The mPower student team at Duke University led by Indian Americans Saheel Chodavadia and Harshvardhan Sanghi has advanced to compete for the $1 million Hult Prize with their project that aims to address cold storage in India.
Hult Prize, a global competition, advertises itself as “a benchmark program for social entrepreneurs.” Each year, aspiring social entrepreneurs at Duke get the chance to participate by first competing in Hult Prize @ Duke, which is co-hosted by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and the NET Impact Club at The Fuqua School of Business.
Hult Prize hopefuls are given a different challenge each year, and they must create a social enterprise addressing the challenge. This year, teams were tasked with harnessing the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people by 2025. There’s a lot at stake: The final prize is $1 million to fund the winning social venture.
At Duke, five teams were chosen from the semi-finals round to advance to the finals round, held on a recent evening at Fuqua. After each team completed a six-minute pitch and a round of questioning from the judges, a winner was announced.
That winner was mPower, a team of four sophomores that aims to fill India’s shortage of agricultural cold storage solutions by offering a novel product and distribution network that compensates farmers and simplifies the supply chain.
The team, also comprising Sherry Feng and Jason Wang, initially won the university competition and pitched the idea of their business in Mexico City at the regional competition, winning there to advance to the final in London. By winning the regional, the team will take part in an eight-week summer start-up accelerator alongside 50 other teams at Ashridge Castle in London.
Traditionally, Indian farmers must sell their produce to middle men for a much lower price than its actual market value — around 25 percent lower, by some estimates, a Duke University report said.
mPower plans to change this by purchasing produce directly from farmers, storing the produce with its cold storage technology, and distributing it to markets, it said. This can create new jobs and empower existing communities, the team explained during its pitch, the report added.
The team’s cold storage technology is a custom solar-powered modular refrigeration unit. Their units’ design focuses on passive cooling, reducing energy consumption and differentiating their product from others on the market, the university said.
mPower was especially equipped to answer this year’s challenge on energy because of their involvement in the energy space at Duke. Sanghi and Wang both live in the Duke Smart Home, and Sanghi regularly takes part in Duke University Energy Initiative programs, is a member of Duke’s Energy Club for undergraduates, and is working on energy access research through a Bass Connections project, the university said.
Sanghi, who is from India, and Chodavadia, who has family living there, knew firsthand of energy access challenges and inefficient agricultural processes in that country. They decided to target this population with their Hult Prize project, it said.
“Energy access is broader than just giving people energy,” Sanghi said in the report, pointing out that their solution also addresses poverty and agriculture. “Energy affects all aspects of a person’s life.”
Team mPower’s approach has evolved throughout the course of the competition. After winning at Duke, they made adjustments to achieve greater scalability and a more impactful approach. They branched out from a traditional business model scalability and added the modular refrigeration strategy, the report said.
“Our network of mentors helped us flesh out minute details within our business model, clarify logistics, and improve the viability of our proposed technology,” Sanghi added. The experience of competing at regionals was also instructive, the report noted.
“At regionals, we were exposed to different perspectives and made friends from 17 other countries who were gathered to solve similar challenges and make an impact on the world,” said Chodavadia. “It was also extremely encouraging to hear from the CEO of Hult Prize, Ahmad Ashkar, that our idea could be the next big thing,” he added.
The team, according to the report, is eagerly anticipating the accelerator program, where global experts will lead them through an eight-week MBA course covering topics like risk assessment, partnerships, marketing, sustainability and launch strategy. After this accelerator, the top six teams are invited to pitch at the United Nations for the chance to win $1 million.