UC Students to Develop Solutions to Global Food Challenges

Inspired by the depth and breadth of activity across the University of California to address challenges in the global food system, Big Ideas@Berkeley, the flagship student innovation contest, has launched a new contest category: Food System Innovations.

By Sybil Lewis

Back to the Roots WarehouseInspired by the depth and breadth of activity across the University of California to address challenges in the global food system, Big Ideas@Berkeley, the flagship student innovation contest, has launched a new contest category: Food System Innovations.

The category responds to UC President Janet Napolitano’s UC Global Food Initiative—an effort to catalyze all 10 campuses, UC’s Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, various institutes and centers, and a multidisciplinary consortium of faculty, researchers, and students to address food security issues and the related challenges of nutrition and sustainability.

In her talks about the initiative, Napolitano has underscored that today a billion people, mostly in the developing world, suffer from chronic hunger or serious malnutrition, and another billion, primarily in the developed world, are obese. “Put on top of that the increasing pressure on our natural resources, land and water, and you can see the magnitude of what we have before us,” Napolitano said at the initiative’s launch in July at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. “The issue of ‘food’ is not just about what we eat. It’s about delivery systems, climate issues, population growth, policy. All of these and more come into play when you begin to think about the colliding forces that shape the world’s food future.”

The Big Ideas prize is leveraging this call to inspire students to craft creative solutions. “We hope the category will motivate undergraduate and graduate students throughout the UC system to come up with innovative ways to address the growing pressures facing our global food system,” said Phillip Denny, manager of Big Ideas and chief administrative office of the Blum Center for Developing economies, which administers the contest.

Can students develop new systems, technologies, or approaches to one of the 21st century’s thorniest problems? Denny, who has seen scores of Big Ideas contest winners go on to create high-impact ideas, says yes. He also points to the wide constellation of UC professors and researchers who have incorporated food sustainability and security into their work and whose passion for agriculture, health, nutrition, energy, water, labor, and social justice will help inspire students.

The Berkeley Food Institute (BFI), a sponsor of the Food System Innovations category and member of the UC Global Food Initiative, is working to facilitate cross-disciplinary approaches to food security, food justice, and environmental sustainability issues. “Developing effective solutions to food and agriculture challenges requires multi-dimensional expertise and innovations in many disciplines and across sectors—from production to distribution to consumption of food,” said Ann Thrupp, executive director of BFI. “Addressing these challenging issues is a great way to encourage group learning, and to address problems collaboratively. Food can be a catalyst that brings people together in universities and everywhere.”

Several projects and courses on UC campuses seek to include students in problem solving for food security. On the Berkeley campus alone, there are more than 90 academic courses related to food and agriculture and more than 150 faculty and staff that teach and conduct food-related research.

The School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, for example, offers an interdisciplinary graduate course called “Eat.Think.Design,” which encourages students to connect with nonprofits and government agencies to implement projects that address challenges in food systems. Jaspal Sandhu, a lecturer in design and innovation at the School of Public Health and a former Big Ideas team mentor, said he designed “Eat.Think.Design” to “create links between the classroom and the real-world to motivate students and ensure a worthwhile learning experience.” Past students from the course include a computer scientist who traveled to Uganda to test a post-diarrheal zinc therapy and health writer now working on special programs for the Culinary Institute of America.

Sandhu is among those who believe that because the challenges of food security affect us all, solutions require interdisciplinary collaboration. “At the moment, not enough of our students and faculty are focused on food security,” he said. “Adding this FSI category to Big Ideas will bring the brightest minds to the table.”

Winners of the Food System Innovations contest will be announced in March, and student teams will receive cash prizes of up to $10,000.
Although in past years, there was no category for food innovation or security, students have won for related Big Ideas prizes. During their last semester as undergraduates at UC Berkeley in 2009, for example, Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora developed a plan to grow gourmet mushrooms from used coffee grounds. They submitted their idea for a project called “Back to the Roots” and won a $5,000 prize, which helped launch a company that is now in its fifth year of operation and boasts two products: the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm, a self-cleaning fish tank that grows food. The company’s products are currently sold in thousands of locations, including Whole Foods, Nordstrom, and The Home Depot. In 2013, Back to the Roots was named a Martha Stewart American Made Awards winner and one of Forbes 25 Most Innovative Consumer Brands.

Velez said Back to the Roots aims not only to turn waste into food, but to redefine how people view waste. “More and more, we’re starting to appreciate the ecosystem that we’re a part of,” he said. “In reality, there is no ‘waste’ in nature. We just have to take the time to figure out what is its second life.”

A Ugandan Health App Created By and For Ugandans

A year or so into his studies at Makerere, he decided to figure out a way to use ICT, specifically mobile phones, to diagnose and prevent trachoma, which 8 million (nearly one fifth of) Ugandans are at risk of contracting.

By Tamara Straus

Growing up in a rural town in Kyankwanzi District, Uganda, Moses Rurangwa witnessed an epidemic of preventable blindness. In his community many people become blind or near blind from trachoma, an infectious disease that affects places with poor sanitation, crowded living conditions, and not enough water and toilets. Trachoma forces the eyelid to turn inwards and causes the eyelashes to scratch and eventually damage the eye.

