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University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Kaylin Underwood, winner of Hatch-It, stands near Chamberlain Pavilion on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. / Photo credit: Angela Foster

A Chattanooga college student has a plan to make grocery shopping less stressful for people with food allergies.

Kaylin Underwood, a senior studying communication and entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, wants to create a phone application called AllerX that alerts users of dangerous allergens hidden in grocery products. Users will create a profile, enter their dietary restrictions and then scan items using their phone while shopping.

"It's just hard to find the ingredients on boxes, because they're so small, and you have to read through everything," Underwood said.

She recently presented the plan before three judges and won first place for her idea at the Gary W. Rollins College of Business' HatchIt competition. The event allows UTC students from any major field to pitch their business ideas during a two-minute presentation followed by a question-and-answer session.

"I opened up with a story of a little boy where his mom read the wrong word on the back of the box. I think that's what really brought everyone in to see the idea, what it was and what it did for people," Underwood said.

Food allergies are on the rise and affect an estimated 8% of children in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no cure for food allergies, so strict avoidance of the allergen is the only way to prevent a reaction.

A food allergy occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful. That response can be severe and life threatening, such as anaphylaxis — a sudden and severe allergic reaction that may cause death. People visit the emergency room about 200,000 times each year because of food allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology website.

HatchIt judge Marco Perez, vice president in charge of operations at Launch Cha, which helps develop entrepreneurship opportunities in the city, said Underwood's idea "made sense right away."

"I understood the problem and the value of her proposed solution. Her idea would be life-saving if executed properly," Perez said, according to an article about the event on UTC's website.

As the winner, Underwood will receive $2,000, free mentoring from local legal and accounting firms and registration for a Co.Starters workshop, a local nine-week program that advises entrepreneurial newcomers.

She plans to spend the months leading up to her graduation this summer partnering with hospitals and insurance companies to get the app up and running.

"It would be saving them money, but at the same time they would be promoting or advertising it to people with allergies in their families, and it would be offering them discounts and advantages on their rates," Underwood said. "I'm hoping to stick with this, and if I can get it developed and get the investors I need to actually create the app and get it on the app store, that's what I want to do."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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