Motivation and Mentorship Spurred 2019 Big Ideas Contest Winners

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How do you become a social entrepreneur? The question has been the subject of many articles, books, and TED talks. For applicants to the Big Ideas social innovation contest, however, the answer is fairly simple: motivation and mentorship.

The recently concluded 2018-2019 Big Ideas Contest brought together over 400 judges and mentors—from six continents—to evaluate proposals and support teams. This group looked at a record number of applications (337) from eight UC campuses to award prizes ranging from $2,000 to $15,000 to 34 undergraduate and graduate students teams, the majority of which were female-led. While securing funding is necessary for any early stage social venture, winners consistently said the key catalysts  were the Contest’s nine-month structure and access to mentorship.

Ryan Barr (center) and the RePurpose Energy team

“The best way to grow an idea into a plan is to research and write under the guidance of a mentor,” said Ryan Barr, a UC Davis PhD student whose RePurpose Energy won first place in both the Energy & Resource Alternatives category and the Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day.

Barr, who is developing a product and service to test, reassemble, and redeploy used electric vehicle batteries to provide commercial solar developers with energy storage solutions at half the cost of new battery alternatives, was motivated by the possibility of Big Ideas’ seed funding. Yet he also knew he needed expert help.

“Beth Ferguson, our mentor, offered a fresh perspective on how to communicate our technology’s potential to investors, current collaborators, and our larger community,” he said. “And Big Ideas has opened doors to additional funding and growth opportunities.”

Other highlights from this year’s Big Ideas Contest included a spike in applications from across the University of California system and the continued success of student teams from Makerere University in Uganda, which has been an international partner of Big Ideas since 2014. Since implementing the UC System Student Innovation Ambassadors program in 2017, Big Ideas has seen an 88 percent increase in overall applications from UC system, proving that student-to-student support helps. The Contest also saw a record number of applications from Makerere University—77 in total—including a first place and honorable mention in Global Health, and second place winners in the Energy & Resource Alternatives and the Food Systems categories.

“Over the past 13 years, it’s been great to see the Contest grow—not only in terms of applicants, mentors, and judges, but also in terms of the gender and geographic diversity,” said Phillip Denny, director of Big Ideas. “This diversity makes sense because, inherently, social entrepreneurs are out to diversify access to the world’s key resources and opportunities.”

Moses Kintu, who led the winning Cloud-based Emergency Response System (CERS) team with classmates from Makerere University in Uganda, said he found the nine-month period of reworking his idea for using mobile technologies to improve ambulance service in Kampala to be crucial.

“The mentorship program was an unbelievable learning opportunity, and participating in Big Ideas helped us to fine-tune our project and execution plan after a lot of chopping and changing and pivoting,” said Kintu, a fourth year Health and Medical Sciences undergraduate student.

UC Merced’s Haoyu Niu, iBMW team lead.

Haoyu Niu, a UC Merced PhD student whose agtech robot iBMW won first place in the Food Systems category, viewed the Contest as a skills-building exercise.

“During training and mentoring period, I learned how to write a good proposal, how to show my idea has social impact, and how to build a team,” said Niu. “Big Ideas provided the mentorship and resources that enabled me to make my iBMW project concrete, feasible, and scalable.”

A complete list of this year’s 2018-2019 Big ideas winning teams can be found on the Big Ideas website!

About Big Ideas: The Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest provides students with funding, support and mentorship for developing their social ventures. Since its launch in 2006, Big Ideas has received over 2400 proposals, supported more than 7,000 students from multiple universities, and provided seed funding for participants that have gone on to secure over $650 million in additional funding. The Big Ideas contest is made possible through the generous support of the Rudd Family Foundation, as well as category sponsors including Autodesk Foundation, The Lemelson Foundation,  USAID, the UC Office of the President, Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), and the Blum Center for Developing Economies.