“Many people don’t know they have the disease until it is too late,” said Rurangwa, “and they don’t know how to get medicine. The first stage is a small itching below the eyelid, which is not always noticeable. But the last stage, if there is no diagnosis or prevention, is impoverishing blindness.”
When Rurangwa moved to Kampala to enroll in Makerere University in 2011, he became a tech geek. He could not put down his cell phone. He decided to major in computer science.  Looking at the issues facing his country, he said he began to feel that “although ICT [information and communication technologies] is not very strong in Uganda, it is a path to solving our own problems. There is capacity—people just need motivation.”

Rurangwa, now 22, might as well been talking about himself. A year or so into his studies at Makerere, he decided to figure out a way to use ICT, specifically mobile phones, to diagnose and prevent trachoma, which 8 million (nearly one fifth of) Ugandans are at risk of contracting. He and two Makerere University classmates—Anatoli Kirigwajjo, a computer science student, and Kiruyi Samuel, a medicine and surgery student—developed an idea for an mobile phone app that would photograph the eye using a smart phone, and examine and compare the image for color, far- and near-sightedness, and the presence of cataracts and other conditions. The images could then be sent to doctors who could make an initial diagnosis, contact the patient for testing, and even track the progress of treatment, if medication was administered. Rurangwa, Kirigwajjo, and Samuel call their app E-liiso: “e” for electronic and “liiso,” the Lugandan word for eye.

Rurangwa says his reason for inventing the app is pragmatism; it could save time, money, and livelihoods. Diagnosing trachoma and other eye diseases is not terribly difficult, what has been difficult for Ugandans is the cost of ophthalmological examinations. A typical eye exam in Uganda costs approximately US$50, too high for a country where the annual per capita income is US$506. The number of trained eye professionals is also very small; most are found in big cities. And in village schools, there are no longer routine screenings because of government funding cuts. But Ugandans do have mobile phones. The Uganda Communications Commission reported there were 12 million subscriptions in the country in 2011 and the number could be slightly above 17 million today, among a population of 36 million.

To fund E-lisso, and its umbrella company, Sight for Everyone, Rurangwa and his colleagues have turned to innovation contests, especially ones with cash prizes and Western connections. In March 2014, they took third place in the BigIdeas@Berkeley contest, which had opened several contest categories for the first time to the seven universities in USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network(HESN), which includes Makerere University.

“The E-liiso team was not the only Ugandan team that beat out hundreds of student groups from Berkeley, Duke, and Texas A&M,” said Phillip Denny, project manager of BigIdeas@Berkeley and Chief Administration Officer of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which runs the contest. “There was another finalist from Makerere, behind an idea called AgroMarketDay, a mobile app for farmers. What this shows is that African students have plenty of social impact solutions for their own countries.”

Deborah Naatujuna Nkwanga, engagement manager at HESN’s Makerere-based Resilient Africa Network, said that the university is focusing on ensuring that more students and faculty engage in innovation and research activities that serve local needs. “By teaching entrepreneurship, Makerere is also striving to turn out students who are job creators rather than job seekers,” she said. “We have incubation centers within departments, where student ideas are tested, refined, and readied to be scaled.”

Nkwanga noted that Makerere students faced technical challenges that their American counterparts did not. “Internet and power were a regular problem,” said Nkwanga. “At one point, Phillip [Denny] extended the deadline of submission because of Internet and power problems.” Still, eight Makerere groups applied in the tech-dependent open data for development contest category.

The Sight for Everyone team is now finishing up its first testing phase. This has involved processing algorithms for more than 100 photos of trachoma-infected eyes that can serve as comparison images. The team is also testing its mobile application with doctors at Jinja Hospital, an eye center in Kampala, as well as improving its website so that users can post images of infected eyes and get responses from ophthalmologists.

Rurangwa says Sight for Everyone is seeking $30,000 in startup funds this year to proceed with commercial testing of E-liiso. It received $3,000 from the UC Berkeley prize and in 2014 participated in the Microsoft Imagine Cup and Orange competitions. Although the Ugandan government halted new e-health initiatives in January 2012 due to e-health “pilot-itis” and researchers there and at MIT are working on other eye disease apps, Rurangwa is not worried about competition.

“My main worry is that we do not have enough people embracing technology in the [Ugandan] medical sector,” he said. “The only real competition we are facing right now is faith. People wonder if this thing, e-health, can really work.”
For those interested in learning more about Big Ideas past winners and how to apply for or support the contest, visit the Big Ideas website: http://bigideascontest.org

Big Ideas Turns Nine

Nine years later, the yearlong student innovation contest has become a model for on-campus collaboration and action—and has expanded to 16 universities around the country and world, including the entire University of California system and the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network.

By Jenna Hahn

In 2006, Big Ideas @ Berkeley was launched to support multidisciplinary teams of UC Berkeley students interested in big challenges such as clean energy, safe drinking water, and poverty alleviation.

Nine years later, the yearlong student innovation contest has become a model for on-campus collaboration and action—and has expanded to 16 universities around the country and world, including the entire University of California system and the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network.

