Abigail Woolf was reading a research paper in her AI for Healthcare class about the success of a convolutional neural network — artificial neurons used to analyze visual imagery — that could detect referable diabetic retinopathy, a preventable but major cause of blindness around the world. The paper impressed her, but it was mum on actually utilizing an algorithm with so much potential in clinical settings. “I asked in class why the technology hadn’t been deployed,” said the UC Berkeley Master of Development Engineering student, “and the professor said that it was complicated to standardize the data and processes behind everything.”
Her aunt, who has diabetes, has to make frequent treks to the doctor’s office to get her eyes checked. Woolf also knew there were cheap lenses that could be attached to iPhones for use in clinical settings. What if she could combine these powerful algorithms for detecting diabetic retinopathy — which can be more accurate than doctors — with these lenses that diabetics could use at home? It would save folks like her aunt time and money, while allowing ophthalmologists to spend more time on treating cases and less on diagnostics. Woolf, a member of Berkeley’s Health Tech CoLab, envisions “a data/camera package that can be sold or donated as a single unit to clinics for automated DR diagnostics.”
The idea earned a final-round spot in the 2022 Big Ideas competition. Of the nearly 200 pre-proposal applications that were received in November from students across every campus of the UC system, sixteen projects were selected from a diverse portfolio of innovations spanning a variety of social impact tracks, including global health, food and agriculture, financial inclusion, energy and resources, education and literacy, cities and communities, data and AI, and art and social change. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC San Diego, and UC San Francisco all have projects in the finals. Half of the team leads for the finalist projects identify as female. A quarter of the projects are led by undergrads.
During the pre-proposal application period, students had access to a vast array of resources, including information sessions, entrepreneurial skill development workshops, a Big Ideas Alumni speaker series, drop-in advising hours with Big Ideas staff members, and industry networking and feedback opportunities.
“Big Ideas forced me to take a perspective and commit to a solution,” said finalist Divya Menon, a grad student at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the founder of Maiden, a trading application for single-family home equity. Maiden seeks to make full and affordable homeownership possible to middle-income people by combining property laws with financial practices to isolate the speculative market from homeownership.
That speculative market “operates like a shadow market built on imaginary numbers because speculators base their bidding on predicted values, not actual ones,” she said. “Those of us in the real world are competing with the algorithmic imaginations of permanent-wealth speculators.”
She faced this problem a few years ago, when she was looking to buy a house on the Westside of Los Angeles, where she worked. “I could not afford to live in the very place in which my effort and money kept the economy thriving,” she recalled.
Working with Big Ideas program manager Karenna Rehorn helped her turn her findings and research into a practical idea. Contest director Phillip Denny connected her to Saira Qureshi, solution leader at McKinsey & Company, who led her to a more efficient product angle, and to past Big Ideas winner PJ O’Neil, co-founder of Nomad. “As a solo founder, getting to lean on the Big Ideas staff and their network helped me develop this as though I had an all-star co-founder team,” Menon said.
“Being thrown into this ecosystem of innovation, creativity, and competition encouraged us to focus on our social impact, continue to learn how to best develop and present our innovation, and have fun along the way,” said Daniel Haik, a medical student at UC Irvine who’s collaborating with Dr. Marina Tandoh and Abigail Appiah from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana to study how turkey berries can be used to address iron-deficiency anemia, a major cause of sickness and death in adolescent girls in lower- and middle-income countries. “The Big Ideas environment provided us with the perfect blend of autonomy and support: We received invaluable mentorship from experts in the field, such as Dr. Julia Schaletzky, and cultivated not just a motivation for scientific rigor but also an inspiration of the positive social change that a well-developed initiative can impact on the world around us.”
A network of experts from academia, industry, and the venture community undertook an extensive review process to narrow down the field to sixteen very impressive finalists who are on their way to translating their Big Ideas into action.
Now, the sixteen teams will be paired with industry mentors who can support the development of their projects during the final round period from mid-February through mid-April. They will also have access to additional skill-development resources and opportunities for feedback and networking. Winners will be announced in May — with awards ranging from $5,000 to the Grand Prize of $20,000.
