National Hackathon promotes student wellness and innovative thinking

The Experience Ventures National Hackathon wrapped up on March 29 at UCalgary. The final produced a remarkable series of firsts. It was the first-ever National Hackathon. First place went to a team from McMaster University whose members met for the first time at the hackathon kickoff. Their winning idea focused on helping first-year students develop healthy eating habits.

October 11, 2022

By: Experience Ventures

Team from McMaster University takes first place with an app that promotes healthy eating

The team members — Tanjot Grewal, Tracy Huynh, Ahsan Mazhar, Ahmed Sabrah, and Ajilan Sivaloganathan — based their idea on personal experience. All had struggled to eat well in their first year on campus. Mazhar, Sabrah, and Sivaloganathan are second-year students, so they drew on recent experience. Grewal and Huynh are in their fifth year but had no difficulty recalling their freshman years. “We all struggled to eat healthy during our first year,” Grewal says. “We want to help other students make healthier food choices.”

To do that, the team came up with a neat solution in five days. Their app would teach students about nutrition and help them make healthier choices. The app would identify healthy meals and offer a discount on meals that met the requirements of the Canada Food Guide. It would also let students set personalized goals and track their progress toward achieving them. The app would link to the meal plan that serves first-year students at McMaster, making it accessible and scalable. Teams were not required to build out their apps or other proposed solutions. Still, the winning pitch reflected a very productive five days. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the five team members had not met before. They all signed up individually and were assigned to a team by The Forge, a business incubator funded by McMaster.

Collaboration is the key

The five members all came from different backgrounds. Grewal is completing a co-op program in chemical biology. Huynh is at the same stage of a chemical engineering co-op. Mazhar is studying commerce, while Sabrah and Sivaloganathan are enrolled in computer engineering and health sciences, respectively. This meant that interdisciplinary collaboration was key to their success. That was intentional on the part of the organizers.

Experience Ventures was created by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking in collaboration with eight other Canadian post-secondary schools. The program gives students paid job placements where they tackle real-world problems. Each of the 160 students who participated in the National Hackathon received $325. It’s designed to help students make valuable connections in their local communities as they hone entrepreneurial thinking skills like problem solving, risk management, and opportunity spotting.

All those traits were on display as the team from McMaster got down to work. The team met virtually to brainstorm ideas. They had no shortage. The team considered stocking healthy snacks in the pantries of first- year residences, training students in meal preparation and creating a reward system to promote health eating. “After much deliberation, we decided to go with our first idea, and brainstormed how it could be implemented,” Grewal says. “Since meal plan cards are typically used by universities, we decided that creating an app that connects the meal plan card to a rewards system would be practical and scalable.”

The judges at the National Hackathon final were impressed. They told the team that they were wise to tackle the Freshman 15, a well-known problem. The name refers to the weight gain experienced by many first-year students. Tackling this problem meant the students didn’t “try to boil the ocean” by taking on too much. The judges were also impressed that the team had thought out how the app would look and how the user interface would work.

All this praise — to say nothing of the $2,500 first-place cash award — was gratifying for the team members. The five also appreciate what they learned from the experience. “The hackathon definitely gave me more confidence to consider a career in entrepreneurship,” Huynh says. “We worked really hard to develop our idea and tackle it from every angle, so it felt good knowing that the judges saw merit in our solution.”

What would be even more fulfilling is seeing their idea implemented. “I think a lot of schools put the blame on students for their unhealthy eating habits, but in reality, it’s a systemic problem,” Huynh says. “The meal- plan system creates this reliance on convenient, unhealthy, takeout foods, and students leave residence life without the proper skills and habits to thrive on their own. I think we can do better.”


It’s no secret that many students find it difficult to adjust to campus life. That first year of university is full of new experiences. Many students are living away from home for the first time and struggle with their newfound independence. Freshman orientation helps students make connections and learn about on- campus supports, but some challenges persist.