Cardinal Corner: Terri Lykins, CEO + Founder of My Food, My Choice

By Jai’Michael Anderson – University of Louisville
March 14, 2024, 10:20am EST

UofL LaunchIt bootcamp alum, Terri Lykins, is currently developing a new subscription-based digital platform, that empowers people with neurodevelopmental disorders to build healthier eating habits.

Lykins has worked as a dietitian for 20 years, specializing in helping people with autism, Down syndrome, and those with a lack of access to healthy food. She says her time in and out of various care environments influenced the groundwork for her new product, My Food My Choice (MFMC).

“Individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD) such as autism and Down syndrome often die 20 years sooner than neurotypical people, due to chronic, diet-related diseases that are largely preventable,” said Lykins.

She noted that conflicts over food between individuals and their caregivers can also arise as often as three to five times a day. The platform is aimed at reducing such confrontations. “It’s respecting the choices of the person with developmental differences and teaching them to choose healthier through virtual rewards, which has never been done before, nutritionally,” Lykins said. “It is so hard for caregivers to find a way to do that without it being this push-and-pull contentiousness between that eater and that caregiver all the time. This takes the caregiver out of the middle of the whole thing.”

MFMC features a library of images displaying foods that users, or “eaters”, can select to eat when planning meals with dietitians and caregivers. Each library is personalized to the individual’s preferences, individuals can even use photos they take on their devices as the images for their favorite foods.

Lykins envisions the platform being more akin to popular games among the individuals she works with. The software incentivizes eaters to select healthier food options by rewarding them with coins and confetti. “That’s our journey, is figuring out what lights people up and what kind of game features and rewards do they like the most, and ‘how can we do that in an affordable way?’”

In future updates, Lykins hopes to incorporate negative points for unhealthy food choices and wants to test the idea of avatars whose physiques change as the user selects various meal options. “When they eat healthy, that avatar has bigger muscles and looks really healthy.” Lykins also stated that the platform’s benefits will be expanded to populations such as kids who are picky eaters, those with dementia, and people with complex dietary needs.

Despite her healthcare expertise, Lykins says she initially didn’t know how to transform her idea into a product. She credits her introduction to UofL’s LaunchIt program as the kickstart to the product’s development. She described her entrepreneurial journey as a little boat tied to a dock. “LaunchIt kind of launched the boat and it got me out there on the water.”

Through the LaunchIt program, Lykins was able to connect with several mentors, develop a business model, and connect with her client base. “LaunchIt taught me through customer discovery to just forget thinking I know what’s going to fix everybody,” she said. “Just ask people ‘When it comes to food what is your biggest challenge?’ … and that’s what I did.”

Tendai Charasika, CEO of Saling Wealth Advisors who serves as an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at UofL’s Office of Research and Development, was a key figure in Lykins’ coaching during LaunchIt. “As an EIR, the goal is to help people and help companies evaluate their businesses and then get them off the ground and get to a point where they are identifying and validating that they have a business model that’s scalable and repeatable,” Charasika said.

Charasika has served as a guide towards multiple grant and networking opportunities, as well as workshops such as Startup Weekend Louisville which Lykins emphasized the benefit of. “That’s what they teach us about in these programs. You need to set milestones and then you need to keep working towards those milestones.”

One of the bigger successes that Lykins has had so far is winning the 2023 Vogt Awards which included a $25,000 grant that is currently being used to further develop the platform to be more user-friendly. Apart from the Vogt award, MFMC has been funded at Lykins’ expense.

Lykins is seeking to raise more funding for the software and begin beta testing the product in the coming months. “I’m hoping to find funding support from people with want to help change the lives of those with developmental differences like autism and Down syndrome, so they have better health outcomes. This is such an underserved population that has very little tech support aimed specifically at them.”

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