Meet HealthifyMe’s Punita Mittal who Built India’s First AI-Powered Nutritionist

Athira Nair
·6-min read

At the beginning of the last decade, data science was hardly heard of. But in the last five years, things have changed. Along with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), data became the new oil and data science became the science. In India too, startups and corporates both took the plunge, advancing business possibilities and improving customer service.

Punita Mittal
Punita Mittal

And one of the few women in tech holding higher positions in Indian enterprises is Lucknow-girl Punita Mittal who took the path of data science to establish herself. Now the Head of Data Sciences at Bengaluru-based fitness startup HealthifyMe, Punita was instrumental in building the company’s conversational, AI-powered nutritionist Ria. She spoke to MAKERSIndia recently about her journey and the possibilities for women in leadership roles in the tech world.

Now 35, Punita graduated from IIT-Delhi in 2007 with a dual degree in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology, winning the Dean’s Merit Award, which is given only to the top seven percent for academic excellence. After working in analytics for about four years, she went on to pursue an MBA at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, where she also won the Young Leader Award.

Young Entrepreneur

After graduating from IIT-Delhi, while working as an analyst, Punita also got a taste of social entrepreneurship.

“More than passion on a topic, it was a craving to do something. So three friends of mine and I decided to do something about reducing plastic use. We got 20 or so women and started manufacturing cloth bags for shops, with their branding to use instead of plastic bags. But, we could not commit completely along with a full time job; so we had to stop after two years when we all took the next step in career.”

But Punita adds that her on-ground work also helped her learn a lot. “One thing I learnt is not to over-engineer. We were thinking ahead too much and solve a lot of problems that didn't really exist – like, if we get many orders, we will need a website, an optimal way to track orders, etc. We did not understand how pricing worked either. Also, we were working with women in unorganised sector and were unable to predict failure of delivery and printing of bags on time.”

After building her business acumen at ISB, Punita moved to Bangalore. Although she worked for a couple of pharma companies, they did not work out. Then, in 2017, post a maternity break, she joined HealthifyMe. At the time, the startup was looking for an analyst with no particular focus on data science. Punita started using the data collected by the company to build business-focussed initiatives first and later on AI-related innovations that eventually led to Ria.

Ria: The Turning Point

HealthifyMe’s tool is a conversational AI-powered nutritionist called Ria. Under Punita’s leadership, this tool was built to use the learnings obtained from HealthifyMe’s meals and messages between coaches and clients (more than a billion words) and give personalised answers to users’ queries.

In January 2018, Ria was handling only five percent of messages (because people would send 95 percent of the messages to coaches). Today, HealthifyMe users send 54 percent of messages to Ria. These queries include what to eat, how to work out, how to smoke lesser, etc. Ria was later launched independently (outside the coach plan) as well. Now, HealthifyMe has more people in smart plans than coach plans, and Ria is handling 70 to 80 percent of queries.

Punita is clear that Ria was not intended to replace human coaches. “Data science may make some jobs redundant. Automation has already come in. Even jobs of coders themselves, who build algorithms based on data science, may become redundant. But you need human touch for certain jobs. Augmentation and empowerment comes with data science, rather than it taking away jobs,” she clarifies.

According to her, from a data perspective, there are a lot more possibilities, even within Ria. “We wanted to enable Ria to make recommendations on behalf of coaches initially. But it takes a lot of work to make it function to full capacity where you can hyper-personalise, empathise, and motivate like real coaches do. We are also looking at building our business for medical users. Ria, a virtual agent, can do a lot there.”

Huge Scope of Data Science

Punita believes that data science has a huge scope, and can improve the economy. “Any data science or AI project aims to improve business, make it smarter, more efficient, and more profitable,” she says. She believes that India’s capabilities in data science are at par with global standards.

“In the last five years, there's been heavy democratisation in terms of the kind of resources that are available. We have both talent and interest. I don't see India lagging behind; we've seen India do well in related fields of computer science and engineering, and robotics. We are intellectually already there. All that matters is opportunity and what we do with it,” she says.

Punita clarifies that while Healthifyme is not a data science company, data science is a consequence of what they do. “On the one hand, with all the data we have collected, we are working on innovation to increase value for our customers through new products. On the other hand, we use data for making business more efficient,” she adds.

Leadership mantra

Now heading a team of 12 at Healthifyme, Punita is particular about avoiding micromanaging. She says, “I ask people specifically – do you want me to be more hands on with you or would you like to give it a try on your own and then talk about it later?”

As the team lead, she believes that while pedigree of educational institutes do matter, she will be more keen on someone who could not make it to a prestigious college but did an interesting project or has shown initiative in the past.

To avoid being overwhelmed, Punita makes it a point to take a break when she feels drained. “It’s not about making each day perfect but doing justice to your job over a longer period of time,” she says.

She has no qualms about the gender tag either. “I have been lucky. I have never faced issues at a workplace because I am a woman. I have never felt that I am being told something because I am a girl. It has always been a capability issue or a competency issue. Otherwise, my performance would be affected. I think keeping gender as a non-issue is the best way.”

Punita believes that workplaces should build a culture that empowers each individual to attain their full potential. “It’s about building flexibility, and getting work done is more important than being in office. From office, I go home for lunch breaks and pick up my daughter from her school,” she adds.

In short, Punita says it without spelling it out – women can have it all.

Video producer: Urmi Chatterjee

Cinematographer: Natraj