Environmentally Responsible Inventing

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Big Ideas Integrates Sustainability into Its Competition

By Emily Denny

“Sustainability is something innovators don’t really think about because we are so focused on how our product is going to work, how we are going to market it, and how we are going to sell it,” said Emily Huynh, a senior studying biomedical engineering at UC Berkeley.

Last spring, Huynh won third place in the Big Ideas Contest’s Hardware for Good category for Fractal, a medical device that provides low-income countries a tool to diagnose and monitor bone fractures. Huynh said that one of the challenges when building the Fractal prototype was how best to incorporate environmental concerns.

In 2018, Big Ideas responded to Huynh’s knowledge gap by introducing a pilot Environmental Responsibility Program into the contest. Supported by The Lemelson Foundation, the program offers a curriculum on sustainable design approaches.

In August, Big Ideas hired an environmental design fellow to support the program, Mimi Kaplan, who is a master’s student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Kaplan recruited Jeremy Faludi, a Dartmouth College professor and expert in green design and engineering; and together, they have developed two Inventing Green workshops for Big Ideas contestants in the Hardware for Good category.

“Having studied sustainable development at Columbia University, I have relevant academic experience to support Jeremy in developing the workshop content in a way that was suited to the needs of the students,” said Kaplan. “After college, I worked with the Milken Innovation Center in Jerusalem, assisting and managing the logistics and coordination of conferences and workshops on agtech developments and water management in Israel and in California.”

Big Ideas teams in the Hardware for Good category attended the first environmental workshop in the fall semester and the second in the spring.

“The purpose of the first Inventing Green workshop was to introduce students to the concepts of environmental design and circular economy, which includes using locally sourced and environmentally responsible materials and making recyclable and modular products,” said Kaplan. “The purpose of the second workshop was to give students the tools to implement these concepts in their designs and training to help make them confident in doing so.”

Emily Huynh and her team at Fractal attended the Inventing Green workshops, and then restructured how their medical device was built. The Fractal team reported the workshops helped them understand that the production phase of a medical device has the highest impact on the environment. As a result, they decided to use PLA (polylactic acid), a plastic that can be melted down and recycled, to print the body of the medical device.

“Learning about the process of sustainable design led us to reconsider how our product is going to work, how are we going to market it and how are we going to sell it.” said Huynh. “We are also hoping to create a service in which, if a device is broken, it can be sent back to us. Once we receive the broken device, we can repurpose it for the parts that don’t work. This will extend the device’s end of life, ultimately allowing us to limit our waste,” said Huynh.

Similar to Fractal, team members from the Sonic Eyewear Project (SEP) also reported that the workshops helped them reconsider the production of their prototype. Darryl Diptee, founder of SEP, won second place in the Big Ideas’ Hardware for Good Category in 2019 for developing a technology that enables people who are blind or visually impaired to use echolocation to better navigate their surroundings.

“The sustainability workshops helped us introduce and infuse sustainable approaches into our product development,” said Diptee on the workshops. “As a result, we are implementing green sustainability into SEP by using renewable plastics. We are also working on a clip-on product that can be affixed to existing eyewear, eliminating the need to buy an additional pair.”

Kaplan noted student feedback on the challenges of integrating sustainable design into their inventions. “In a roundtable feedback session at the end of the contest year, multiple teams mentioned the difficulty of local sourcing, modularization, and ensuring circularity of their products if it meant justifying a higher up-front cost to investors,” she said. “The group discussed methods for overcoming this challenge, including how to pitch the long-term financial savings that sustainable design brings as well as the importance of environmental responsibility.”

Overall, Kaplan said the workshops increased contestants’ confidence in applying principles of sustainable design in their invention process, and that the workshops had an impact on participants’ perception of the design process cost, ease of manufacturing, marketability, and quality.

In the spring, Dr. Maria Artunduaga won Big Ideas’ first-place prize in the Hardware for Good category for Respira Labs, a startup for a medical device that tracks and monitors lung health, providing an early warning for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) attacks.

“It’s our social responsibility as innovators to be mindful. The sustainability workshops helped us at Respira Labs realize that you can build a prototype while also being mindful of the environment.” said Dr. Artunduaga.

Already aware that healthcare sector accounts for nearly 10 percent of U.S. carbon emissions and generates an average of 25 pounds of waste per patient each day, the Respira Labs team saw the workshops as an opportunity to reconsider how its prototype can incorporate sustainable design. Respira Labs intends to use reusable sensors as well as tie the use of smartphones to the COPD technology, eliminating the need for excess medical devices.

In addition to learning how to reduce waste during the production process, teams in the Environmental Responsibility Program also reported learning that sustainable design can reduce legal risk, final product cost, and increase innovator creativity and motivation.

“This year, we plan to again offer a workshop on environmental responsibility in product design for student teams creating physical products,” said Kaplan. “We also plan to take Big Ideas students to maker spaces in the Bay Area, and to share through lectures and conferences what we have learned in implementing the Big Ideas environmental responsibility curriculum with the support of The Lemelson Foundation.”