Personal Experience and Mentorship Spur 2021 Big Ideas Contest Winners to Address Big Challenges

Max Diamond, co-founder of Unicado, waits for his purple urchins to be offloaded at a Santa Barbara pier.

While virtual events during the pandemic have allowed participants to multi-task, sometimes those activities can get a little stressful — especially when it involves harvesting scores of spiny sea creatures.

Max Diamond and Wes Newbury, graduate students at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, and his UCSB teammates were on a fishing pier two minutes before the Big Ideas Contest’s elevator pitch practice session, gathering 100 sea urchins for their experimental feed trial. Diamond and Newbury, along with Qusai Bhaijeewala and Waldo Felix, started Unicado, a venture that harvests the purple urchins — armies of which devastate the world’s carbon-sucking kelp and seaweed populations — to use as a gourmet delicacy.

As his teammates attempted to sign on to the pitch event from a nearby dock, Diamond was paying the fishermen who were unloading a huge net of urchins from a crane. “Our office is the back of a pick-up truck and our desk is a cooler of live sea urchins,” he says. “What a day at the office.”

Developing transformative solutions to real-world problems is difficult enough during normal times, but doing so during a global pandemic is downright amazing. That makes the record number of University of California applicants to the Big Ideas Contest all the more astounding.

Click on the image above for summaries of each of the 2021 award-winning Big Ideas.

The 2020–2021 Big Ideas Contest received 354 applications, representing more than 900 students from over 100 academic disciplines from all 11 UC campuses. Now, after eight months of developing prototypes, raising funds, networking, interviewing stakeholders, meeting with mentors, and so much more, fifteen teams have been recognized as this year’s most innovative and promising “Big Ideas.”

The 2020–2021 Big Ideas award winners are:

  • Belonging: Protecting the Treasures and Dignity of the Unhoused (UC Hastings)
  • Blackbook University* (UC Berkeley)
  • Catena Biosciences* (UC Berkeley)
  • Designing Shelters for Dignity (UCSF)
  • FireQuake (UC Berkeley)
  • Green Steel Printing* (UC San Diego)
  • KovaDx* (UC Berkeley)
  • LacNation (UC Riverside)
  • Not the Police* (UC Berkeley)
  • NurLabs (UCLA)
  • Plastic2Food (UCLA)
  • ReFuel Technologies (UC Santa Cruz)
  • Sal-Patch: A Periodontal Microarray Patch to Treat Periodontitis (UCLA)
  • Secure-Swap (UC Davis)
  • Unicado* (UC Santa Barbara)

Blackbook University and KovaDx were also recognized with the CDSS Discovery Award, sponsored by the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, while Catena Biosciences earned the Health Technologies Special Recognition Award, sponsored by the UC Berkeley Health Technology Collaborative Laboratory, and Green Steel Printing won the National Security Special Recognition Award, sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network.

Six of these award winning teams (indicated by an “*” above) have been selected as Grand Prize finalists and will participate in the Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch event on September 23 to vie for the $10,000 grand prize.

Common themes among the entries this year included health technologies; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; challenges facing the unhoused; and environmental threats. The resilience that all of the applicants showed given the challenges they faced in an extraordinarily difficult year, combined with the amazing potential of this year’s innovations, made the final selection no easy task.

“Teams have spent a lot of time and energy working on their ideas, and I feel like all of them should be rewarded for that effort,” says Dan Fletcher, Big Ideas faculty director. “We’re trying to envision the world that these innovations are going to make and see when and how they’re going to have an impact. And it’s hard to do. And I think in some sense we’re battling to be as visionary as they are.”

These better worlds include new cures for diseases and a more equitable and inclusive college experience for Black students.

Catena Biosciences co-founders, Geo Guillen, Marco Lobba and Matt Francis

Geo Guillen and Marco Lobba, who recently completed their MBA and Ph.D., respectively, from UC Berkeley, have loved ones with autoimmune diseases, a class of disorders estimated to affect as many as 50 million Americans. While the immune system is the body’s protection from disease and infection, an autoimmune disorder turns the body against itself. “We observed how current approaches to autoimmune treatments focus on treating the symptoms rather than the root cause of the disease,” says Guillen, “leaving patients to rely on expensive medication for the rest of their lives.” 

The result was Catena Biosciences. The company’s technology “enables the attachment of proteins using only native amino acids, allowing for the rapid production of exciting new protein and cell-based therapies” — a potential cure for diseases once thought incurable.

Personal experience also inspired the UC Berkeley founders of Blackbook University.

Blackbook University co-founders, Nahom Solomon, Nicholas Brathwaite, Chase Ali-Watkins, Ibrahim Baldé

“While the campus is regarded as one of the greatest institutions around the world, for many of us, our challenges in finding belonging made it difficult to cherish this fact,” says Ibrahim Baldé, a recent Berkeley grad. This summer, Baldé and his team will work directly with Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni from Berkeley to test their app for deployment in the fall. Blackbook will create a space for community, peer-to-peer connection, mentorship, and organization for Black college students and streamline the career process by focusing on academic enrichment and professional development. 