Menon’s looking to test her model with an institutional partner like a local government or bank. Haik plans a second, larger trial of distributing turkey berry-fortified biscuits in Ghana. Throughout this final-round period, Woolf will continue her research and look for partners for her diagnostic innovation. She’s reaching out to some of the researchers who worked on that paper from her AI for Healthcare class and asking them why the algorithm “hasn’t been deployed in the wild.”
“I am waiting for someone to tell me, ‘this idea is impossible because…’” Woolf said. “But until then, I will believe that it is possible.”
The 2021–22 UC Big Ideas Contest finalists:
Algeon Materials: Sustainable bioplastics from kelp
UC San Diego
Algeon Materials is on a mission to fight climate change and reduce plastic pollution. Plastic manufacturing contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution is a serious threat to the environment. 90% of petroleum-based plastics have never been recycled and can take up to 500 years to degrade. Companies need access to materials that help them meet their business needs (mechanical properties, ESG goals, consumer desire), plastics manufacturers need access to a reliable material supply that works with their existing machinery, and consumers want products that don’t pollute the environment. Algeon Materials is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Kelp, a macroalgae, has properties that lend themselves to plastic creation. Kelp is the ideal solution because it’s a regenerative resource and farming it requires virtually zero inputs: no land, fresh water, or fertilizer. This solution supports 7 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Unemployment for those living with Autism — at 85% — is a significant barrier that many are unaware of. Such individuals have a difficult time joining the workforce because of a mix of social-emotional skills and sensitivities. Yet, the adaptable device industry for assisting those on the spectrum remains outdated and clearly ineffective, especially for those with noise sensitivity — affecting 65% of the population. ASD Independence seeks to help those with Autism in the work environment by creating a personalized glassware device that alleviates noise sensitivity. By capturing the voiceprint of a customer or any person that is conversed with, the adaptable device can mitigate environmental noises, so anyone with noise sensitivities does not experience the anxiety and other effects that come with hearing. Compared to the current solution of earmuffs and headphones, ASDI can be used in numerous settings where a conversational focus is prioritized.
Black Girls Dreaming: Imaginations, Futurity, and Possibility Beyond
Black Girls Dreaming is a multimodal sensory art installation that epitomizes the value of art for social change. The installation brings to life the multiple and often contradictory experiences of Black girls. It is a place for Black girls to hear, see, smell, taste, and witness their own lived experiences. As suicide rates among Black girls continue to rise we are compelled to create this space as a communal healing space for Black girls and allies to join us in our efforts to make the world a more livable and safe place for all Black girls. Further, this silent art exhibit features interactive art rooms exploring topics related to the multiple experiences of Black girlhood. Each room in the exhibit is a carefully created space that features the art work of Black girls across the African Diaspora.
Confidence: Smartphone Data for Brain Injury Recovery
Every year, millions of people suffer brain injuries, yet diagnosis and treatment guidance is limited by traditional healthcare options. Confidence aims to improve the experience of brain injury patients and healthcare professionals by using a patient’s smartphone data to provide optimized and personalized care. After a suspected or known brain injury, healthcare professionals will direct patients to download the Confidence application to their smartphones, which will allow the application to locally access and analyze the patient’s data to analyze for changes correlated to brain injury, such as cognition, mobility, emotional stability, and general activity. A summary of this information will be provided to the healthcare team so it can be used to assist in diagnosis and guide treatment options. Ultimately, Confidence will give each patient customized rehabilitation that increases their recovery and opportunities to continue thriving in their community.
Diabetic Retinopathy Detection with Machine Learning
Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a major cause of blindness globally, even though it is completely preventable. Currently, DR is diagnosed through retinal images, taken at regular expensive intervals, and manually evaluated by an ophthalmologist. These check ups are non negotiable for healthy vision, and DR prevention for diabetics. This is where AI can help save time and cut costs. There exist numerous machine learning algorithms that accurately, sometimes more accurately than the doctor, identify and diagnose DR from photos. There also exist small, cheap iPhone attachable lenses that can take photos in clinical settings. There is currently a disconnect between these two available technologies. When combined, the ophthalmologist can be freed from diagnostics, allowing them to focus on treating existing cases of eye disease. This innovation will be a data/camera package that can be sold or donated as a single unit to clinics for automated DR diagnostics.
