by Justine Hudock
Student Community Engagement, Knovva Academy
Dingy startups in gloomy two-room offices. Small companies with too little overhead, too few employees, too much overtime, and too overwhelmingly consumerist, commercial aspirations to pluck at anyone’s heartstrings or make a vision for staying longer than it takes to pay off your car. It’s the world of new business that makes the oversowed field of venture capitalism the shiny thing to behold… but, in far larger part, a disagreeably failure-ridden system that disappoints, if not immediately scares away, its newest inductees.
Arnav Machavarapu and Cameron Meyer met in 2019, in a presciently pre-quarantine fashion, virtually, through a summer entrepreneurship program for high school students called LaunchX. This past Fall, they attended Knovva Academy’s first Virtual Model G20 Summit: Imagining a Post-Pandemic World.
Though a distance of several thousand miles separates the two pre-college-ites — Cameron in the venture capital capital of the Bay Area, and Arnav in the quickly gaining hipster haven of indie innovation, Austin, Texas — the two young men saw the grist under the glitter of their two cities: behind the food trucks and beer gardens, a pandemic of food insecurity among its denizens that’s being addressed primarily through red tape-laden soup lines and large gatherings that, mid-lockdown, are near unsupportable.
Their bionic baby, MealMatch, is growing up into a full-fledged philanthropic powerhouse that connects donors and their surplus food with an easy network around their city to respond to requests for real nourishment — not just the old can of garbanzo beans at the back of the pantry.
The following interview took place on December 16, 2020, under the glow of the impending Christmas break and after the haze of a week of exams for the two students. How are these guys feeding whole municipalities, how are they working to bring the service to larger and even more needy areas, and how are they doing it so young?
Justine Hudock: Describe your app to me, what does it do? What are your favorite features behind it?
Cameron Meyer: Sure. So essentially, what our app does is it connects people in need of food to other people organization restaurants that can essentially provide for free. What we do is we collect, we connect people based on location. And essentially, what we’ve done has kind of made it easy for donors, people wanting to give away food for free to kind of post their donations in a style. That’s kind of social media-like. So it’s easy for people to kind of see available donations in their area, if they’re looking for food. And it’s the same, you know, in reverse, essentially, the donors, or the requesters, the people looking for food can easily find donors by pinging specific organizations or groups that are offering food in the area, or by just looking at the public donations that have been made. Also, we have kind of like a leaderboard feature, which I, you know, I think is kind of cool. Our developers have made that and essentially, it kind of fosters this. Not necessarily gamifying donations, but making it more fun to help the community and compete with your friends or family or kind of work together to make an impact.
Arnav Machavarapu: So what I’m probably one of my favorite features about the app is the location API that our developers manage to add, to sort of help donors or requesters put in their location to sort of limit their donor or requester pool to that specific area. I think it’s a really cool way to help make the whole process more efficient. And how both are the size of users out.
JH: So, really, I seriously love the idea for the app. It’s fantastic. It’s very, very kind of you guys to build something around helping people. That said, do you have a grander vision for it? You know, in something a little bit larger than just something you keep on your phone? Would you like to make a website if you don’t already have one? And do you just have a bigger vision about building a company around it that you know, takes it out of, you know, the little smartphone arena?
CM: Yeah, so we, we do have sort of an online presence already. We run a pretty successful Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/mealmatch_/) so far, spin up for a few months. And we have close to 1000 followers. And then we also have it on our website, http://mealmatchusa.org/. And we kind of have all our features on there. It’s a pretty cool website. You should definitely check it out. But I guess to expand our business, I think Yeah, we do have a broader vision for sure. In the future, we definitely see ourselves branching out of just food and working on other things like you know, connecting people with other things that they may need, like clothing. or other things, you know, that are important to keeping someone you know, alive and healthy. So I think we definitely want to branch out. And we definitely want to do that by partnering with organizations that will kind of share our mission so that we can get access to these things and help, I guess, really just make it more of an effective app than just us. Kind of trying to connect people.
JH: MealMatch was designed around the app, but do you feel a sense of culture or community developing on the app, bringing it more into the real world? Do you want to foster clusters of users around the city that the app is in, so people can kind of organize around themselves rather than just through the app? Do you see it sort of coming into like a real in-person community space about people kind of using it as a tool?
AM: think it would be really, really cool to see, you know, certain MealMatch communities, whether that be in Austin, where I live or, or in the bay area where Cameron lives, but seeing you know, groups of people come together and be able to, you know, say make a food drive, or just work together as a community in order to help nourish the people living in that area, I think it’d be really cool to see something like that.