Throughout the teams’ journey, a key ingredient to advancing their projects was networking and mentorship from Big Ideas’ network of  industry professionals. 

“It was fun and motivating to meet all these passionate and like-minded people who are working towards making the world a better place,” Diamond of Unicado says. “The most rewarding part of the journey was meeting weekly with our mentor and former Big Ideas winner Sam Bordia of Acari. The mentorship was vital to our success: Sam is a wealth of knowledge, gave us tons of great advice, and believed in us the whole way through.”

The support pushed teams to think beyond their academic disciplines to develop a viable solution. Originally, the Blackbook University team had been hyper-focused on the technical-development side of its app. “This took away from our ability to drive community through coalition building, programming, and mentorship,” Baldé says. “A key takeaway was that the most important factor to what we do has been maintaining our connection to the community and stakeholders we intend to serve.”

Green Steel Printing co-founders, Olivia Dippo and Andy Zhao

“The Big Ideas competition pushed us to explore new aspects of our idea,” says Olivia Dippo, a materials science and engineering Ph.D. student and co-founder of Green Steel Printing, which would use 3D printing to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of iron and steel production. “We’re two dedicated materials engineers, and Big Ideas really challenged us to push the limits of our business and entrepreneurial skills and knowledge, helping us to take our idea to new heights.”

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 2,800 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 2020–2021 Big Ideas program was made possible through the support of our amazing network of judges, mentors and the generosity of our sponsors including: The Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation, University of California Office of the President, Berkeley Changemakers, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, Blum Center for Developing Economies, HCL Technologies UC Berkeley Chief Technology Office, National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), UC Berkeley Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, AMENA Center for Entrepreneurship and Development

For more information about the Big Ideas Contest, please contact Phillip Denny, Contest Director, at

2021 Big Ideas Winners Announced!

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.

Over the course of this year’s Big ideas program, student teams participated in 2 rounds of reviews, numerous skill development workshops, networking and pitch events, a seven-week mentorship program and countless hours refining their social innovations. 

Today we are excited to announce the 15 biggest “Big Ideas” in this year’s competition, recognized for their creativity, innovation and potential for social impact. These award winning teams have received prizes and the top six have been invited to the Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch event on September 23 where they will vie for top honors and an additional $10,000 prize (open to the public, details forthcoming!)

The 2020-2021 Big Ideas program was made possible through the support of our amazing network of judges, mentors and the generosity of our sponsors including: The Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation, University of California Office of the President, Blum Center for Developing Economies, Berkeley ChangemakersCITRIS and the Banatao Institute, HCL Technologies,  UC Berkeley Chief Technology Office, National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), UC Berkeley Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, AMENA Center for Entrepreneurship and Development

Big Ideas Award Winners & Grand Prize Finalists

Big Ideas Award Winners

Belonging: Protecting the Treasures and Dignity of the Homeless

UC Hastings, UC Berkeley, Academy of Art University

Zehra Jafri, Ram Bahdra, Bailey Maher, Kameelah Sims-Taylor, Anjali Vadhri,
Steven Balogh, Jagdeep Sekhon, Kyle Lanzer, Anahi Servin, Iveta Posledni

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.

Blackbook University

UC Berkeley

Ibrahim Balde, Chase Ali-Watkins, Nahom Solomon, Nicholas Brathwaite,
Farhiya Ali, Imran Sekelala, Farhiya Ali, Imran Sekalala

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.

Recipient of the “CDSS Discovery Award”, sponsored by the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society.

Catena Biosciences

UC Berkeley

Geo Guillen, Marco Lobba, Matt Francis

Catena has developed a novel platform to create cures for diseases previously thought incurable. Catena’s groundbreaking technology enables the attachment of proteins using only native amino acids, allowing for the rapid production of exciting new protein and cell-based therapies. We plan to utilize this technology to bring massive breakthroughs in autoimmune disorders, oncology, and vaccine development.

Recipient of the “Health Technologies Special Recognition Award,” sponsored by the UC Berkeley Health Technology Collaborative Laboratory.

Designing Shelters for Dignity

UC San Francisco

Laila Fozouni

Designing Shelters for Dignity has recognized a huge problem for emergency housing: homeless shelters are harmful to health, perpetuate trauma, and are stigmatizing. They have taken up the task of renovating and revamping existing homeless shelters to foster a clean, safe, and inclusive environment. Given the proven impact of design on wellbeing and behavior, Designing Shelters for Dignity’s innovation will improve long-term outcomes for individuals battling homelessness.


UC Berkeley, Buffalo University, Great Neck North High School

Joelle Siong Sin, Vera Cho, Claire Cho

Climate change has heightened natural disaster occurrence and intensity, displacing communities and exposing millions to detrimental health effects. Currently, 45 US states are at high risk of earthquakes, which don’t allow for advance warnings. Additionally, 2.2 million American homes at extreme risk of wildfire are in California. FireQuake takes the most comprehensive approach by addressing each stage in the disaster life-cycle: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. By addressing both mental and practical aspects of disaster preparedness, FireQuake gives students a comprehensive approach to disaster response.

