In November 2020, students from across the University of California system submitted a record number of innovative ideas to the UC Big Ideas Contest. All told, more than 900 graduate and undergraduate students, representing every UC campus, submitted 354 applications addressing a wide range of important social challenges including: emerging and neglected diseases, racial and social inequities, homelessness, environmental threats (earthquakes, climate change, pollution), educational access, food insecurity and more.
After an extensive and very difficult review process, involving an amazing network of 200 experts from academia, industry, and the venture community, 26 innovations advanced to the final round. These finalist teams will receive ongoing support from Big Ideas and personalized mentorship from experts across the world as they work to transform their ideas into action.
Winners will be announced in May — with awards ranging from $5,000 to the Grand Prize of $20,000.
The 2020-2021 UC Big Ideas Contest finalists:
Women’s healthcare is often more neglected than that of others and there’s a lack of education centered around reproductive, sexcual, and physical health. Adatto, an online care support platform that centers around women’s health, plans to streamline the process for women to book healthcare professionals and mitigate some of the pressing problems when it comes to women’s health.
Belonging: Protecting the Treasures and Dignity of the Homeless
Belonging Box is solving the problem of city-mandated sweeps negatively affecting unhoused people. They offer a solution that helps both the city and unhoused individuals by offering a space for both sleep and storage. By using a scanning system and app, the city, unhoused individuals, and Belonging has a flow of communication that protects belongings from being lost. Their goal to keep streets clean while protecting and helping unhoused individuals.
Bio For All
UC San Diego
Biotech companies are facing problems at the moment due to outsourcing critical lab work and a lack of workforce diversity. The biotech industry has a need for pipelines to increase the workforce and fill critical jobs. Bio for All provides this pipeline through an apprenticeship program, training and integrating people for a career in the life sciences. They hope to make STEM jobs more accessible to those who did not go through the traditional 4-year college degree route and to those in underserved communities.
UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz
Blackbook addresses the institutional inequities in higher education and employment, especially for Black students. By creating a space for community, peer-to-peer connection, mentorship, and organization, Blackbook promotes an equitable and inclusive experience for Black students in their college journey. Blackbook is streamlining the career process for many Black students by catering to academic enrichment and professional development.
In the age of medical enhancements, Catena has developed a novel platform to create cures for diseases previously thought incurable. Using a new protein conjugation method, Catena allows for the creation of vaccines and cancer immunotherapy. Their technology can bring massive breakthroughs in biological therapeutics, autoimmune disorders, and vaccine development.
Inefficiencies in disposing of food waste and single-use plastics have caused massive amounts of waste to pile up in landfills and oceans. This, CircFoods believes, can be attributed to an unorganized recycling system. With the use of RFID tags and app-based meal planning, CircFoods suggests a virtual inventory that databases type and quantity of foods and indefinitely recycles glass, steel, and muslin bags. Their idea is to create a circular food system and eliminate food waste altogether.
Climate Battle Simulator
As climate change continues to be one of the most pressing issues of our world, political organization becomes increasingly more important. Climate Battle Simulator sees the fight against big oil lobbying groups as the main battleground to fight the fossil fuel industry. This team offers a simulated gaming environment where players can plan tangible actions to pass climate legislation aimed at mitigating the negative effects of climate change. This virtual arena would simulate political and governmental processes, structures, and strategies in order to help educate and train activists.
Designing Shelters for Dignity
UC San Francisco
Designing Shelters for Dignity has recognized a huge problem for emergency housing: homeless shelters are not conducive to promoting health, minimizing trauma, and dehumanizing. They have taken up the task of renovating and revamping existing homeless shelters to foster a clean, safe, and inclusive environment. Designing Shelters for Dignity hopes that their innovation will allow for a supportive community in order to help destigmatize those battling homelessness and help folks overcome adversities.
Earthquakes have reportedly killed more people than any other natural disaster in the past 20 years. The effects of earthquakes can be extremely damaging, and there is not enough adequate preparedness to help reduce the risks. EduQuake provides informative resources for young people to train for earthquake preparedness. Their innovation technique uses an AI app to help teach first-aid, supply kit making, and pre-disaster planning. They aim to also help ease earthquake anxiety and practice post-disaster action through simulations. EduQuake emphasizes educating families and children in an accessible way.
Green Steel Printing
UC San Diego
Carbon Dioxide emissions are at an all time high and exacerbated by iron and steel production, which requires burning coal and putting iron through carbon intensive processes to create the beams that stabilize bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure. Green Steel Printing modernizes the iron and steel production process by 3D printing. By using heat from lasers and green hydrogen from water, Green Steel Printing revolutionizes metal production that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a significant amount.
Impact Food (formerly “AquaMeat”)
As food systems and industrial agriculture increasingly damage the climate, progress in the alternative meat industry is needed more than ever. Overexploitation of fish is affecting biodiversity, harming the ocean ecosystem, and affecting both human and sea animal health. There is a lack in the market of alternative seafood that maintains the nutritional value, taste, and protein. Impact Foods offers a plant-based tuna alternative that uses natural ingredients, driven by technology R&D and food science. Their goal is to prevent extinction of the blue-fin tuna and offer a sustainable alternative to combat the adverse effects of overfishing.
Beat Medical (formerly "Infection Control Breathing Tube Holder and Bite-guard")
Pediatric patients undergoing mechanical ventilation usually use an endotracheal (ET) holder that secures the face and contains a bite block to protect the patient’s mouth. This holder, however, causes discomfort, facial pressure sores, and risks spreading bacterial pneumonias. This team is developing a device that customizes fit for patients to increase comfortability, maintains patency of the breathing tube, and prevents infection from the bite guard. Their ultimate aim is to help improve care for patients and prevent any complications that can come from traditional ET holders.
