Q&A with Dr. Maria Artunduaga, 2019 Big Ideas Winner

Although Maria Artunduaga, a Colombian-born translational physician and entrepreneur, says that racial and gender bias has played a major role in shaping her career, she doesn’t view it as an obstacle.

Empowering Women of Color in the Medical & Technology Field

By Emily Denny

Although Maria Artunduaga, a Colombian-born translational physician and entrepreneur, says that racial and gender bias has played a major role in shaping her career, she doesn’t view it as an obstacle. Instead, she views such experiences as motivation to close the gender and racial gap, particularly in Silicon Valley.

In spring, Artunduaga won Big Ideas’ first place prize in the Hardware for Good category for Respira Labs, a medical device startup for a product that tracks and monitors lung health, providing an early warning for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) attacks. Artunduaga’s mission is to empower people with COPD by using home-based intervention technology that flags lung deterioration before it occurs, cuts hospital readmission costs, and reduces provider and payer healthcare bills.

Big Ideas sat down with Artunduaga to discuss how her personal and professional experiences have led to Respira Labs and how she navigates male-dominated spaces as a woman of color and an immigrant.

Q: How did your personal experiences lead to the launch of Respira Labs?
A: Respira Labs is definitely a product of my personal journey. I am focusing on COPD because my grandmother suffered from it for as long as I could remember. She died from an exacerbation. This was difficult because, even coming from a family of physicians, we couldn’t do much to help her. When I started practicing medicine after medical school, I realized how large of a gap in communication there was between doctors and COPD patients when they are sent home. I wondered: Is this all we have?

That’s why I am obsessed with finding a solution for COPD patients. Respira Labs is building a digital platform that detects changes prior to symptom onset, facilitates early intervention and helps prevent hospitalizations. COPD hospitalizations result from exacerbations, a worsening or “flare up” of symptoms. Survival after admission is poor and related to the number of previous severe exacerbations.

Q: How is Respira Labs a product of your multiple degrees and professional experiences in the medical world?
A: Through my family members, I have observed firsthand the lack of technology for people with COPD. I also have a Masters in Public Health from the University of Washington, where I studied how healthcare technologies are overlooked and underfunded, specifically in low- and middle-income countries. My personal mission is to help the poor worldwide who have no access to healthcare. I want to help improve healthcare delivery with digital technologies and tools that are cheap and work well. Democratize access.

Q: Could you speak about a time when you encountered bias in a professional setting?
A: My experience at the University of Chicago, as a plastic surgery resident, was probably the strongest example. Most of the chief residents and faculty in the department were white and male. I soon realized that the way I looked, the way I behaved, the way I talked, everything I am and represent made them uncomfortable.

As a result, they started targeting me, bullying me, making comments about my accent, my personality, my height, I could go on. They would tell me, “You’re too too friendly, you talk too much.” A white, male surgeon told me that there was something “wrong” with me, that I didn’t look like a “surgeon.” Another one kept asking me questions about how I managed to get there. As an immigrant, woman of color, I didn’t understand that I was experiencing racial bias until it became very clear to me that they didn’t want to train me. While my classmates were doing eight to ten surgical cases per week, I was doing a couple, sometimes none at all. That obvious difference prompted me to complain to my program director, but he told me that this treatment was the status quo and the only thing he could offer me was a “quiet transfer” to a more “immigrant-friendly” residency in a community hospital. I refused.

Q: How did you respond to this bias?
A: In medicine, if you don’t follow the rules of hierarchy, especially as a woman and as an underrepresented minority, you are going to be oppressed. That’s the sad reality. So I saw that I could respond in two ways: I could keep fighting the system and continuously get frustrated with it; or I could lean in a little, while also speaking out. I soon realized that I couldn’t reach my full potential as a surgeon; I was cast out because I fought back. But I learned from it, which is precisely why I changed my approach.

I started by searching for people who looked like me, who were dedicated to closing the gender gap, whose interests aligned with mine, because the more things that I found in common with people, the easier it was to have allies. I also saw that I needed to validate myself with degrees and awards, so people would start believing that I was at their level. Last year, I started to apply to everything and anything that I came across, so far I have been quite successful. I work hard.

Q: As a woman of color, how have you navigated a male-dominated atmosphere, specifically in Silicon Valley?
A: The reality is that people like me, women of color, are always going to have a hard time convincing people that we are capable. There are negative stereotypes. My experience in Chicago was the hardest situation in my life, a nightmare, but it made me who I am today. I am actually thankful for that experience because, even after losing everything, not having a job, a reputation, or money to go grocery shopping, I realized that it wasn’t the end. So now, in Silicon Valley, I am not scared of anything and I don’t mind failing. I know I’ll build myself up again.

