Meet Rajvi Mehta, second-year student at Duke University Medical School, who recently won first-place and $50,000 in the annual Duke Startup Challenge

After traveling to India in 2010 and getting tested positive for anemia, Mehta learned that around 80% of the nation’s population is affected by iron deficiency. In the four years since, she’s built a social business with 50 employees and over 200 volunteers, providing protein-rich nutritional bars to affected regions all throughout India. 

As a sophomore at Brown University, Mehta spent her summer working with three NGOs to improve health outcomes in rural India and she started a nonprofit called Let’s Be Well Red to educate Indian people about iron, providing resources such as food charts and workshops. Through direct feedback from her clients however, she realized that getting them to recognize the importance of iron-rich diets wasn’t the problem. 

“Raising awareness was successful…but only for about a week or two,” she says. The bigger problem was getting access to foods that contained the nutrients Let’s Be Well Red suggested. What the people really needed was just one product they could consume consistently with the promise that it would improve their health.

Mehta got to work. Despite difficult school exams and pre-med requirements, she saw this as her chance to make a difference for a large group of people. In collaboration with physicians, dietitians and food experts from the Indian operations of corporations such as Unilever, Mehta developed Let’s Be Well Red’s 16-cent-a-bar solution: the GudNeSs bar. Using healthy ingredients commonly found in the Indian diet, such as jiggery (for sweetness), finger millet and sesame seeds, each bar contains the World Health Organization’s recommended daily dose of 14mg of iron.

But the real challenge for Mehta wasn’t the formulation of the bars, but the distribution throughout the very decentralized Indian market.

Schools seemed to be the best option. “We hoped that students would be the best advocates. They would tell their families and friends,” Mehta says. In 2012, GudNeSs bars became available in cafeterias at several Indian universities. The on-field team in India was able to secure connections with university students by collaborating with administrators and also recruiting university volunteers to join the efforts.

As Let’s Be Well Red’s vision became widely recognized in India through media coverage and local competitions (such as the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia, where the team gained semi-finalist status), Mehta was able to create a stronger network of people, such as politicians, to help with the tough distribution channels. The Duke Startup Challenge provided a strong platform to increase Let’s Be Well Red’s presence in the U.S. as well. Mehta created a chapter of Let’s Be Well Red on Duke’s campus, getting 15 other medical students and several undergraduates involved in the team.

In January, the organization transitioned from non-profit to for-profit to match its transition from an advocacy campaign to a prominent producer in the Indian food industry. This also helped compensate employees.

Bars are currently sold in both urban and rural areas throughout India in retail stores, NGOs, and schools. Grocery stores in urban areas charge a relatively higher price, and 50% of profits from those sales subsidize the prices of the bars in rural, poorer areas. This ensures that everyone, no matter socioeconomic status, receives access to the bars. Let’s Be Well Red also solicits donations, and has contracts with the Indian government to produce 100,000 bars a day. Other manufacturing units around the country are reaching out to Mehta to replicate her production process as well, providing potential for exponential increase in bar production, distribution and profit.

Mehta believes that clinical research funding from Duke and all the resources from the Startup Challenge were essential to take the company to where it is today. One of the components of the Startup Challenge was the launch of an Indiegogo campaign in January 2014. “Seeing all the support we got online really improved the confidence of everyone at Let’s Be Well Red. The challenge was great in growing not just our company, but also our team,” Mehta comments. Let’s Be Well Red raised over $12,000 through Indiegogo campaigning and enabled the establishment of the company’s first production unit in India (check out there campaign here).

Currently, Mehta is collaborating with food technicians to add new flavors of GudNeSs—they’ll go to market over the next 18 months. They are also conducting research to create bars that target specific subsets of the population, such as pregnant women and younger children. For the next three years, the team plans to make operations sustainable in India, while also fulfilling orders from Nepal, Bangadesh, Sri Lanka, and Singapore on an as-needed basis. Expanding manufacturing to those regions could come later.

When asked how Mehta balances this along with medical school, she chuckles, saying “It’s tough, but fulfilling.” After completing graduate school in two years, Mehta plans to pursue her residency. 

“I think some of the toughest parts of the medical path are behind me now. I’m sure I’ll be very busy as a doctor-come-social-entrepreneur, but both are things I am passionate about, and it’s a future I’m very excited for,” she says.