Sickle Cell Disease is said to affect 30 million people worldwide, including 100,000 people in the United States. It is hard to monitor and even harder to treat. KovaDx provides an AI-based diagnostic and monitoring device for sickle cell and other hemolytic anemias combining 3D phase imaging with deep learning. The point-of-care device can be influential in low-resource areas by affordable and quick tests. Monitoring also aids in the process of treating and minimizing health care costs.
LacNation LLC (Formerly “Donor Human Milk for Preemies”)
Donor human milk (DHM) is essential for preterm infants to prevent the development of debilitating and devastating infections, but the current method of pasteurizing donor human milk is expensive, and kills necessary nutrients. LacNation brings a new pasteurization technique to the table that kills any harmful pathogens while preserving nutrients for preterm infants. Their DHM products also save on high costs, providing accessible and safe care for infants.
Limb-O2: Multi-patient Attachment for Medical Ventilators
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for ventilators around the world. In Africa, fewer than 2,000 ventilators serve millions across 41 countries. Limb-O2 is a medical device that plugs into an existing ventilator and increases ventilator capacity of any medical facility. It is cost-effective and accessible for low-resource areas, allowing up to four patients to share a single device. The novel technology serves as a lifeline to patients in need of a ventilator.
Mobile Parklets for Flexible Outdoor Learning (Nimble Spaces)
More students are attending school virtually than ever before. Many of these students have distracting environments, lacking both means and resources at home to facilitate an effective educational experience. Nimble Spaces aims to improve the learning experience for many students without adequate access to technology by implementing a mobile study space. Students who are disadvantaged by virtual instruction would be able to work in a converted parking space that serves as a decentralized learning center.
The electric vehicle industry has had a powerful transformation over the last decade. EVs may be great for renewable energy, but still face issues with optimal battery life and affordability. Neutron tackles both problems with its hybrid battery with potential to improve charging time, battery life, and reliability. The battery uses a pay-per-use business model that allows customers to purchase an EV without paying for the batteries upfront, which cuts costs and incentivizes more people to buy EV’s.
The USDA states that food waste estimates around 30-40 percent of the food supply. Restaurants discard large amounts of food daily, which likely contributes to food waste. Night Market has created a platform of food waste recovery and redistribution that can be utilized in every city in the United States. Bike-carts and other guidelines would allow for redistribution of food to all members of the community, providing a sustainable alternative to food disposal.
Non-Invasive Ultrasonic Deep Brain Stimulator (uDBS)
UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego
Deep Brain Stimulation, a neurosurgical procedure involving the placement of a neurostimulator —a pacemaker for the brain— can be extremely invasive and cause dangerous side effects. Focused Ultrasound (FUS) is a non-invasive alternative that uses harmless sound waves from outside the skull to reach brain regions in any depth. FUS has therapeutic applications for a wide range of neurologic and psychiatric conditions that are wearable and portable.
Not the Police
There is a staggering amount of non-violent and non-criminal incidents that result in police dispatches, as reported by the LAPD. 911 calls for these non-violent incidents have led to the brutal police killings of African Americans and at-risk citizens, most notably George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Tanisha Anderson. Not the Police recognize the many problems with law enforcement and the need for alternative first responders. They propose a chatbot that can provide non-police services for non-violent situations at the touch of a button. They aim to reduce exposure to police for at-risk individuals, which can save lives.
Liquid biopsy holds tremendous potential to transform the diagnosis and treatment paradigm for cancer. NurLabs is a patent-pending, non-traditional, non-invasive liquid biopsy platform using materials science and machine learning for early cancer screening, bringing a fresh perspective to an old problem.
The lifestyle of plastics can last up to 500 years, which poses a huge problem for the planet: is there a way for plastic to decompose faster? Plastic2Food Agriculture found a way to take the two most used plastics in the world and convert them into food. To optimize the degradation process, Plastic2Food focuses on the ability of mealworms and fungi to effectively decompose plastic into usable fertilizer. They plan to implement this large-scale level, starting at their campus.
UC Santa Cruz
The world is currently facing a huge plastic waste problem. Landfills and oceans are filling at dangerously high levels around the world. ReFuel is developing a technology that breaks down plastic into valuable byproducts, like butanol and terephthalic acid, that can be used and applied in the fuel, paint and coating, or clothing industries. ReFuel’s innovation has the potential to not only target the plastic waste problem, but help many other industries reduce fossil fuel emissions.
Sal-Patch: A Periodontal Microneedle Patch to Treat Periodontitis
Periodontitis, a dental disease impacting 50 percent of adults in the United States, can lead to other health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and gangrene. The current treatments in the market are not effective in addressing bone loss. Sal-Patch offers an implantable microneedle patch that both repairs the receding gum line and regenerates bone loss. Periodontitis is especially prevalent in impoverished communities, and Sal-Patch wants to mitigate the issue with its low-cost, accessible device.
Students studying the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are paving the way for the future, but STEM has a huge pipeline that prevents certain disadvantaged students from pursuing it. In order to make STEM education accessible and equitable for all, STEMpathy created an edtech resource platform for students and teachers alike. With the goal of spreading empathy and amplifying diverse perspectives, STEMpathy is designed to empower any high school student to pursue STEM.
UC Santa Barbara
Plagues of purple sea urchins have led to a 90 percent decline in a species of kelp and seaweed—known combatants of climate change— along the California coastline, the World Economic Forum reports. Ranching is an effective solution to remove and upcycle sea urchins, which is what Unicado plans to do. They provide sea urchin fisheries and accumulate roe from purple urchins sustainably, which can be used as a gourmet delicacy in seafood. Unicado’s innovation can potentially restore balance to the kelp forest habitat in California and create carbon neutral consumption of uni.