Meet the 2023 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists

By Anehita Okojie

Last summer, Louisa Keeler was in her home state of Texas researching ways the government could support survivors of intimate partner violence. Navigating available resources was difficult, “but trying to get those services while going to school, or raising children, or getting to work — that was much more difficult,” Keeler says. Two colleagues, Ruth Ferguson and Sohail Kamdar, also noticed related themes working with survivors of sexual harassment and discrimination, but also ways in which technology could empower individuals to access secure community services. 

The Sepal team (from left): Sohail Kamdar, Louisa Keeler, and Ruth Ferguson (Sepal photo)

Keeler, Ferguson, and Kamdar are all Master of Public Policy students who developed the idea of Sepal, “a simplified, safe haven for finding the care you need by thoughtfully connecting you to knowledgeable providers.” The three, who will graduate this year, had worked on a class project with a couple peers that focused on support for survivors after traumatic events. After the completion of the project, Keeler, Ferguson, and Kamdar all wanted to continue building on the concept and “were encouraged to apply to Big Ideas as a launchpad to engage with our curiosity and energy to create something bigger!” After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Sepal team, who had met in Mark Coopersmith’s social entrepreneurship class, examined the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision from a policy perspective and identified an opportunity to reduce barriers to access healthcare resources. 

Their idea secured them one of the 19 final-round spots in the 2022–23 Big Ideas Contest, UC Berkeley’s flagship social innovation program. This year, the contest received 160 applications from UC Berkeley students and alumni — representing more than 500 students, 80 disciplines, and 15 countries — and addressing pressing social issues in everything from food insecurity to workforce development to social injustice. Of the final-round teams, half of the projects are led by women and half have a URM co-founder. 

Working alongside Big Ideas finalists in the next stage of the competition will be teams from two additional programs that are partnering with the Big Ideas Contest. Four teams from the Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT) “FinTech for Social Good” Initiative are advancing innovations that can unlock the potential of digital financial technologies to benefit underserved populations around the world. This initiative is made possible thanks to the generous support from Binance Charity and Ripple Impact. Six UC Berkeley alumni-led teams will also take part in the final round of Big Ideas through the Mastercard Foundation Alumni Scholars “Impact Fund.” This program, led by the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, supports social innovations anchored in African countries that focus on creating economic opportunities for their communities.

Sisters Nazineen Kandahari (left) and Nilufar Kayhani (right) (Photo by Mohammad Karimzada)

Another Big Ideas finalist, the Sofreh Salamati team, is made up of sisters Nazineen Kandahari (BA) ’17 and (MSc) ’20 and Nilufar Kayhani ’22, as well as Fareha Moulana Zada ’23 and Anisha Chandy ’23. The team came together because of the sisters’ “shared commitment to creating an equitable and inclusive world,” says Kandahari, now at the UC Berkeley–UCSF Joint Medical Program. In 2020, the sisters founded Afghan Clinic, a public health initiative for Afghan people, and Sofreh Salamati is one of the projects that the initiative focuses on. Sofreh Salamati is a novel gathering specifically designed to meet the needs of Afghan refugee women through health education, social networking, and spirituality, addressing misinformation and myths. In the Afghan community, sofrehs are gatherings “held by Afghan women for spiritual, cultural, and social reasons,”  Kandahari says. Sofreh Salamati will host gatherings to pair together cultural traditions with health education to address the needs of refugee communities as they transition to the United States. The team plans on using sofrehs as a public health intervention by bringing Afghan refugee doctors to gatherings who can educate women about healthcare in a way that is tailored to their needs as Afghan women. 

Three of the four Sofreh Salamati team members are Afghan refugee women and their inspiration for the project “comes from living through the journey of being forcibly displaced from our home, establishing life in a new country, and experiencing how many American institutions — political, economic, social, educational, healthcare — are not built to serve everyone equally,” Kandahari says. 

During the pre-proposal application period, the Big Idea Contest provided teams with resources such as entrepreneurship skill development workshops, team-building and networking opportunities, and startup advising. The finalists, who emerged from an extensive review by a network of over 150 experts from academia, industry, and the startup community, will receive ongoing support, including personalized mentorship.

In Sepal’s case, this contributes to its goal of connecting and empowering users with navigable healthcare options to identify and address traumatic experiences. The platform’s trauma-informed approach helps users figure out the first step in their healthcare journey by connecting them to knowledgable providers. Users are presented with questions on what health issues they want to address. Based on the information provided, Sepal presents them with tailored resources that are both available and accessible. On the other side, Sepal gathers information from providers such as health clinics and social workers and shares this information on its platform, allowing users to make informed decisions about their health. 

