Big Ideas@Berkeley: Student-Led Innovations Win Over $200,000

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Author: Brittany Schell

BERKELEY, Calif. — Nearly 30 teams of 100 students from 45 diverse academic disciplines across the University of California, Berkeley, campus will receive over $200,000 of funding to support innovative, high-impact projects aimed at solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

These students competed in Big Ideas@Berkeley, an annual prize competition hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies. The competition provides funding, support and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students with creative new approaches to problems of local and global reach.

This year’s winning ideas include a non-invasive technology to detect pre-diabetes and enable early intervention; a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) mentorship program involving UC Berkeley and local high school students; a mobile health system that provides post-natal services in underserved areas of Nairobi; a project that utilizes the kinetic energy from human footsteps to generate electricity for the campus; and an initiative that provides comprehensive restorative dental care at the Berkeley Free Clinic.

“Big Ideas@Berkeley is much more than a prize. It is an entire process for nurturing student-led innovation,” said Prof. Ananya Roy, the Education Director for the Blum Center and Distinguished Chair of Global Poverty and Practice.

This year’s competition launched last November with applications from 125 teams of 400 students from 70 different majors on campus. After an initial judging period, 41 finalist teams were paired with mentors to fine-tune their proposals. Teams also attended information sessions, writing workshops, and expert office hours.  The significant advising and support structure provided by Big Ideas@Berkeley ensured that every team, regardless of whether they won, took away something valuable from the competition.

“Participating in this year’s event was an opportunity for our team, Acopio, to get valuable feedback from the Big Ideas judges,” said Iris Shim, a second year Master of Business Administration candidate at the Haas School of Business. “The funding will undoubtedly be helpful as we  move forward with our big idea, but the benefits of the competition extend far beyond the prize itself.”

The Acopio team will develop information systems to enable farmer-owned cooperatives to better manage data, access financing, and market their products. Shim  and her teammates believe their project has the potential to positively affect the lives of millions of farmers in the developing world. The  team spent last summer in Latin America conducting field research and establishing partnerships.

Closer to campus, Youth Leadership Now (YLN) is a co-winner in the Creative Expression for Social Justice category. The group connects college students who have grown up in West Oakland with younger teens to explore themes of community through photography.

“Big Ideas@Berkeley has been critical to the growth of YLN because it has allowed us to work with a mentor and it has prepared us to present our big idea in a professional manner,” said Diana Pascual Alonzo, a UC Berkeley undergraduate student double majoring in Spanish and American Studies. “Most importantly, it has transformed the idea for our first major project into a reality.”

This summer, Pascual Alonzo and her two teammates will launch “Looking Through Our Lens,” a project that will engage a dozen West Oakland youth in research and photography about their community.

“The transition from knowing and wanting to do something in your community to actually having the means to create change reinforces my hope in the work I do and fills me with happiness because I have the support of Big Ideas and the campus,” said Pascual Alonzo.

Acopio, Youth Leadership Now, and 26 other well-deserving student teams will now have the opportunity, resources, and support to begin to turn their “big ideas” into a reality.

“We are in an era of innovation, and Big Ideas@Berkeley is one of those rare platforms that applies student-led innovation to urgent human problems such as poverty,” said Roy, who also teaches in the Department of City and Regional Planning. “This is precisely what we should be doing at Cal.”

Founded in 2006, Big Ideas@Berkeley is made possible through the generosity of many supporters, in particular the Rudd Family Foundation, and including the Associated Students of the University of California, the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases, the Center for Information Technology for Society, the Rosenfeld Fund for Sustainable Development, the Committee on Student Fees and Budget Review, and the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.