The University of Iowa

UI international student grad launches app to translate menus

September 26th, 2014

From The Press-Citizen

When RuiHao Min took his girlfriend to an Italian restaurant during his freshman year at the University of Iowa, a polite gesture turned faux pas when he ordered for his date and received an undesirable entrée, but also a potentially lucrative idea: Blue Cheese.

The culinary culprit was just that — blue cheese — which his date didn't care for on her salad. It's also the name of the new smartphone app Min developed in hopes of preventing similar incidents from reoccurring.

Blue Cheese launched late last month and already has 82,000 users who, like Min, benefit from some help translating restaurant menus to another language. Born and raised in China, Min didn't realize the dish he ordered for his Taiwanese date typically is an appetizer, let alone one with an acquired taste, he said.

"I realized I had made a huge mistake," Min said. "It was then that I promised that I would never let anyone order like that again."

The resulting smartphone app takes photos of menus printed in English and translates them into Chinese. Min said future versions of the app are planned that will support French and Japanese. Additional languages might be added later.

Min, 23, said the free app helps foreigners in the U.S. who often never have tasted many of the ingredients used in Western food, which poses problems at restaurants along with language barriers.

"We don't know what it is until we try it," Min said. "Therefore a lot of mistakes have been made, a lot of inconveniences."

Min said Blue Cheese connects people through a core element of different societies — food — in the hopes of improving user experiences abroad.

"Bridging cultural gaps matters," Min said. "I think building a mutual understanding is a very primal thing to connect cultural groups … especially (with) foods."

Min, who graduated from the Tippie College of Business last year, developed the app with a team of about 20 people led by UI students. Support for Blue Cheese also is being provided by students from Purdue University, New York University, Brown University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

"So this is the result of a cross-university collaboration," Min said.

The project also has received assistance from the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory, an incubator for entrepreneurial UI students pursuing a start-up company under the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

In addition to office space and equipment, BELL provides coaching from business experts, marketing opportunities and help locating funding. As the founder and CEO of Edible Innovations, for example, Min's company received $5,000 from the statewide Pappajohn New Venture Student Business Plan Competition in April, where two of the three winning teams were from UI.

Jeffrey Nock, a mentor with the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center who has worked with Min, said all aspiring entrepreneurs are asked three questions at the outset of their projects: What is the value being introduced to the market? Who are the customers? What is the solution?

"And if they've thought enough about it, what it is they're improving and making it from scratch, then we really can help them launch and take it (to the market)," Nock said.

Nock said that in the case of Blue Cheese, Min delivered a strong value proposition with a compelling narrative explaining it. The potential for Blue Cheese was strong enough to qualify Min for JPEC's Venture School, an intensive six-week program for start-up entrepreneurs.

"When he came to us, he had such a clear understanding of what he wanted," Nock said. "And so when he told the story of how he ordered for (his date) … he identified a very clear pain that we all would have felt."

To date, 37 student-led companies are developing products with BELL. Director Lynn Allendorf said about one-third of those companies generate revenue, while the rest are in a pre-launch stage, Allendorf said.

"And those are really the students who receive the most help from us," she said.

Straying from the traditional start-up model where entrepreneurs were told to write lengthy business plans as a first step, Allendorf said that over the course of her 10-plus years at the center, she's witnessed a shift to the "lean start-up" approach, which she encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to investigate.

"Instead of that, you spend several months talking to real customers and then maybe build a product that's a better fit," she said.