Curiosity, Compassion, and Commitment Define 2019-2020 Big Ideas Innovators

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  • By Phillip Denny, Director of the Big Ideas Contest
When I reflect on the social innovators I’ve been privileged to work with over the past ten years, I find they share three attributes:
  • The ability to identify challenges, experiment, and develop new solutions to often intractable problems.
  • The desire to focus their energy and talent to improve the lives of individuals and communities.
  • The fortitude to persevere even when challenges seem insurmountable and setbacks inevitably arise.
The Walls to Bridges Team from UC Santa Cruz; Allyssa Tamboura is seated in the center.

The 27 award-winning student teams in this year’s 2019-2020 UC Big Ideas Contest embody these characteristics to a tee. Over the past eight months, they have endured through the chaos caused by the October wildfires (seem like ages ago, right?), the unprecedented COVID-19 health crisis, and the shutdowns and global disruptions that ensued. They have risen to the top of a large and very talented pool of 1,200 student innovators who submitted their visions for more than 400 early stage social ventures.

“The commitment to making a positive social impact doesn’t stop when life throws challenges our way, whether that’s a campus-wide strike or a global pandemic,” said UC Santa Cruz Undergraduate Student Alyssa Tamboura, team lead for Walls to Bridges, a service program designed to repair the devastating impacts of incarceration on families. “Quite the contrary, this commitment has deepened because now more than ever our community needs our support.”

The Wise Earthcare team from UCLA.

Pradnya Parulekur, a UCLA MBA candidate and co-founder of Wise Earthcare, a company developing oral healthcare products that are 100% biodegradable, also reflected on her team’s resilience. “Literally, overnight, we all became caretakers for our elderly parents, teachers for our children, and the term ‘work/life balance’ took on a whole new level of stress,” she said. “We realized we could panic over the situation or use this focused time to research, develop, and execute the details of our business plan for Wise Earthcare.” Parulekur continued, “Upon reflection, not only did we do our part to keep our community safe by sheltering in place, but we used the time to increase traction in our business venture and to take advantage of fantastic entrepreneurship programming offered by the UC system.”

Ferisca Putri, team lead for BioMilitus, a bioconversion project that rapidly transforms food waste into a valuable, protein-rich, high-fat insect biomass and microbially active soil amendment, added, “What really motivates us is that we believe that our insect-based products can strengthen community resilience by not depending too much on the traditional supply chain of protein that might get disrupted during this chaotic and challenging time.”

The BioMilitus team from UC Davis. From left to right: Jesus Bayo, Trevor Fowles, Lydia Miner, and Ferisca Putri.

This year’s innovators hail from 12 universities and 85 academic disciplines. More than 70% are undergraduates and 40% women. (Also worth noting: 63% of this year’s winning teams are female-led!) The problems Big Ideas participants identified are as diverse as the students tackling them — increasing rates of HIV drug resistance, costly irrigation water loss for smallholder farms, the lack of financial literacy among youths, needless plastic waste in the medical industry, growing pressure on our global food supply chain, to name a few. Among the solutions they plan to develop are:

  • A point-of-care diagnostic to detect foot and mouth disease in livestock.
  • A film and associated impact campaign that sheds light on and encourages dialogue around childhood sexual abuse.
  • A novel, 3D, interfacial solar vapor generation method that uses sunlight to desalinate seawater into purified, drinkable water.
  • A fun and low-cost math game that allows learners to improve basic numeracy skills and interest in math.

Over the last nine months, the Big Ideas team, along with our amazing global network of over 300 judges and mentors, have been fortunate to support these students as they shape their ideas into strategic roadmaps for social ventures. The premise behind Big Ideas is that by providing a diverse body of students with a structure and framework, along with educational resources and seed funding, they will deliver innovative solutions to pressing global problems. This has proven to be a successful model for fostering innovation. Over its 14-year history, Big Ideas has catalyzed a range of high-impact startups such as We Care Solar, CellScope, Dost Education, Somo Project, Bolt Threads, and Back to the Roots. These and other teams have received $2.5 million in Big Ideas funding and raised an additional $650 million in investment.

Raymond Lee, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Information and CEO of FakeNetAI, a technology company that detects deepfake videos and other manipulated online content, explained the contest has introduced him to other founders across the UC campuses and to mentors who have provided “invaluable business and technology insight.”

“The Big Ideas Contest’s structured proposal requirements provided FakeNetAI with clear guidance on how to properly assess business viability and impact,” said Lee. “They inspired us to rigorously think through the problem and solution.”

Peter Kavuma of Makerere University in Uganda and team lead of the Automated Ambu Bag System (AABS), a low-cost respiratory support system for long-term emergency unit patients in low-income countries, noted that Big Ideas Contest support catalyzed their project. “Big Ideas offered us a growth platform during the application process through activities like mentor pairing and judging feedback,” Kavuma said. “This has been crucial.”

One of my favorite comments about innovation, which I think exemplifies the spirit of Big Ideas, comes from former UC Berkeley Engineering Dean Richard Newton, who helped launch the contest. He said, “What we’ve found at Berkeley about how to get people to work together is that you define some kind of very big problem that needs to be solved, and attack it from a range of viewpoints.”

After seeing how student teams persevered during this incredibly challenging year, I am confident–now more than ever–that this generation of problem solvers and inventors possess the curiosity, compassion, and commitment for the multi-pronged attacks needed to make this world a better place for all. Please read about the more than two dozen Big Ideas teams who won this year’s top awards in the slideshow below. Fiat Lux!

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 2,500 proposals, supported more than 8,000 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, The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge, and the University of California Office of the President, as well as track sponsors CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), and the Blum Center for Developing Economies.