Duke Students’ “Power-Fresh Food” Project Accelerates at Hult Prize Finals

It has been called “the Nobel Prize for students.” Since 2009, the Hult Prize – an international competition between teams of enterprising undergraduates from around the world – has awarded millions of dollars to start-up companies dedicated to sustainability and aiming to solve the world’s most critical social challenges. The 2018 Hult Prize theme is “Harnessing the Power of Energy.”

In the fall of 2017, Duke University’s on-campus Hult Prize competition was won by a team of students known as “mPower.” Their project is to use cold-storage technology – specifically, custom-made, modular, solar-powered refrigeration units – to access rural farmers in India and transport their produce straight to retail. The result is a win-win-win: fresh produce for consumers, no food waste, and empowered small businesses.

Team mPower (l to r): Harshvardhan Sanghi, Sherry Feng, Saheel Chodavadia, and Jason Wang.

Team mPower’s victory at Duke led them to the Hult Prize regionals in Mexico City in early March of 2018, which they also won. Now, they’ve advanced to the finals, a Hult Prize competition that is preceded by a six-week start-up accelerator MBA course in England. Following the Accelerator Program, six teams will be selected to pitch their ideas at the Hult Prize Global Finals hosted at the United Nations in New York. The winning teams will receive $1 million in seed money for their project.

Team mPower – made up of Duke undergraduates Saheel Chodavadia, Sherry Feng, Harshvardhan Sanghi, and Jason Wang – call themselves “the world’s first power-fresh food company.”

Saheel Chodavadia explains: “Buying directly from rural Indian farmers and selling directly to retail at a brand-price premium allows us to pay the farmers 100% wholesale prices for their produce. This doubles their income and brings more food to tables in a country that sees 10 million premature deaths due to hunger and food insecurity annually.”

Saheel has engaged with Kenan Institute for Ethics programs throughout his time at Duke, first becoming involved in a Kenan FOCUS program and later DukeEngage Dublin, the MASTERY program, and the Kenan Refugee Project. Funded by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, mPower was able to visit India in early 2018 to do on-the-ground market research and form partnerships. “We visited several rural villages and formed relations with farmers and their families, enabling us to understand the problem we were addressing at the micro-level,” says Saheel. “We also visited several universities and formed partnerships with their engineering departments to begin prototyping and piloting our technology.”

With this additional research behind them, Team mPower arrived in England for the Hult Prize Accelerator Program on July 23rd, alongside 41 other winning teams from around the globe. They will be there until September 1st.

All the finalist teams live in Ashridge House, a castle-type estate owned by the Hult family located about 45 minutes outside London. Although this may sound cushy, life at Ashridge House is intense. “On average, our team works, learns, and networks together for about 18 hours a day,” says Saheel. “We have to schedule in one hour of ‘break time’ every day so that we can relax and enjoy the castle and each other’s company away from our projects.” Do the math and you’ll realize that leaves only five hours a day for sleep. According to Saheel, the intensive nature of the Accelerator Program means that team members typically go to sleep around 3:00 or 4:00 AM and wake up around 7:00 or 8:00 AM every weekday.

The Accelerator Program’s Monday through Wednesday schedule includes two three-hour “learning sessions” – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – with a variety of experts that might include university professors, CEOs of major companies, or experts in a specific industry. Team members are expected to network with and learn from these speakers during meals and in between sessions in order to enhance their projects.

On Thursdays, the entire day is dedicated to “Office Hours” with the experts: it’s a day full of meetings designed give the teams direct feedback they can use to fine-tune their ideas.

Finally, each week culminates with “Pitch Friday,” during which teams pitch their startup ideas to the experts who have spent time with them during that week. “The mentors now serve as judges,” explains Saheel.

Teams in the Hult Prize finals represent countries including Greece, Japan, Malaysia, Laos, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, along with many others. The 42 teams interact daily through planned cross-team activities and in their free time.

“Each participant brings an incredibly fascinating cultural outlook that has really kept me engaged,” says Saheel. “Everyone is open and interested in talking and learning from each other – the intensive structure of the Accelerator Program does not hinder the development of friendships here. I am proud and grateful to now call some of these people my closest friends.”

Still, as with any high-stakes competition, there is pressure on the teams and their individual members as they vie for the same $1 million seed-money prize. “Each and every team here has dedicated themselves to their respective start-ups, and yet, they know that not receiving the $1 million does not mean the end of their journey,” says Saheel. “The skills we are learning here will translate into the real world, no matter what we do.” Now four weeks into the six-week Accelerator Program, mPower is at the stage of coordinating their first few sales in the Bangalore area of India.

Saheel credits the Kenan Institute for Ethics programs that he has been involved with as enabling him to be well-prepared for the Hult Prize competition experience. “My experience with DukeEngage Dublin taught me how to work in a governmental setting, a skill that has been critical for mPower as we start gaining traction in different states across India; we need to make sure that government players will support our solution. The Kenan’s MASTERY program taught me how to think creatively to teach and mentor high-energy students; I have applied that same adaptivity in thinking here when it comes to overcoming roadblocks with our project. The Kenan Refugee Project taught me to think outside of the box and develop high-level management strategies for different programs, something I have definitely applied as mPower strives to make the most of the networking, learning, and competition spheres here.”

In the short-term, the knowledge and soft skills that the mPower team members gain through the Hult Prize Accelerator Program will be instrumental in their time at Duke. Undoubtedly, says Saheel, they will reap long-term benefits as well. “We’ve been part of a global network of like-minded people striving to improve the world. These include some pretty powerful movers, and having these connections will prove invaluable in our individual career pathways.” 

— Emily Bowles

If you have an interest in or experience with produce distribution, supply chain, or branded produce, please connect with the mPower team at team@mpowerco.org.