As Big Ideas moves toward its 10th anniversary, it is facing big numbers. More than 4,000 students have submitted 1,248 proposals to the contest. During the last three years, participation from undergraduate students has increased dramatically—from 35 percent in 2010 to 70 percent in 2014.

According to an internal study from the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which manages Big Ideas, the contest’s 400-plus student teams and award winners have gone on to secure over $35 million in additional funding. Thirty percent of winners from 2006-2011 have won at least one additional award or business plan competition after participating in Big Ideas, and 50 percent have reported that their Big Ideas project is still running.

Among the projects that originated from Big Ideas are: Acopio, a data sharing software platform for agricultural producers now managed by Fair Trade USA; Nextdrop, which uses mobile phone technology to transmit water supply and distribution information for Indian consumers; and Back to the Roots, a U.S. company that sells mushroom kits made from coffee grounds.

“From the beginning, Big Ideas was about developing an ecosystem of innovation to help bright young people get from idea to reality,” said Maryanne McCormick, executive director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. “The contest is run and organized around the belief that there’s a value to giving young people more autonomy early in their career—and there’s a value to encouraging them to identify something that they’re passionate about. Over the last nine years, we have seen those values bear fruit.”

This year’s contest will offer up to $300,000 in funding for winning teams. It also will offer applicants a new contest category, Food System Innovations, sponsored by the UC Global Food Initiative and the Berkeley Food Institute. The UC Global Food Initiative, launched in July 2014 by UC President Janet Napolitano, brings together the university’s research, outreach, and campus operations in an effort to develop and export solutions throughout California, the United States, and the world for food security, health, and sustainability, Napolitano said during the morning briefing.

The contest launches on September 2, and spans the academic year, beginning with the submission of a five-page pre-proposal by November 13. If selected, finalist teams will be then prepare a full proposal by mid-March.
This year’s contest categories include:

From September to March, when the final proposals are due, teams have the opportunity to attend information sessions, idea generation and networking events, writing workshops, editing blitz’s, and office hours with Big Ideas advisors in person and online. In addition, teams will be matched with mentors with expertise relevant to their project from a range of social enterprises, academia, nonprofits, and businesses.

Unlike many business competitions, Big Ideas is focused on supporting projects focused on social impact. The contest challenges students to step outside of their traditional university-based academic work, take a risk, and use their education, passion, and skills to work on problems important to them.

“The Big Ideas Contest helped us to think beyond what we had initially envisioned and push past our boundaries,” said Priya Iyer, a member of the Sahay team that won third place in the Information Technology for Society category in 2014.

For more information about rules, categories, resources, funding, and contact information, please visit the Big Ideas website at http://bigideascontest.org

USAID and Big Ideas@Berkeley Launch Essay Competition on Blind Spots in International Development

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab (the Lab) and UC Berkeley are teaming up to launch an essay contest as a part of the Big Ideas@Berkeley annual contest.

Blind Spots Essay Contest FlyerThe U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab (the Lab) and UC Berkeley are teaming up to launch an essay contest as a part of the Big Ideas@Berkeley annual contest. The pilot competition, “Blind Spots in International Development,” seeks to spotlight challenges in global development not widely recognized that are in need of greater attention or resources as well as innovative approaches to solve those challenges. In line with the mission of the Lab and the philosophy behind Big Ideas@Berkeley, the contest asks participants to draw upon their field experience and educational, professional, personal, or other backgrounds to analyze how development gaps can be bridged through science, technology, innovation, or strategic partnerships (STIP).

The Blind Spots Essay Contest was created to provide current students or seasoned career professionals with an opportunity to think outside existing frameworks and share cutting-edge perspectives on how best to deal with overlooked areas in global development. “This is an exciting new collaboration with USAID and the Lab,” said Phillip Denny, program manager for Big Ideas@Berkeley. “We are asking participants with field experience to be our eyes and ears, and teach the global community about those development issues that are not widely recognized, but are hindering programs and initiatives that aim to save the lives of millions. The goal is to increase knowledge sharing not only within our respective organizations and institutions, but also with the development community as a whole.”

Essay participants will answer the question “What is the most significant overlooked development challenge that can be addressed using STIP?” (One example of a STIP is USAID’s work with South African partners and researchers to fund the CAPRISA 004 trial, which resulted in a huge leap forward in women-controlled HIV prevention. The trial demonstrated that use of a microbicide gel containing an antiretroviral drug helps prevent the transmission of HIV.) The essay is also intended to encourage development practitioners to think about a topic holistically. It asks participants to explore the contexts of development challenges, including the various social, economic, political, and/or environmental barriers to approaching the problem, or the potential local, regional, or global impact a STIP intervention may have.

The contest launches on September 2 and is open to students from the universities within USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network, global researchers in the Research and Innovation Fellows and Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research programs, and USAID Mission Staff. Awards are $3,000 for first place, $2,000 for second, and $1,000 for third, as well as publication through the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and on numerous websites and networks. Essays must be 1,750 to 2,000 words in length and submitted by October 1. Winners will be announced on November 10.

To learn more, go to: http://bigideascontest.org/blind-spots/.