Sepal, Sofreh Salamati, and the other finalists have been paired with mentors who will support the development of their ideas during this last stage of the competition. In addition to mentorship, teams will have access to feedback, networking opportunities, and resources. The Sepal crew found the Big Ideas competition rewarding because of its relationships with its mentor, Olivia Nava, an Oakland-based design, strategy, and organizational development consultant, as well as its existing network, “who have taken the initiative and time to give us feedback and thought partnership.” The three have worked closely with Nava; their advisor, Bay Area entrepreneur Bilal Mahmood; and social entrepreneurship professor, Mark Coopersmith, to fully conceptualize the Sepal platform. 

“Coming into Big Ideas we knew our greatest challenge would be building the business side of our ideas,” the team says. By engaging with their mentors, along with feedback from both healthcare providers and individuals, the team has been able to combat challenges, and through the contest, they’ve found a supportive and encouraging community and critical resources needed to build their knowledge base and gain confidence to create their product. 

“The most fun part of this competition was reading the judge’s feedback!” says Sofreh Salamati’s Nilufar Kayhani. “Since the judges are from varying professional backgrounds, it was nice to have perspectives outside of medicine and public health on our project to promote health broadly.”

This year’s Grand Prize Pitch Day and Award Celebration will be May 3 at UC Berkeley’s Blum Hall (RSVP Here!)

The 2022–23 UC Big Ideas Program Finalists:

2ndWind - Inclusive Ownership Transition for SMBs

Big Ideas Finalist

LIFT "FinTech for Social Good" Initiative Finalist

In the US, there are 70 million baby boomers who own 2.34 million Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs) in the country, employing more than 25 million people. Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy and have generated 64% of new jobs annually. Unfortunately, up to 70% of current owners will not be able to sell their businesses when they are ready. The large number of retiring owners, coupled with the uncertainty of successful exits, poses a threat to millions of jobs and jeopardizes the owners’ safety net for a comfortable retirement. 2ndWind aims to create a more efficient platform to facilitate SMBs’ transitions, helping retiring owners achieve their retirement’s goals, whilst continuing the creation of job opportunities and prevent layoffs associated with SMB closures.

Birth By Us

Big Ideas Finalist

The US is currently in a maternal health crisis. Even though 84% of maternal deaths in the US are preventable, the maternal mortality rate steadily rises, disproportionately affecting Black people who are currently 3-4 times more likely to die in childbirth compared to their White counterparts. Birth By Us is an innovative technology that provides comprehensive check-ins at sequential points in pregnancy and postpartum through quality questionnaires that give Black birthing people personalized health insights and top-tier, culturally responsive, and Black–specific resources. Upon completion of each questionnaire, the app analyzes and uncovers users’ top concerns, yielding tailored visit preparation and recommended resources. In addition to this, Birth By Us plans to include auxiliary healthcare providers such as doulas, lactation consultants, etc. to help mothers build their best, holistic care team. With this, BBU empowers Black mothers and birthing people to shape their birthing experience while giving providers and hospital systems the necessary insights to best support their birth. We intend to expand to other marginalized populations to help everyone achieve their best birthing experience.

BlackPrint Technologies

Big Ideas Finalist

As cities expand, keeping up to date records of properties becomes harder and harder. Municipal governments simply don’t have the infrastructure to maintain accurate and timely geospatial data to help them carry out public services. Current methods for land mapping require costly airplane flights, complex drones, expensive LiDar equipment, and a team of geospatial analysts to parse the complex information into usable data. This is why BlackPrint created mapping-as-a-service, a subscription based product that allows municipalities to obtain the most up to date information about their land on a yearly basis. All of this while maintaining low costs, rapid delivery times, and seamless integration into current softwares. The BlackPrint team leverages computer vision algorithms to extract 3D building footprints from satellite imagery, essentially creating a digital twin of the terrain from across the world.