Fluency: AI-Powered Speech Therapy for Every Child
Traditional speech therapy is often implemented years after a child starts speaking and has been diagnosed with a speech disorder, rather than aiming for early intervention and ameliorating a speech disorder immediately. For many families, traditional speech therapy is inaccessible, whether it be due to financial constraints or inaccessibility to therapists familiar with their dialect (ie AAVE). Without speech therapy, children can suffer from a diverse host of social issues and problems later in life with job interviews, communication, and academic success. Fluency aims to mitigate these issues by offering affordable, AI-powered speech therapy that adapts to the needs of every child. Through Hidden Markov Modeling and Neural Networks, Fluency can both keep a child’s attention and accurately diagnose a disorder versus a simple pronunciation issue. Fluency has the potential to change the lives of millions of children, and promote equitable speech therapy for every child.
Food Powered Cooler (FPC) to Preserve Fresh Foods for Markets in Kampala Metropolitan Area
About 37.8% of food produce is lost at Kampala markets before reaching the end-consumer. This is partly due to improper storage and preservation methods, where market vendors currently store their fresh food produce in wooden cabinets, which don’t have a cooling element to curb the short shelf-life enigma of fresh produce. The existing electricity or fuel powered refrigerators cannot be implemented at Kampala markets due to the operating costs, which cannot be afforded by the market vendors. Also, solar-powered refrigerators cannot be adopted due to their unreliability while it’s raining or at night, and have questionable power requirements to suffice the large market. Hence, FPC is the proposed solution, which uses energy from the footsteps of people at markets to power the coolers, which increases the shelf life of food without any operation cost requirement (fuel or electricity) — and hence, reduces food wastage at market level.
Intelligent Soil Carbon Assessment Network (iScan): An Unmanned System Based Mobile Sensing Solution
Our big idea is to develop a low-cost, fast reaction, quantification method of sensing soil carbon in practice. The overall goal of this proposal is to determine the biochar being used in a site-specific agricultural application in order to mitigate GHG emissions, using a mobile platform to enlarge the detection range for monitoring carbon emissions in practice. Furthermore, our goal is to improve the quality of life in low-income and disadvantaged farming and adjacent communities and to use it as a sustainable best practice for California agriculture.
In growing metros, 20% of homes are bought by someone who never moves in — institutional speculative buyers who buy for the sake of trade alone. Millennials cannot keep up with the home price increases generated by speculative buying, forcing Gen Y to compete in low-income housing markets for shelter. That pressure contributes to a growing homelessness crisis to the extent that some local governments have begun implementing middle-income housing programs typically reserved for low-income housing. Maiden is a trading application for single-family home equity that blends property laws with financial practices to isolate the speculative market from homeownership, providing housing affordability and full homeownership access to middle-income classes. By focusing on down payments and utilizing a contract type known as a tenancy-in-common to split-off speculative buying from an income-adjusted home value, Maiden provides affordable, accessible homeownership for middle-income, Millennial urbanites — taking us from American decay to the American dream.
Every year, 120 billion single-use cups enter the landfill in the US alone, 45% of which are paper coffee cups. Meanwhile, the number of coffee shops in the US has grown 16% percent between 2012 and 2017, speaking to the growing demand for to-go cups contributing to the climate crisis. MatterCup is a deposit-based, circular-use system for coffee to-go that replaces the single-use cup with a reusable alternative, rendering the disposable cup obsolete. Customers can order their coffee to-go in a reusable cup for a $1 deposit, enjoy their coffee on-the-go, and then drop off the empty cup at any partner location to get their $1 deposit back. By using MatterCup, coffee shops save money after only 35 to-go coffees sold per day and position themselves as sustainable and innovative trailblazers, as every MatterCup prevents the waste of 1000 single-use cups from entering the landfill and harming our planet.