CM: In addition, we’re kind of launching our ambassadorship program, or working on the logistics of that right now. But what we want to do is kind of expand and allow people in the community to help promote your match to others who may want to donate their own meals to people in need. Through that kind of network, I could see, we can definitely develop a sort of a tighter knit community. And I think that’s kind of what we want to do.
JH: I know that you guys only met recently — last Summer. Did the app idea come together while in your initial sort of meeting period, or after meeting? When did the idea for the app come out of? Describe your process toward taking it off the ground.
CM: Okay, um, yeah. So, essentially, we kind of after the program, Oh, actually, it was before the program, I believe that well, trying to think No, okay, so I remember, we, we had like an online network, slack group, I think it was that we kind of initially met there. And I was trying to, I kind of thought of something. I wanted to help my community some way and I was brainstorming ideas. So then I told my idea to Arnav, because we kind of connected earlier, and he wanted, you know, he shared my vision. And he really brought a lot of ideas to the table. So we kind of went from there. We grabbed more people onto the team.
AM: Yeah, yeah, I think we met over Slack or Discord. I was just like, Hey, if anyone you know, has any opportunities or things that they would like to pursue, and you need someone for it, feel free to reach out to me, and then Cameron, let me know. He’s like, hey, I have this idea to help suppress food insecurity within, not only just my neighborhood, but as many people as we can. And so we sort of brainstormed and model developments here later, and here we are with MealMatch.
JH: It sounds like you guys definitely have people working around you. Are they about in your age group? Or were you sort of getting guidance for people who are better in app designers or founders in their own way? And what’s the sort of like structure that’s built around you that’s helped it grow?
CM: Sure. We do have a team of nine. They’re all the guys that are working with us directly, you know, day to day are all high schoolers. Most of them are seniors. Some of them are juniors. And then some of them are in Arnav’s grade. But then we also, you know, we have mentors for sure. We have two primary ones. One of them is from a barrier Bay Area, at a company called on kinetics, which is a sort of gene therapy company, and although it’s in a different space, it’s a startup as well. I kind of met him earlier on and, you know, we’ve talked about the direction of MealMatch, and you know, how we can enhance it and we also have Another mentor from the Boston area, who also launched his own medical startup. And he kind of gave us direction as well. So I think we definitely would attribute a lot of our a lot of our traction already to the guidance of these two people for sure.
JH: Could you name those two mentors?
CM: Yeah, sure. Both from the Bay Area, they’re Luke Grunert and Nick Theran.
JH: Have you both always been interested in app development, or just coding generally?
AM: Personally, I’m not a huge coder. I know, like a few languages here and there. But app development, not really a big part of what I do. It’s more focusing on, you know, the business development side of things and like how logistics are going to work. But when we first came together, we were primarily looking for coders that could help us with this vision. Since we didn’t know a lot of these languages used to code apps such as Flutter or Dart. So it was really helpful, although we are not the most computer savvy people on our team.
CM: I’m kind of similar in that sense that I’m more into business development on the entrepreneurial side of things, and not necessarily the coding side of things. But you know, we had the idea or not, and I kind of worked through the logistics, and then we knew that we needed to hire good coders. So we found a few guys who are really great at coding and who are really into computer science. And, you know, this team of coders recently submitted MealMatch to the congressional app challenge, this DC competition, right. And they were able to win it for a district in New York, on where some of them are. So I think that was really cool. And it just kind of shows how proficient they are in coding and how dedicated they are to MealMatch.
JH: So both being sort of on the periphery of coding, have you become more interested in it as MealMatch has grown?Do you think that maybe, instead of delegating next time, you’re going to try your hand at doing it yourself? Or like Cameron, you said, you’re going to try and just get better and better at business development?
AM: Um, yeah, so I, I think it is, I’m going to try and understand it more specifically. Because if you’re the business developer, and you’re not understanding how your app really works, you’re not going to be able to do as much as you would like to be able to. So I think, understanding the process, the algorithms, everything that goes into it is pretty necessary. But I don’t know if I’d like to pursue, you know, learning the language. Full on, I don’t know if I would like to do that specifically. But I think I would like to learn more about, you know, the basic programming fundamentals and, and concepts.
