Groundbreaking Innovations and Inspiring Innovators at Big Ideas Pitch Day

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  • By Eumi Son
The 2020 Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day served as the capstone to the most competitive year in the history of the program. The 2019-2020 contest attracted a record number of innovators, with more than 400 projects and 1200 students.

On September 23, seven of the top teams from the Big Ideas Contest presented their final pitches for Grand Prize honors and an additional $10,000 in funding. Despite a myriad of challenges brought about by COVID-19, each participant successfully delivered inspiring four minute pitches from various locations around the world. 

This important student-led, social innovation competition first launched at UC Berkeley in 2006. In the span of fifteen years, Big Ideas has invested $2.5 million in awards to 500 social impact projects, supporting over 8,000 students and 2,500 ventures. 

“With each passing year, more and more students rise to the occasion and use their energy and talent to face dire challenges facing our planet,” said Big Ideas director Phillip Denny. “The projects we heard from today are just a fraction of the transformative social innovations developed through the Big Ideas program with potential to really make an impact.”

The FootMo Kit team tests their livestock disease diagnostic system.

Over the past year, the seven finalists worked with mentors to develop their projects into working, viable products. Finalists were chosen from hundreds of other projects, all tackling varied and complex global issues from global health, food insecurity, climate change, affordable housing and disaster relief. 

Upon the conclusion of the seven pitches, the decision was left to an esteemed panel of judges including UC Berkeley Changemaker Initiative lecturer Alex Budak , Amelia Phillips of SOMO,  Andrea French from the UC Office of the President, and Sony Innovation Fund’s Austin Noronha. 

Taking home the 2019-2020 Grand Prize award was FootMo Kit, a point-of-care diagnostic for foot and mouth disease detection of livestock. Mushusha Richard and Athuaire Rabecca of Makerere University in Uganda led the winning pitch. 

Their product is targeted towards the cattle industry in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the world’s fastest growing population at 2.6 percent per annum. Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to have 2.5 billion people by 2050. Not only is local agriculture pivotal in feeding the population in this region, but around 60 percent of Africa’s economic activity is based on livestock. 

Foot and mouth Disease proves detrimental to the livestock sector and FootMo Kit aims to mitigate the problem through an accessible, highly accurate, cheap and portable diagnostic tool used to detect the disease in cattle. 

The inspiration behind FootMo Kit was personal for Richard, who grew up in Southwestern Uganda in a cattle-dependent farming district. “There were so many times I was unable to raise even my school fees due to foot and mouth disease outbreaks that affected me and my community,” Richard said. 

FootMo Kit’s groundbreaking technology is the only diagnostic tool with real-time testing capabilities and the highest sensitivity, which fights threats of cross contamination of the disease between cattle. 

“It was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait,” Richard remarked. “I was sleepless that night when I remembered that this is the first time a Makerere University team won the Big Ideas Grand Prize. It was history made for myself, FootMo Kit and Makerere University.” 

The FootMo Kit team plans to empower farmers all across Uganda and expand to East Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa within the next five years. With full force, they see FootMo Kit serving millions of farmers in Africa and raising the average income of farmers 4 dollars a day by 2025. 

The FootMo Kit team conducting field interviews and field tests in Uganda.

“We’re very happy that our work has been acknowledged and that we are getting the necessary resources, support and ecosystem so that we can scale our product to market,” said Richard.

Professor Daniel Fletcher, Big Ideas Faculty Director noted,“It is clear all teams have a path to success and we are excited to see each move forward.” 

Every pitch in this ambitious group amplified how passionate participants are in making real change. The 2019-2020 Big Ideas Contest ended on a strong note. It’s exciting to see what new ideas will come about next. 

To learn more about all of the 2019-2020 Grand Prize finalists, please read the profiles below:

Sundial Foods: Presented by Jessica Schwabach, Sundial is a sustainable startup based in California that makes plant-based meats using only natural ingredients. 

Pumzivent (formerly Automated Ambu Bag System): Pumzivent, pitched by Peter Kavuma, designs ventilatory devices to help battle acute respiratory distress in low-resource locations. 

Biomilitus: CEO Trevor Fowles pitched black soldier fly larvae as a solution to create a high value animal feed product, which could combat the growing problem of organic waste. 

FakeNet AI: CEO Raymond Lee presented a powerful algorithm that detects and blocks deepfake media to protect against the expanding problems of fraud, abuse and disinformation. 

Heliovap: Casey Finnerty pitched a unique, low-impact and affordable desalination technology that supplies fresh drinking water to remote communities. 

When You Were Young: Director Tracey Quezada delivered a heartfelt presentation on the problem of chid sex trafficking. Her team is working on a social impact multimedia campaign that touches on the lasting effects of child sexual abuse on communities of color. 

About Big Ideas: Big Ideas is an early-stage innovation competition that provides funding, support and recognition to interdisciplinary teams of graduate and undergraduate students who have creative solutions to pressing social challenges. 

The 2019-2020 Big Ideas program was made possible through the support and generosity of following sponsors: The Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge, University of California Office of the President, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), the Lemelson Foundation, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies

For additional information: 

Phillip Denny

pdenny@berkeley.edu