Generation Start-up: Dubai’s NutriCal makes restaurants count calories

Dubai start-up plans to expand to Saudi Arabia as it caters to growing consciousness about the need for a balanced diet

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 20 AUGUST 2020. Soniya Ashar, founder of NutriCal. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Alkesh Sharma Section: National.
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Company Profile

Company name: NutriCal

Started: 2019

Founder: Soniya Ashar

Based: Dubai

Industry: Food Technology

Initial investment: Self-funded undisclosed amount

Future plan: Looking to raise fresh capital and expand in Saudi Arabia

Total Clients: Over 50

Sometimes the daily grind of surviving the drive back home can be rewarding and can result in a bright idea that leads to a new business.

For Indian entrepreneur Soniya Ashar, 29, the founder of NutriCal, which claims to be the UAE’s first food data intelligence company, this is certainly true. Ms Ashar listened to podcasts about successful entrepreneurs each day while on her way back home from her job in California.

Inspired by these success stories, she gave in to the temptation, quit her lucrative job at Avery Dennison’s business development and marketing department for America and Europe and flew back to Dubai, where she grew up, to strike out on her own.

"Despite so many positives at the workplace, there was a fire inside me to achieve more. I listened to the podcast How I Built This for nearly 45 minutes every day," she says.

"It gradually fanned that fire and motivated me to pack my bags and head back to Dubai and jump into the world of entrepreneurship.”

NutriCal – which is currently working with more than 50 restaurants, cafes, cloud kitchens, food brands and delivery companies in the UAE – helps its partners to calculate calories and nutrients in raw and cooked food.

Food outlets can publish NutriCal data on their menus to help their customers make informed decisions about their food intake.

“We provide nutritional fact labels as per the FDA [Food and Drugs Administration] guidelines in English and Arabic. Companies can also use NutriCal to create new products, conduct recipe costing and design relevant social media,” says Ms Ashar.

“We cater to the growing demand of healthy eating and immunity bolstering with the calorie count meter that helps customers to make a calculated decision.”

A healthier and more sustainable future is a central part of the UAE’s National Agenda for 2021. Dubai Municipality has unveiled several measures to encourage healthy eating habits in the emirate and is encouraging restaurants to display the calorie content of dishes – something that will become mandatory in a year's time.

These steps are meant to encourage restaurants to provide more nutritious options and give consumers the ability to choose food that suits their health status.

NutriCal’s system uses data compiled by the US Department of Agriculture and other international, as well as local databases on more than 25,000 ingredients. It uses its own algorithms to compute the results.

“Anything going into our system is first verified by our team of nutritionists and engineers to ensure the best results,” says Ms Ashar.

After completing her high school education in Dubai, Ms Ashar obtained a bachelor’s degree in business management from Manchester Business College in the UK.

She then joined the family business in Dubai for a few years before moving to the US to study for a master's degree in business administration at Boston’s Babson College.

“Good health and nutritious food have always been my passion ... I love eating and trying out new things in life. So, I started researching more about the food technology industry after moving back to Dubai [from the US] in February last year,” says Ms Ashar.

“I went through a bunch of business ideas, [made presentations] to business advisers in my network and after a lot of back and forth, I finally started NutriCal.”

The global food technology market is booming and is expected to reach $250.43 billion (Dh919bn) in next two years, based on a compound annual growth rate of 5.8 per cent between 2016 and 2022, according to US market intelligence and advisory company BIS Research.

A 2019 study by the University of Cambridge showed that restaurants that provide calorie information on their menus serve healthier food. Researchers examined 100 UK menus and found that restaurants that listed the nutritional details of their dishes offered food with 45 per cent less fat and 60 per cent less salt on average, compared with other restaurants.

NutriCal, which began operations with just three people in December 2019, has now expanded its workforce to 10 and is looking to hire more employees.

“We are looking for tech enthusiasts, data scientists, nutritionists and business development executives. We require more people on board soon to manage the growing demand in the market,” says Ms Ashar.

The start-up is currently focused on business growth instead of making a profit.

“We are at a stage where we have to invest our revenue back into the business. Our focus is more on developing the technology further and attracting increased traction on our platform,” says Ms Ashar.

“As a company, we are not concerned about profitability at this moment. We [have] a long-haul vision for NutriCal and we believe profit will start pouring in on its own if we are the best in the market. It will be the by-product of our hard work.”

Ms Ashar says Saudi Arabia is the “obvious choice” as the next big market the company wants to explore.

NutriCal plans to expand to the kingdom in the next few months and then to Azerbaijan, Lebanon and other GCC countries.

“For the time being, we want to focus only on the Middle East region as food businesses here are quite health conscious and we share the same philosophy,” says Ms Ashar.

“Ours is a tech product and we can deal with our partners while sitting in any corner of the world. So, borders are no limitations for us.”

Ms Ashar says she currently funds NutriCal but is looking for new investment and exercising caution in the selection of the right partners.

“We are self-sustaining but need fresh capital to expand in new markets and add more staff," she says.

"But we will not join hands with outside parties only for money ... we are looking for strategic partners who actually understand our vision and contribute to the growth.”

Q&A: Soniya Ashar, founder of NutriCal

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 20 AUGUST 2020. Soniya Ashar, founder of NutriCal. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Alkesh Sharma Section: National.
Ms Ashar started NutriCal in December last year with only three people. Antonie Robertson/The National

Who is your role model?

There are many … but my father Umesh Ashar is the closest to my heart. Even at the age of 60, he oozes a lot of positive energy and is excited about every new business idea. He has the ability to find opportunities even in adverse conditions. I am really lucky to have him as a mentor and guide.

If you could change one thing in your entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?

There is nothing specific that I want to change. But, I have a sense of urgency all the time. I am very result-oriented and focused on achieving best outcomes. Therefore, I keep on reminding myself to be patient. After all, life is a marathon not a sprint.

Are you a born entrepreneur?

Yes, it is in my genes. I have seen my father come to Dubai with nothing and set up a successful venture in the fields of construction and oil and gas. I have seen him working hard and his traits have been passed down to me. But I wanted to gain some experience before starting my own venture that is why I completed my education and worked for about four years in a highly competitive environment in the US.

Did Covid-19 affect your business?

There were few initial hiccups as we saw many businesses shutting down or cutting costs. However, by the end of May, things returned to a state of normality for us and we saw good growth in business in the last couple of months. Many businesses are opting for our services because they want to be different in the industry.

Where do you see yourself after 10 years?

We will be a more diversified business, catering to the clients across the globe. Technology will be our strength and we will be using it to add an element of comfort and sustainability to the lives of businesses as well as consumers.

Why did you choose Dubai over the US to start your business?

Dubai has always been very liberal and growth-oriented. Its leadership is supportive and exemplary. Moreover, the food and beverage market is very dynamic here and one of the main drivers of the economy. So we see a huge room for growth.

What type of entrepreneur are you?

I am a team player and have an eye for detail. As an entrepreneur, I want everything perfect or in the best possible order. My philosophy is to do your level best without being concerned about the results.

Company Profile

Company name: NutriCal

Started: 2019

Founder: Soniya Ashar

Based: Dubai

Industry: Food Technology

Initial investment: Self-funded undisclosed amount

Future plan: Looking to raise fresh capital and expand in Saudi Arabia

Total Clients: Over 50