Where Are They Now? Big Ideas Winners’ Innovations Take Off

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By: Andrea Guzman, 3rd Year Media Studies & Political Science Major

WE CARE w caption 2April 1, 2014 – Since its founding in 2006, the Big Ideas Contest has supported thousands of student-initiated ideas aimed at finding creative solutions that address important social challenges.

For many of these teams, Big Ideas provides not only the initial funding and support necessary to launch their projects, but also the validation and confidence needed to take their innovations to the field. The process of competing in and winning the Big Ideas Contest has led the development of many successful initiatives. Among these are Back to the Roots, the Suitcase Clinic, and WE CARE Solar—each of which has grown from a big idea into an inspiring and impactful social venture.

In 2009, during their final year at UC Berkeley, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez listened to a lecture at the Haas School of Business by Professor Alan Ross, who noted that it was possible to grow mushrooms from re-used coffee grounds. Intrigued by this possibility, Arora and Velez began growing buckets of mushrooms in the kitchen of their fraternity house and developed an idea to turn one of the Bay Area’s largest waste streams—thousands of tons of coffee ground waste—into highly-demanded and nutritious food products. Arora and Velez submitted this idea to the Big Ideas contest, and after winning, put aside their consulting and investment banking job offers to launch a business they called Back to the Roots.

“Winning is what pushed us over the edge,” said Nikhil Arora. “We thought, let’s give this thing a shot, we have nothing to lose.”

Over the last few years, the company has expanded immensely. Back to the Roots and its grow-your-own mushroom kits have been featured on several media outlets including NBC’s TODAY Show, The Chew on ABC, and PBS. They recently added another product to their portfolio: a self-cleaning fish tank known as the AquaFarm that grows food like basil, wheat grass and parsley. Their products are now distributed nationally, and Arora says they are planning to expand even more in the upcoming year.

Similarly, Big Ideas assisted the Suitcase Clinic, a student organization that provides free healthcare services to homeless and low-income Bay Area residents, to expand its services to meet the needs of an increasing number of Bay Area homeless residents. In 2011 and 2013, the Suitcase Clinic competed in the Global Poverty Alleviation and Creative Expression for Social Justice categories. Winning Big Ideas allowed the Clinic not only to expand direct health services, but also to develop programs that take a more holistic view of healthcare. Among the new services offered to their clients are free dental services and support for smoking cessation.

“We were in a situation where we had to tell people that we could no longer afford the services, but we also wanted a holistic approach to address the problem,” said Brenna Alexander, who graduated in 2013 in Psychology and with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice. Alexander said that collaborating with the Blum Center for Developing Economies and competing in Big Ideas was instrumental in her understanding of the different factors that create poverty and the best approaches in which to address it.

Other winning Big Ideas projects are global in scale. In 2008, Dr. Laura Stachel (then a DrPH candidate at the School of Public Health) developed an idea to provide electricity to a Nigerian hospital after observing doctors and nurses struggling to conduct nighttime deliveries and emergency maternity care. She named her project “Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity” (WE CARE Solar). The project evolved to bring compact solar electric kits called “solar suitcases” to rural medical clinics in need of lighting and essential power. Stachel submitted her ideas to the Big Ideas contest in both the 2008 and 2010 contests and won awards for WE CARE Solar in both years.

Participating in Big Ideas and partnering with the Blum Center gave WE CARE Solar the early validation and traction it needed to grow. Its efforts have now been recognized by several other organizations including the MacArthur Foundation and Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge. In addition, Stachel was recently named a CNN Top 10 Hero of 2013. Since its inception, WE CARE Solar has served an estimated 300,000 childbearing mothers and their infants.

“Big Ideas allowed us to bring a dream to fruition,” Stachel said. “We had no idea that what would start as a single project in one hospital, would lead to an award winning organization that has now brought light and essential power to over 600 health facilities in 27 countries!”

Students interested in participating should explore the Big Ideas website, where they can find a variety of resources and guidelines about the contest.

“You have nothing to lose, only so much to gain, and might even gain a career,” Arora said. “It’s a chance to spend some time and get creative and find what you want to do.”