Geek Speak: Wahiba Chair, CarrotLines

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      A few years ago, Wahiba Chair thought it would be “really cool” if she could use her cellphone to scan the packaging of a food product and quickly get useful information about it. With the release of her barcode-reading application CarrotLines on May 31, iPhone users across Canada can do just that.

      Chair is the Algerian-born, 27-year-old founder and chief executive officer of Vancouver-based PortaLife Solutions. She drew up plans for the mobile app while working on her master’s degree in business administration at Simon Fraser University and then got them ready for prime time during a stint on the reality television show Stars of Science, which aired across the Middle East in 2009. Her project made it halfway through the 10-week program before getting cut, and she earned $10,000 for her efforts.

      According to Chair, CarrotLines is targeted mostly at women. PortaLife worked with software consultant Xiaotao Clement of Wavesine Solutions and iPhone app designer Talia Cohen to develop the application. For now, CarrotLines is available only in the Canadian App Store for $2.99, but Chair says her company plans to bring it to the U.S. and other countries.

      The Georgia Straight reached Chair on her cellphone at her Kitsilano office.

      How does one go about using CarrotLines?

      After you download the app, you get the home screen, which says “Get Started”. So, the “Get Started” is going to ask you to select things that you care about. So, if you care about nutrition, for example—what is on the food label—then you would select the elements that you care about.

      Let’s say you care about calories—you’re looking for products that have less than a certain amount of calories. Maybe if you want to avoid trans fat, you can check the trans fat box. If you’re looking for low sodium, you can look at low sodium.

      So, it’s really whatever you’re looking for in the food label. You can customize it. Likewise, you can do the same thing for either allergies or lifestyle.

      What kind of lifestyles?

      For the lifestyles, people can look for organic, vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal, and country-of-origin information.

      Why did you call the app “CarrotLines”?

      The branding came about in the show. Sarah [Al Sammak] and I—she was another contestant on the show who helped me—did it together after a lot of brainstorming. It was really the carrot being the healthy icon and the lines being the barcode. So, it just came together.

      How do you get the data for the app?

      We obtain the data from different sources, including the manufacturers and other sources. That’s all I can say about how we get our data. But eventually we will be building and collecting more data as the app becomes more popular.

      What challenges have you faced in getting the application into the App Store?

      From the product standpoint, we didn’t really have much challenge. The app got approved in a week, with no issues, on the App Store. It was pretty straightforward.

      But we went through three different iterations. We had a focus group, who really helped us shape the app. We went from an alpha to a beta 1 to a beta 2, making sure it was very neat and clean and easy to use. We worked with a local iPhone designer and a local iPhone developer to develop the app....So, we were very careful about it.

      We didn’t have any specific issues to get approved. The issue was more collecting all the data and getting the company and the funding going. That was more the issue and the challenge.

      Do you plan to release the app on other mobile platforms?

      Definitely. We definitely see opportunities on others. I’ve been asked many times to have it on the BlackBerry, because a lot of our users have BlackBerrys. I think also obviously Android is taking off, so that’s something we’re looking at. Android, BlackBerry, and other markets would be obviously like Nokia. We already have a working version in Nokia that we haven’t released yet.

      How did competing on the reality show in Qatar influence the development of the app?

      It really helped me jumpstart it. Obviously, it helped develop a lot of the design aspect of it and gave me a lot of exposure. That was huge. I mean, it was market validation right there and a lot of confidence to get it going, to keep going. I knew that people would actually use it. But the Web site we have right now and the branding of the app, it’s all from the show. We just keep refining.

      What’s next for your company?

      So, we’re going to be really focused on promoting the app right now and getting people to get used to scanning in the stores. We also want to get the grocery stores and the food manufacturers on board, so they can help us convey the information that their customers care about.

      Obviously, we’ll be looking at expanding, improving. This is just the first release. So, we’re going to keep adding food products and keep improving it—both in terms of performance and getting feedback in terms of features we’re going to keep adding that people want to have. That’s what’s next for us.

      Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at