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

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
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