UMass Amherst Hult Prize Winner Focuses on Food Waste

participants in Hult prize contest pose with sign

“Our current system of expiration dates isn’t working,” insists Isenberg sophomore Harsha Prakki, explaining that arbitrary sell-by dates can’t take food storage and transport conditions into account. “People throw away way too much food.”

As a solution, Harsha’s venture, Qualtags, is developing a sticker that changes color if a food is exposed to damaging temperatures long enough to cause spoilage. In November, Qualtags (which was called Ripe at the time) won first-place honors in this year’s UMass Amherst round of the Hult Prize, hosted by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. Now in its tenth year, the international competition encourages student entrepreneurs to build businesses that foster positive societal outcomes. Each year, student teams from several hundred colleges and universities compete for a grand prize of $1 million in seed money. This year’s Hult theme challenges students to develop ventures with environmental benefits.

By winning the Amherst campus competition, Harsha, a sophomore majoring in operations and information management (OIM), and her Isenberg teammates—Satish Pokuri (OIM; economics) and Dev Parikh (finance; economics)—will advance this spring to one of Hult’s regional finals. After that, fifty teams worldwide will qualify for a five-week summer accelerator for coaching and evaluation by mentors and other entrepreneurs. In September, at the United Nations, five to ten finalists will compete for the $1 million prize.

Harsha explains that the chemical tags Qualtags is working on will track time and temperature so that a shopper choosing produce will be able to tell at a glance if food has been exposed to conditions that would cause spoilage on its way to the supermarket. Consumers will toss away less, reducing waste. That will improve efficiency in food production and distribution systems, and reduce waste in landfills.

Harsha recruited her teammates because “they have valuable insights and perspectives on how to execute,” she says. But above all, “We have a fantastic team chemistry. I’ve been on poor teams—it’s counterproductive and not much fun.” Qualtags, she adds, has reached out to industry and academic researchers for technical expertise, which will help the team to create an improved prototype.

“I identify as an entrepreneur,” she observes. “I don’t see myself in corporate America, but if I wind up there, I’m going to solve problems in an entrepreneurial way.”

The American-born Isenberg sophomore traces the inspiration for her startup to her experiences in India as a middle school student. “To expose me to our cultural roots, my parents sent me overseas to live for two years with my grandparents in Hyderabad,” she recalls. “It didn’t take me long to realize the prevalence and impact of food-borne illness in India. You’re at risk from almost everything that you eat. That goes for me. I kept getting sick.”

Determined to improve food sanitation, Harsha developed her tagging concept and initial plans for a venture to make it happen as a high-school senior in Franklin, Massachusetts. During her first year at UMass, her plans sat on the back burner, but as a sophomore she went into high gear with help from the Berthiaume Center and an Isenberg club. “I’ve morphed my concept to address Hult’s environmental theme, which, of course, encompasses Qualtag’s health concerns as well,” she observes. Winning first-prize in the global competition is a long-shot, she admits, but the competitive process has and will continue to add immeasurably to the enterprise. “Hult offers all sorts of resources, including expert mentors. And the process has made us stronger,” she says. “We’ve all grown tremendously.”