Business Plan Challenge

Are your creams and lotions safe? This app tells you what's really inside that tube

The Redify app scans products to identify potentially harmful ingredients. Its founders — Victor Okoh, Karina Villalba, and Bruce Bennett — won the 2018 Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge in the FIU Track. Redify also won the People's Pick Award.
The Redify app scans products to identify potentially harmful ingredients. Its founders — Victor Okoh, Karina Villalba, and Bruce Bennett — won the 2018 Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge in the FIU Track. Redify also won the People's Pick Award. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

What’s really in your sunscreen, toothpaste or that diaper rash ointment you just put on your baby?

Redify, an emerging company led by a pair of public health scientists, is on a mission to inform consumers about potentially harmful ingredients in everyday products so they can make safer choices for their families. The business plan for Redify was named the winner of the 2018 Miami Business Plan Challenge FIU Track. Voters in our online People's Pick survey also made Redify their top choice, giving it more than double the votes of any other plan in the survey.

Redify (redifyinc.com) is tackling an important problem, said Seema Pissaris, an FIU business professor and a Business Plan Challenge judge. “Redify is not only increasing awareness of harmful chemicals in products but is also helping consumers to identify alternative products without chemicals, and in this way has created a sustainable business model.”

At the heart of this winning concept is the reality that consumer products do not get the same level of regulatory scrutiny as pharmaceuticals. For consumer products, the FDA requires ingredient labeling but not safety testing. This allows companies to develop consumer products — a $1.1 trillion market — with chemicals of undetermined health consequences, and consumers are oblivious to their risks, the team said in its business plan.

Victor Okoh, who earned a PhD from Florida International University in public health, leads the team as CEO. Redify developed a proprietary list of what it calls Chemicals of Health Concern, or CHCs, some of them banned in some countries. So far there are about 2,000 chemicals on Redify’s list, all based on scientific evidence they could pose health risks, he said.

The team is developing a free mobile app that would allow a consumer to scan a product at a drug store, for instance, see if CHCs are in it, and if so, be provided links to underlying research studies. Then similar products without CHCs at that store, nearby locations and online will pop up.

“It is so user-friendly that my 11-year-old son is going around the house scanning everything and then all he needs to do is look at the results and he says, oh, this one has three, this one has two. It is very accessible and user friendly,” said Karina Villalba, co-founder and senior scientist of Redify.

Okoh and Villalba, who also received her PhD in public health from FIU, had been working with chemicals to understand how they are contributing to cancer. Okoh said when his twin girls were about 6, his wife expressed concern about a developing condition; to determine what might be causing it, a doctor asked to see all the products they had been using on the children.

“The doctor told her this may be contributing [to the condition] and she asked me why this is happening. I started looking into it. These are the ingredients we had been studying in the lab,” Okoh recalled. He knew he needed to work on a solution, and Villalba quickly signed on.

“Victor and I started saying, how can we bring this to the people so they can understand what they are using and consuming?” she added.

Since then, several others have joined the team: Lee Phillips, an entrepreneur who specializes in marketing and branding, Mallesh Murugesan, an entrepreneur who specializes in emerging technologies, and Bruce Bennett, an attorney with 20 years’ experience in corporate law and business development.

A testing version of the Redify app was released in January. Users share feedback through surveys.

“We don’t want mass testing now because we aren’t there yet,” said Okoh. “We have a few hundred active users on the app. The feedback so far has been very good.”

On one survey question — Would you recommend this app to your friends and family? — “Ninety-five percent said yes,” Okoh said. "That is very encouraging,”

For now, the app focuses on baby products, because research shows these chemicals may pose the greatest risk to prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming, the team said in its plan. “In targeting expecting mothers, Redify is targeting an important niche market which will anchor its growth,” Pissaris said.

Redify plans eventually to widen its scope, riding the healthy living trend. Indeed, the number of weekly Google searches for “safe products” is well over 200 million worldwide.

One differentiator from competitors, including Healthy Living and GoodGuide, is the app’s advocacy feature. If the product contains CHCs, the app enables consumers to let product manufacturers know this is the reason they didn’t buy, hopefully sparking industry change. Consumers can also add to the app their own chemicals of concern, for instance, ones that could trigger their allergies.

OK, but how will this freebie make money? Okoh cites three revenue streams: In-app ads for alternative products (all advertised products will be free of Redify’s CHCs, the team said), affiliate commissions on sales of alternative products through the app and data collection on shopping habits.

As Redify continues to evaluate feedback, the team is seeking $500,000 in seed funding to complete the app, expand its database and take Redify to market.

“We are learning as we go along, that’s the name of the game,” said Okoh. “But we have a great team so we are working very well together. We are pushing this project forward.”

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