MediRoller Vaccine Applicator
Over the past 20 years, vaccinations have prevented over 2 million deaths. This triumph, however, has not been a panacea. Today, 1 million children in low- and middle-income countries continue to die from vaccine-preventable diseases each year. This inequality is largely fueled by technical challenges surrounding the administration of vaccines using hypodermic needles. The MEDiRoller, consists of a novel, handle applicator, containing a spring-loaded delivery system and one of our two types of single-use polymeric microneedle cartridges. The two types of cartridges include a novel cartridge containing a hexagonal solid microneedle roller, that can raster across skin to treat larger surface areas, as well as a MNP cartridge containing a sterile biomedical sponge for sterile vaccine or drug containment and loading, followed by delivery through hollow microneedles. This Big Idea, if successfully developed, will revolutionize vaccine and drug delivery in low-resource communities.
MyAriel Health: Comprehensive Oral Health App for Special Needs Population
UC San Francisco
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that approximately 15% of the global population (1 billion people) have some form of long-term functional disability. People with disabilities or special needs tend to receive less oral health care, or of lower quality, than the general population. We want to innovate the delivery of oral hygiene intervention to fit the needs of the patients with special needs. We propose MyAriel Health, an integrated easy-to-access mobile application combined with an intraoral scanner for patients and their caregivers. With MyAriel, we believe proper oral health management at home will improve quality of life of the patients and their caregivers in a number of ways, such as halting or reversing the progression of existing dental conditions, lowering the costs of future treatments, and minimizing trauma from invasive procedures.
Plant-Based Solution To Anemia
Iron-Deficiency Anemia is the major cause of illness and death in adolescent girls in developing countries, weakening an already vulnerable population and contributing to the cycle of poverty and gender inequality. Unfortunately, attempts to address iron-deficiency anemia in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are often limited by bottlenecks in access, distribution, and community and cultural acceptance. These issues commonly bring well-funded, national-scale global public health initiatives to a halt. By utilizing naturally growing turkey berries, this initiative mobilizes a ubiquitously accessible, culturally integrated, and uniquely bioavailable plant-based iron supplementation solution to address iron-deficiency anemia in LMICs. In a first-of-its-kind randomized-controlled trial held in Ahafo, Ghana, turkey berry–fortified biscuits outperformed UNICEF’s nationwide initiative by a factor of triple, six times faster, and at a cost of roughly US$15 per adolescent girl over a month and a half.
ProtoCem: Zero emissions cement manufacturing
Portland cement concrete is the most widely used man-made material in the world and its production is responsible for 8% of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions. Hence it is of paramount importance to reduce these emissions to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change. The traditional process of cement manufacturing involves the use of fossil fuels to process limestone which generates large amounts of greenhouse gases. Using electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind, it is possible to convert limestone into calcium hydroxide in a device called an electrolyzer. In the further stages of processing, the use of calcium hydroxide completely eliminates CO2 emissions. The electrolyzer also generates high-value gases like hydrogen and other hydrocarbons which are widely used in industry. This technology has tremendous potential to transform cement and chemical manufacturing into a carbon-free, zero-emissions industry.
Rapid Manufacturing of 3D Cell Culture for Vaccine Development
The worldwide outbreak of Covid-19 has resulted in the deaths of over five million people and changed modern life forever. Experts warn that another pandemic is likely and that rapid vaccine development is crucial for preventing another mass loss of life. There are two major challenges in vaccine production and distribution. First, vaccines are usually grown in suboptimal 2D cell culture, and the growth of large quantities of vaccines takes months. Second, it is difficult to transport the virus culture from lab to lab and have the cells survive. New technology developed by researchers at UC Berkeley has the potential to overcome these challenges and thus accelerate virus research and vaccine development. The technology combines 3D printing and freezing to create a ready-to-use 3D cell culture product that can be easily shipped all over the world.
The Curbside Spa
Hygiene is one of the many problems the 160,000 people experiencing homelessness in California face on a daily basis. There are fewer than 15 public showers available to the public for only a few hours a week in the Bay Area. Recently, the East Bay Municipal Utility District approved the use of hydrant meters for non-commercial purposes, allowing metered access to water hydrants for unhoused individuals and families. Using these hydrants, the Curbside Spa will provide private showers within the dimensions of a parking space. By deploying an easy to use kit of shower parts, we can utilize Oakland’s 30,000 hydrants to bring dignity to the homeless population.