CM: I would agree, um, I definitely think it’s important to understand at a baseline kind of level, although I don’t think I can see myself getting into coding and wanting to code my own app. And the reason is, because I think there’s a lot of people out in this world who are really passionate about computer science, and who would go, you know, who would want to help out with, you know, business ideas. So why not leverage those people and give them an opportunity to kind of, you know, expand their interest in their proficiency in coding and kind of work hand in hand, instead of learning myself, because that would kind of that’s not just what I’m just not what I’m passionate about.
JH: Is this the first app you’ve ever made? Is it the first app that’s ever, you know, built around at the sort of ecosystem that I’m hearing you guys have about it? For MealMatch, how far do you think you can take this? And do you want to take it super far?
CM: I definitely think it’s a business that is necessary in this world, especially, you know, during these times. So I see myself taking it as far as I can, you know, as far as it takes to make it a viable solution to this issue. But, you know, I think if, if the community is not receptive to it, ultimately, I know, that’s not something we’ve been wanting to continue. Because maybe, you know, it depends on the customer. Right. Although I know, we’ve already received a lot of positive feedback and people that know, that people have said, in, you know, expressed interest in this, and, you know, have already signed up, to help us out. So, I definitely think that, you know, the community is going to be receptive to this, and will continue to be for for quite a long time.
AM: I share the same sentiments with Cameron.
JH: You guys are both really interested in taking this app as far as it can go. And like we’ve all agreed, there’s really no limit to how far I can go. That said, do you have any sort of little percolating ideas for different apps you’re interested in creating? Do you want to sort of stick in this philanthropic, sort of anthropological sphere? Or are you interested in more commercial stuff for the future?
AM: I’m not sure about expanding into another genre of an app, but probably expanding MealMatch itself into providing more urgent into fulfilling more basic needs for most humans to live by, whether that be clothing, shelter, something like that, along those means. So I guess more along the hospitality line of things. But yes, probably sticking to the, to the charitable side of things.
CM: I would agree, I have different interests. But as a student, in high school with limited amounts of time, and with a true devotion to MealMatch, I want to center my attention around this. And I, you know, I, I want to focus on this as long as I can. So I don’t think I could, I would see myself, you know, exploring other apps and trying to do other things. Because I think I think we definitely have potential with MealMatch, we want to go as far as we can with this.
JH: Do you have any new features in mind that you’d like to bring to this app? We talked about how you guys are interested in at least seeing the culture expand. But do you have any ideas of features to sort of foster that, you know, organically?
AM: Yeah, so something I personally want to see or I was thinking about, and we were all I was discussing with Cameron was sort of a system where we could get involved with restaurants. In bakeries around, you know, the certain areas that we’re living in and being able to implement their sort of food, their food and their cooking it, and then being able to donate into the hands of people who need the food. So whether that be you know, if people themselves can cook a meal, they can maybe sponsor a meal or for a restaurant to give a request or a meal, or something like that, but a way, because I know there have been many articles and studies regarding, you know, restaurant waste, and bakery waste, so maybe finding a way to limit that and also help the community would be a great, great features to implement.
CM: Um, yeah, so I’m excited about a feature that is kind of still in the works, but that we definitely want to implement in our beta two, maybe beta three. And essentially, this feature would allow people to not just donate meals, but to donate kind of online money or gift cards to restaurants in the person’s area. So essentially, I can donate Arnav twenty bucks to go to Chipotle. And he could go to Chipotle with that kind of voucher, or whatever, and try to even get a discount at Chipotle. So he’s getting money to pay for the meal. But he’s also getting a discount, because it’s a partnered restaurant, right. So that’s essentially a model that we want to implement. But again, you know, we’re still in the beta phase. And through that, we will kind of uncover what the customer wants, what needs to be done to make it more effective. But that’s and once the email condefinitely one of the features we want to add later. In the later beta stages.
JH: Wonderful. Final question: what can Knovva do to support your app and its health?
CM: Yeah, sure. So you know, you have a vast community, already curated of high school students, and its students in general. And I think, ultimately, the way I just know if I can help is to promote MealMatch to the community, for example, for the Model G20 community. And 2021. You know, if on average, I can get maybe two minutes to speak in front of the group, and the first day opening ceremony, just quickly, tell them about MealMatch and kind of how they can help their community. And, you know, maybe through social media, I definitely think an article would help. But ultimately, we just want to people to know have MealMatch, and to sign up to join so that we can kind of create communities throughout the United States, and where MealMatch is active, and see where people can kind of donate and request meals and kind of have this sort of exchange happening throughout the nation.