Green Steel Printing

UC San Diego

Olivia Dippo, Andrew Zhao

Steel forms the backbone of our modern world, with over 1.5 billion tons of steel produced globally every year. However, the production of iron and steel contributes over 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it will be paramount to reduce those emissions to combat climate change. Green Steel Printing is a proprietary metal 3D printing technology that uses laser heating to directly manufacture steel objects without emitting any carbon dioxide. By fully converting iron-oxide ore to iron with green hydrogen, and then 3D printing steel parts in a continuous laser-powered process, Green Steel Printing has the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing of iron and steel parts into a clean, zero-emissions process.

Recipient of the “National Security Special Recognition Award”, sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN).


UC Berkeley, Yale University

Yaw Ansong, Tim Adamson, Song Kim

Sickle Cell Disease is said to affect 30 million people worldwide, including 100,000 people in the United States. For most of the world, it is too expensive to diagnose, leading to unnecessary childhood deaths. Even in high-income countries, SCD 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.

Recipient of the “CDSS Discovery Award”, sponsored by the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society.


UC Riverside

Jordan Smith, Trevor Smith

Donor human milk (DHM) is key to helping infants in neonatal intensive care units grow, fight infection, and thrive. Existing methods of DHM preparation struggle to create products of high nutritional value while remaining affordable for widespread use. LacNation brings a new pasteurization technique to the table that more selectively eliminates pathogens while sparing important nutrients for growth and infection prevention. Moreover, this system has the potential to reduce costs of safe DHM production and allow hospitals to expand coverage to more infants thereby.

Not the Police

UC Berkeley

Marcel Tan, Claire Liu

Data from Californian police departments reveal that up to 2 in 3 police dispatches stem from non-violent and non-criminal incidents. 9-1-1 calls for non-violent incidents in the U.S. 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’s mission is to make calling an alternative first responder as easy as calling 9-1-1. They have built an AI chatbot that connects residents to suitable non-police services for their non-emergency — all within three taps of a button. They aim to reduce exposure to police for at-risk individuals, which can decrease occurrences of police violence and save lives.



Sumita Jonak, Brian D’Souza, Deepa Nagar, Alan Schiaffino,
Aram Babikian, Abhinav Chandra

According to the National Cancer Institute, the cost of cancer care will reach $246B in 2030. NurLabs is transforming the diagnosis and treatment paradigm for cancer through a patented liquid biopsy platform, so we may treat cancer earlier, when survival rates are the greatest and treatment is the least expensive. Our innovation is the nexus of materials science and bioinformatics, bringing a fresh perspective to a $246B problem.



George Shenusay, Jeremy Goldberg, Peibo Guo, Jordan Yanowitz, Johnathon Henderson,

Ethan Choi, Ikuko Nakano, Fischer Scherrod, Ella Winett

The lifespan 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.

ReFuel Technologies

UC Santa Cruz

Preet Kaur, Justin Redmond, Luis De La Palma, Vivian Banh

ReFuel Technologies is centered on producing sustainable chemicals, fuels, and textiles with recovered inputs from PET plastic waste. By generating valuable renewable chemicals and polymers for these markets, ReFuel Technologies will provide sustainable chemical alternatives for companies who have implemented environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies for their operations to address market demand while reducing a critical waste problem facing our society.

Secure-Swap (Beat Medical)

UC Davis

Kalie Marland, David Zalazar

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. The Secure-Swap 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.

Sal-Patch: A Periodontal Microneedle Patch to Treat Periodontitis


Xuexiang Zhang, Crystal Xiao, Mahdi Hasani

Periodontitis, impacting 50 percent of adults in the United States, is a chronic destructive inflammatory disease that affects the tooth-supporting tissues. The current treatments in the market mainly deal with bacteria elimination, and the regeneration of periodontal tissues remains a challenge. Sal-Patch offers a periodontal microarray patch that enhances the local effectiveness and sustainably delivers therapeutics for inhibiting the bacteria growth while modulating immune cell functions. Together, it both repairs the receding gum line and reverses bone degeneration. Periodontitis is especially prevalent in impoverished communities, and Sal-Patch wants to mitigate the issue with its low-cost, accessible dental patch.


UC Santa Barbara

Max Diamond, Waldo Felix, Qusai Bhaijeewala, Wes Newbury

Plagues of purple sea urchins have eradicated 90% percent of Northern California’s kelp habitat, which is a key combatant of climate change. Ranching urchins for their prized roe is an effective removal solution. Unicado will convert this marine pest into a gourmet delicacy as a packaged food product, ranching sea urchins with an upcycled food waste feedstock. This venture can restore balance to California’s kelp forests through sustainable aquaculture production of a delicious and guilt-free uni product that’s carbon neutral. Consuming purple urchin creates a win-win scenario-good for both people and the environment.