An app for food and friendship
Arnav Mishra is keeping daily tabs on the provincial public health orders – especially those involving the restaurant industry. The third-year Bachelor of Commerce student has developed a technology platform called DYNE that makes it easy for university students to meet up at local restaurants. With the COVID-19 vaccination program rolling out across the country, people are looking forward to returning to restaurants and meeting people outside their pandemic bubble.
DYNE was borne out of Mishra’s twin desire to launch some sort of venture and address the social isolation so many university students experience, himself included. When Mishra arrived from India and moved into UBC student housing in the fall of 2018, he found making friends was more challenging than managing his academics.
“Whenever I went to a cafeteria or restaurant for dinner, I saw students like me dining alone while looking at their phones and making no effort to talk to the person beside them,” recalls Mishra. “I realized that we have all become so dependent on our phones, we need help in starting conversations, so I started to think about a business idea that would bring students together and help them socialize.”
The following school year, Mishra, who is specializing in Business Technology Management, created a technology platform called Food Buddy. The premise was similar to a dating site, but emphasized food and friends. UBC students enrolled and created a profile that included their faculty, academic focus and food interests. The users then reached out to one another and planned meet-ups over a restaurant or cafeteria meal.
“The concept was very simple. Everybody loves food, food connects people. So we made the process of meeting effortless.”
Testing the market
Mishra pitched his business idea to UBC Sauder’s Social Enterprise Club and his team won first place in a case competition. A few months later, while working as a student intern at Deloitte in Vancouver, he entered a company innovation challenge, asking employees to try out Food Buddy for lunches with colleagues. The response was so positive, Food Buddy won the in-house competition.
“At that point, we had two validations, from students and from working professionals,” says Mishra. “We decided to go for it. We launched a website and web app and called our business venture DYNE.”
Mishra and his co-founders began marketing to student clubs and associations on the UBC campus. They also began partnering with local restaurants geared toward student budgets – both on campus and farther afield in West Point Grey, Kitsilano and downtown. Restaurants offered DYNE users food discounts based on their repeat visits.
DYNE is available to UBC students at the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses.
During the first three months of 2020, about 250 student meet-ups took place every week through DYNE. Adoption was growing steadily as word spread among friend groups. Then COVID-19 hit.
“The UBC campuses closed and restaurants shut down. At that point, my team didn’t see the point of continuing and they all quit,” says Mishra.
He sought advice from his mentors – UBC Sauder Adjunct Professor Fraser Pogue and Barry Inouye, a retired entrepreneur who graduated from UBC Commerce in 1983. They both urged him to persevere and use this business challenge as a learning step.
"COVID-19 posed serious challenges to the team's business model,” says Pogue. “You can shut down restaurants, put restrictions in place, but you can't put people's emotional desire on pause. What this does is create new opportunities to support those individuals longing for connections."
Mishra went back to business basics and recruited a new team. Together, they learned how to code and developed a mobile app, which launched for beta testing in July.
Waiting for takeoff
Arnav Mishra (far right) and the DYNE team will spend the next four months building their venture under the guidance of veteran entrepreneurs at entrepreneurship@ubc.
This month, the DYNE team began Phase 3 of entrepreneurship@ubc’s prestigious venture building program. Despite being the youngest team in their cohort, they excelled in the first two phases of the competitive program, winning the coveted title of Top Ten Ventures in 2020.
According to Pogue, "The e@UBC incubator program is a stage-gated program that looks for an increasing amount of customer validation with each gate. You'll need more than an idea to advance in the program and DYNE was able to demonstrate traction with real users and trials. What's next? Using the data from the trials to inform the product development team to refine and perfect the product."
The only thing holding the team back is COVID-19. But when public health restrictions are lifted, Mishra predicts students will use the DYNE app because of its safety features.
“I think people are going to need help when all this is over,” notes Mishra. “Even once the vaccination program is well under way, we are still going to need to do contact tracing, and many of us are going to feel nervous and unsure about meeting in restaurants. Because we only partner with restaurants that meet all the public health requirements, DYNE will provide that level of safety and make people feel secure about meeting in person for a meal.”
DYNE users can participate in fun contests, unlock restaurant discounts, and see where their friends are located in relation to partner restaurants to help plan meet-ups.
For Mishra, it feels like a lifetime ago he was a newcomer to Vancouver with a dream of becoming an entrepreneur. While studying full-time, he has launched a tech startup and also built a new network of friends. Along the way, he’s learned a powerful lesson that will serve him well in business and in life: how to flip a challenge into an opportunity.