Q: What advice do you have for early-stage women entrepreneurs?
A: The problem of bias is there and it’s not going to be fixed for a while. But you need to find sponsors, you need to find people who are committed to closing the gender gap, and you need validation. There are many people at UC Berkeley who are supportive of women, who are honest about recruiting female founders — like Phillip Denny from Big Ideas, Jill Finlayson from the Women In Technology Initiative, Kira Gardner from CITRIS Foundry, Caroline Winnett from Skydeck, and Rhonda Shrader who directs the Berkeley-Haas Center for Entrepreneurship. I would tell you to push yourself out of your comfort zone and talk to these people. Email them and tell them I sent you. They can help you realize that your potential is endless.

Q: What are some structural or systemic changes that need to occur across the entrepreneurship/startup landscape to diversify the space and make it more equitable for women and people of color?
A: People don’t like to talk about politics or social issues, but the reality is that we live in a world that is touched by social issues every single second. We cannot compartmentalize business, startups, technology, and money from politics. Yes, we live in this bubble of Silicon Valley, but the reality is that there is a world out there with intolerant people.

We in Silicon Valley, the technological leaders of the world, need to be more responsible. We need to educate ourselves about these issues of prejudice and stereotypes. We need to realize that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. We need to open the doors to diverse founders. This can be an uncomfortable topic, but the more people become empowered and have access to money and education, the less inequality there will be. Intentionality should direct our daily decisions, it’s the right thing to do.

Q: Any final thoughts?
A: I am tired of hearing: Latinos can’t become CEOs, Latinos can’t do post-graduate degrees, and they cannot succeed in Silicon Valley. If you have one single person who can demonstrate that those things are possible, that can open doors for so many more. All I can say is: Watch me.

Echolocation Technology that Empowers the Blind

Darryl Diptee used to think of himself as a “closet innovator.”
During his time as an officer for the U.S. Navy, Diptee remembers being told to “color inside the lines and innovate on your own time.”

How one Big Idea can lead to equal opportunities for the visually impaired

By Emily Denny

Darryl Diptee used to think of himself as a “closet innovator.”

During his time as an officer for the U.S. Navy, Diptee remembers being told to “color inside the lines and innovate on your own time.” After coming to UC Berkeley in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. in Education, Diptee found himself in an environment that required the opposite.

“If you take a seed and put it on concrete, it won’t grow; but if you put it in fertile soil, you can literally get something that creates a massive impact,” said Diptee of his transition from the military to UC Berkeley’s environment.

Within a year at UC Berkeley, he developed the Sonic Eyewear Project, a technology that enables people who are blind or visually impaired to use echolocation to better navigate their surroundings.

This idea originated during Diptee’s deployment in Baghdad. “I saw some people who lost their vision, and that’s something that sticks with you,” he said. When he returned home, he remembered listening to an NPR podcast about Daniel Kish, a blind man who is an expert in human echolocation and president of World Access for the Blind. Kish does many things that sighted people do, like climb trees, ride a bike, and hike in the forest. He also travels around the world as a public speaker, while also teaching people who are blind or visually impaired “Flashsonar,” a unique clicking sound done by the tongue that enables people to detect their surroundings.

Diptee wondered, “If Daniel Kish is doing this with his mouth, why can’t we just create a technology that can do the same?”

The Sonic Eyewear Project (SEP) is creating a technology that replicates tongue-clicking, which can be difficult to master. “Let’s lower the bar of entry and create a technology that can do the clicking for people,” said Diptee on the origin of his idea. “It’s low-hanging fruit.”

Within two months after arriving to UC Berkeley, Diptee found himself on stage pitching his idea to the campus audience during the Innovators@Cal showcase event hosted by Big Ideas. Diptee recalls the “sense of hope” the Big Ideas team gave him during his project’s initial conception, providing him with mentors and introducing him to other students who would later become apart of the Sonic Eyewear Project team.

“Big Ideas ecompasses the very essence of Berkeley. It fosters an opportunity to create positive social change, while innovating in a really unique and creative manner,” said Amanda Brief, a biotech entrepreneur and Big Ideas mentor to Diptee and his team.

Brief was most impressed by Diptee’s ability to create a technology that would “emanate and help utilize echolocation in order to empower and provide insight to blind and visually impaired people.” She was also impressed by Diptee’s ability “to reach out and involve their dream mentor, Daniel Kish, in the process.”

Diptee first connected with Kish when he decided to call a 1-800 number for World Access for the Blind to get data for his Big Ideas pitch. To Diptee’s amazement, Kish just happened to be in town and he picked up the phone. The 45-minute phone conversation that followed led to Kish giving a talk at the UC Berkeley campus, and what is now is a close friendship between Diptee and Kish.

