take this fairly new intervention and lower the cost. Back then it was about $75 for a treatment cycle for one child, and there would be three packets a day, the packets being 500 calories each. They look like large ketchup packets. Three days for six weeks cost about $75, and then by opening a factory and doing this as a nonprofit, and by putting pressure on a couple of the manufacturers that were out there with more of a traditional business model, it brought the cost down below $40 per trial.
That was the first step, to take the existing budget and see if we could stretch those to make a bigger impact. The factory opened in 2011. By 2013, through a small amount of good luck and miracles we hit our financial milestones with our funders and got a little bit of latitude to launch a crazy idea-and we have a lot of crazy ideas-and one of them was “what if we could recycle calories?” and really solve two problems at once. So that was the nucleus of the idea. We got accepted to an accelerated program called the Unreasonable Institute, and they were great. That was where we literally showed up with a napkin and an idea and a good track record with what we did with the manufacturing company. That really got us introduced to some great mentors, a little bit of funding, and that’s where we launched this concept of Active For Good. That was the background, it was definitely a commitment to try to see what we could do to really get rid of this problem that is completely solvable. We know where severely malnourished kids are in the world, and there’s an intervention that works. Interestingly too, in a longitudinal study, 95 percent of the kids that go through a treatment program never go back to that level that malnutrition, so it’s kind of a one time thing as well.
In the Photo: RUTF packets. Photo Credit: Active For Good.
Active For Good works by tracking calories burned and donating them to those in need. How do you monitor and quantify that figure?
TH: Good question. Fortunately we all have phones that we tend to carry around with us all the time, and if you use things like Apple HealthKit and FitBit or any of those types of devices they keep track of how active you are, and then we can find someone to sponsor you being active-that’s the tricky business part-before converting all that activity into food. So it’s really just utilizing a lot of the wearable tech and quantified data that’s out there.
The interesting thing too is that it allows people to bring their own lifestyle to the experience, so if you do yoga or you’re a cyclist or you’re a runner, that’s fine. It’s not a step counting program or any of that, it’s a little more rooted in behavioral science in the concept that you may do some types of healthy behaviors for yourself, but for a lot of people there’s a bigger shift and a bigger adoption if those choices you’re making are connected to helping someone else, especially in the early adoption curve in your program. So we’re definitely rooted in behavioral science, we put people on teams so it’s a social experience, and that really brings a sense of purpose where they’re doing something that’s bigger than themselves.
In the Photo: Active For Good on mobile. Photo Credit: Active For Good.
The Workplace Activity Challenge is one of Active For Good’s main programs, what kinds of companies have adopted it and how has their reception to it been?
TH: Like any new project we went a hundred directions at once, and talked to Nike and FitBit, nationwide gyms, healthcare organizations, and schools, thinking about where can we find a business model that can monetize that activity. Eventually we focused on the Workplace Activity Challenges, and we also really acted as an innovation team for UNICEF USA and built a program called UNICEF Kid Power. That’s in its third year and helps kids get active.
But for the workplace model we’re learning a lot, which has been great. We’ve done about 50 challenges with companies, and the goal is to do one or two a year, and repeat that year after year. We’re now taking some of our learnings and realizing that showing up as a nonprofit and saying “we’re here to help kids” doesn’t always work with HR people. But they love the idea, and we get a lot of really keen interest, so we’ve recently been shifting into more of an employee engagement model that delivers clear benefits to the workplace, where everyone is involved and doing something that matters that can also translate to more productivity as well. So that’s been interesting. About three weeks ago we got invited to Google and spent three days doing a design sprint, where we rethought our offering to be more of a year-round program with certain focuses or spikes each quarter, to make it more of an attractive business offering that can help us scale and make more impact. In the past the kinds of companies we’ve done programs with include Johnson and Johnson, we also did one with Airbnb Canada recently along with Lucasfilms. For three summers in a row we were part of a program at JP Morgan Chase that converted people being active to nutrition around the world, so it’s been great to see the program adopted.
In the Photo: A child eating from an RUTF packet. Photo Credit: Active For Good.
Going more in-depth about UNICEF Kid Power, that program also donates calories burnt but from children instead of adults. What have the results of that program been?
TH: When we were in Boulder, Colorado with that program the Unreasonable Institute, we met with one of the folks from UNICEF who turned out to be a great friend and partner, and he was saying at the time “this a great idea, we should do this for kids!” That slowly turned into what you see today, which is UNICEF Kid Power. It was focused initially on being a school-based program, where we had funders like Mattel and Target that helped bring us into those environments, and then a year and a half later we launched a consumer version in partnership with Target. We developed a wearable band, which was the first wearable for good, and rather than just giving stats about yourself, it actually helps you engage with something that makes the world a better place by unlocking points that turn into live-saving food, and it creates this ability to scale connectedness and empathy. In a way we’re betting on purpose as a motivator, and we see great results in terms of kids being more active when they’re in this program than they would otherwise, which goes a long way to helping solve two problems at once.
What does the future of Active For Good look like in your eyes?
TH: We’re actually in the process right now of reconfiguring our offering. We’re going to do a name change to Active For Good, which says a lot more about what we do, and connect healthy activities to doing good in the world. We’ll still be largely focused on helping malnourished kids, but it might also include nutrition programs for kids here in the US for companies that need a domestic focus in addition to still helping with kids internationally who need intervention. The other thing is that Active For Good could become more of a comprehensive offering for companies. It’s great to have a stack of benefits, insurance, medical and dental benefits, and other things like that, but having a program that is easy to turn on for everybody, that really brings a sense of meaning, that helps give a reputation bump to the company internally and externally, and that really unites people to solve a real problem in the world is great for culture. That’s where we’re headed in the future.