Startups with social impact

Mokha Origin's Ashley Elsensohn, MPH ’14, second from left, with teammates
Ashley Elsensohn, MPH ’14, second from left, with teammates

Students challenged to generate entrepreneurial solutions to social challenges

May 21, 2014 — Ashley Elsensohn, MPH ’14, never expected to graduate from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) as co-founder of a coffee company, but what started as a practicum project soon became a passion. Last fall, she joined with students from other Harvard schools to launch Mokha Origin for the University’s 2014 President’s Challenge entrepreneurship competition. The company, which has already begun importing and marketing coffee from Yemen as a means of encouraging economic growth and political stability in the country, was selected as one of ten finalists in this year’s Challenge. Finalist teams, which also included a mobile health venture with an HSPH team member, shared their progress at a Demo Day held May 8 at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab).

The President’s Challenge was launched three years ago to encourage students from across Harvard to apply their knowledge to develop creative solutions for the world’s most pressing problems. The finalist teams, which were chosen from among 133 applications in March, spent six weeks on an accelerated path to building their ventures, supported by $5,000 in seed money, insight from expert mentors, and access to the i-lab’s resources. President Drew Faust awarded the Challenge’s grand prize to the team behind VACU Scan, a smartphone app for transmitting medical test information, during the Demo Day event.

“Nobody could have predicted the reaction the i-lab has engendered and nobody could have predicted how much it would be offering the world in the way of great ideas, improvements, and inspiration,” Faust said in remarks quoted in a May 9 article in the Harvard Gazette.

Although Mokha Origin did not walk away with the grand prize, the team of 10, which includes representatives from five Harvard schools, two high school seniors, and a specialist from USAID, is moving ahead with plans to continue growing the company. Sustainably sourced Yemeni coffee is available for sale on their website and on, and will soon be piloted at the WholeFoods in Cambridge, Mass. Elsensohn plans to work remotely with other team members while finishing her medical degree in Utah. She will serve as liaison to the company’s new partner in Yemen, a women-owned and operated café. In addition to directly investing profits in the café, Mokha Origin is working with its leadership to coordinate women’s health initiatives and the first International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) chapter in the country.

“Our advancement in the President’s Challenge gave me and the rest of the team affirmation that we have been doing something right, something good,” Elsensohn said. “I look forward to further growing the Mokha Origin network this upcoming year.”

Abha Mehndiratta, MPH ’14, center, and teammates
Abha Mehndiratta, MPH ’14, center, and teammates

An HSPH student also participated on the finalist team that launched Anamiv, a complete mobile health solution. Abha Mehndiratta, MPH ’14, a pediatrician from India, founded the team with three others, including a Harvard Medical School alum. Through a smartphone app, Anamiv provides a way for health practitioners in resource-constrained settings with strong telecommunication networks to access a cloud-based registry of patient health data. Anamiv also includes hardware, software, training, and ongoing support to government primary healthcare centers.

Information collected through the app is used to track vaccination and nutrition status of children. This enables the identification of high risk individuals and non-compliers. The model includes an incentive mechanism to motivate community health workers to make targeted home visits to follow-up with families of children who miss appointments. The group is working towards launching a pilot project focused on children in India in partnership with Sana Lab at MIT and Bonadea mHealth solutions.

Read Harvard Gazette coverage: Healing outside the box

— Amy Roeder

Photos: Evgenia Eliseeva