“It’s the worldview that separates Sonic Eyewear Project technology from literally everything else that is out there,” said Diptee. “We enter the problem space, recognizing blind people as whole people–‘they are not deficient, but distinctive.’” It’s a worldview Diptee attributes to Daniel Kish’s mentorship and expertise.

Diptee described the process of finding a team at UC Berkeley as “absolutely effortless.” After just a few interactions with students who were interested in his pitch, Diptee found three UC Berkeley student collaborators: Fátima Pérez Sastre (Business Administration and Management, 2019), Jack Wallis (Mechanical Engineering, 2022), and Arnav Gulati (Physics, 2022). So far, the team has interviewed up to a hundred people who are blind or visually impaired. Their goal is to shape their SEP technology so it fits the largest number of users.

Normally people who are blind or visually impaired become dependent on assistive technologies that process the information and provides a signal to the user in the form of a vibration or audible alert. In contrast, the Sonic Eyewear Project leans heavily on people’s brains to process the raw echolocation signal. “We have removed the processor out of the technology, which empowers the user” said Diptee.

Bryson Gardner, a technology advisor and product developer for the Apple iPod and iPhone, has helped Diptee envision success in the marketplace. Gardner said he was impressed by Diptee’s “ambition to really understand what the market demands are” by interviewing scores of consumers and being “sensitive to things like style”–something Gardner explained assistive technologies often do not adequately address.

The SEP team is also envisioning ways to make its product sustainable and environmentally friendly. Big Ideas teams that enter the contest under the Hardware for Good category must complete two environmental responsibility workshops sponsored by The Lemelson Foundation. Diptee said these workshops helped his team “introduce and infuse sustainable approaches” into their product development.

“We are implementing green sustainability into SEP by using renewable plastics,” said Diptee. He also explained that the SEP team is working on a clip-on product that can be affixed to existing eyewear, thus eliminating the need to buy an additional pair.

Amanda Brief and Bryson Gardner are excited to see what the Sonic Eyewear Project comes up with next, as the team finishes their degrees at UC Berkeley. Diptee said he is looking forward to seeking out accelerator programs, funding, and mentorship as he and the SEP team further develop their prototype.

Diptee stressed the importance of creating a technology that helps Daniel Kish train as many people as possible to master Flashsonar. “The ultimate goal is to create a device that is low cost for easier economic entry,” said Diptee.

Also of high importance to Diptee is creating a technology that assists populations traditionally excluded, describing Sonic Eyewear Project’s mission as empowering people who seek the same opportunities as everyone else.

“If you enter the space believing that people who are blind or visually impaired can do everything anyone else can do, the solution set becomes that much better and bigger.

UC Big Ideas Contest Joins The Rockefeller-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge

The Big Ideas Contest has been named one of four university social innovation competitions to be a part of The 2019-2020 Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge.

The Big Ideas Contest has been named one of four university social innovation competitions to be a part of The 2019-2020 Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge. The other three universities are MIT, University of Michigan, and University of San Diego.

With the new partnership, Big Ideas will support students at all 10 University of California campuses as well as at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Makerere University in Uganda to build innovative solutions to poverty and some of the world’s most intractable social challenges. The total number of eligible students across the 12 campuses will be over 300,000 in the 2019-2020 academic year. Students are encouraged to propose innovative solutions across a broad range of social impact tracks, including: Workforce Development, Global Health, Food & Agriculture, Financial Inclusion, Energy & Resources, Education & Literacy, Cities & Communities, and Art & Social Change.

As part of The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge, the Big Ideas Contest will offer students an exclusive set of resources that leverage the experience of the Rockefeller Foundation and Acumen in building successful social enterprises. Winning teams from Big Ideas will be invited to join a social innovator network hosted by Acumen, where they can connect with peer innovators and receive ongoing support.

“We at Big Ideas are delighted to be part of the 2019-2020 Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge. Collaborations, networks, partnerships–and especially challenges–are what make the social enterprise sector grow and hum,” said Phillip Denny, director of Big Ideas. “We expect the usual avalanche of world-changing ideas from students this academic year.

Acumen is a global nonprofit, founded in 2001 with seed capital from the Rockefeller Foundation, Cisco Systems Foundation, and three individual philanthropists, which tackles poverty by investing in sustainable businesses, leaders, and ideas. The Rockefeller Foundation‘s mission, unchanged since 1913, is to improve the well-being of humanity around the world. Since its 2006 establishment at UC Berkeley, Big Ideas has inspired innovative and high-impact student-led projects aimed at solving problems that matter to this generation through an annual contest that provides funding, guidance, and encouragement.

Phillip Denny,
Director, Big Ideas Contest
(510) 666-9120