Café con Cariño

Big Ideas Finalist

Café con Cariño is a specialty coffee business and hub dedicated to carving a new path within the coffee industry by creating opportunities for economic freedom for migrants and BIPOC workers. We have identified three significant hurdles that impact the entry of BIPOC individuals into the coffee business–a toxic food service industry, overrepresentation of white leadership, and a business landscape that prioritizes profit over creativity. We will address these hurdles by curating an experience predicated on 1) worker collaboration, 2) educational and literacy building, and 3) culinary experimentation to ensure that immigrant and BIPOC workers are allowed the opportunity to cultivate comprehensive skills in the foodservice industry. The Café Hub will host a comprehensive support network for rising service industry professionals by facilitating direct access to industry specific skills-building, legal advice, and knowledge shares that are focused on empowering individuals to lead, innovate, and push for a cultural shift in the industry.


Big Ideas Finalist

Protein therapies are front and center of medical treatments with over 80 drugs approved worldwide and over 170 in active clinical development. Downstream processing of protein products accounts for 50 – 80% of the total cost of production, with a large portion of expenses going towards the protein extraction process. With the protein production industry currently valued at $284.5 billion, there is a demand for a cheaper, more sustainable, and energy-efficient alternative. Using genetic engineering, Cellyse proposes a novel lytic technology which offers researchers and fermentation companies a way to extract recombinant proteins with only water. Our technology can expand biologics production through its ease of use and nontrivial cost reductions—paving the way for more affordable and equitable healthcare globally. Beyond optimizing extraction, our genetic construct also allows for valuable nutrients otherwise lost in purification to be recycled in the fermentation process, eliminating waste from over 255 million liters of cell culture media annually.

Comenta Care

Big Ideas Finalist

Dementia is one of the costliest conditions for society. Last year, $321 billion was spent in the US on dementia healthcare, 3x more per person than someone without dementia. One in three caregivers suffers from depression which is 7x more prevalent than the general population. This problem will only continue to grow as the number of Americans living with dementia doubles by 2050. Although the market has several potential solutions, all of them fail to effectively reach and engage caregivers. Comenta Care reimagines dementia care by providing dementia care coaching to family caregivers as a service in partnership with clinicians. They leverage a telemedicine model built around trained dementia care coaches backed by a core clinical team of dementia specialists. By doing so, Comenta Care hopes to change the current paradigm of care that leaves families feeling overwhelmed with nowhere to turn and clinicians feeling helpless with finite resources and limited time.


Big Ideas Finalist

While Endometriosis, a chronic disease that causes aberrant endometrial-like tissue growth outside of the uterine cavity, affects more than 200 million women worldwide and can lead to severe symptoms impacting reproductive health, the current diagnostic methods available are primarily invasive and costly, making the diagnostic inaccessible to women in pain. EndoDetect team sought to create a novel, noninvasive diagnostic for endometriosis using menstrual effluent that can both qualitatively and quantitatively measure the presence of these biomarkers in menstrual effluent. In addition, a predictive model to predict the likelihood that a patient has endometriosis based on demographic data and clinical symptoms will be developed based on the data gathered. The team works with gynecological and endometriosis specialists, menstrual cup and endometriosis foundation corporate representatives, endometriosis advocates, local K12 teachers, and college professors to create educational materials and tools to raise people’s awareness of such disease.

Engineering Probiotics for Combating Vitamin A Deficiency

Big Ideas Finalist

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is one of the leading contributors to malnutrition around the world, causing blindness, stunted physical and mental development, and disease vulnerability. South Asia has one of the highest rates of VAD in the world, especially among children and pregnant mothers. Vitamin A supplementation has been cited as one of the most effective ways to combat VAD, but current methods, including high-dose injections every 6 months, dietary diversification, daily vitamin A supplements, and biofortification of crops, fall short because of a lack of strict government regulation and cultural incompatibility. This team’s yogurt-based, engineered probiotic starter is able to integrate into the existing culture of South Asia, increasing the likelihood of adherence and giving families power over their own nutrition. Once consumed, the engineered probiotic, S. boulardii, will continuously synthesize the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene in the gut, providing constant supplementation to vulnerable populations and reducing the need for government intervention.

Enjuba Initiative

Big Ideas Finalist

Seventy-four percent of Uganda’s population is under the age of 30. Many of the youth are idle, waiting for work to come their way. It does not! By 2021, 41% of the youth were neither employed nor in education training, and the unemployment rate was 17%. Youth employment in Uganda is mainly attributed to limited education, which leads to a critical skills gap and mismatch between the workforce and schools, negative attitudes towards specific types of work, and general factors related to poverty and inequalities. management. Enjuba initiative aims at using a savings approach as an alternative to address some of these challenges. Enjuba initiative aims at socio-economic empowerment among youth of all genders. The initiative will bridge the skills gap and enhance young people’s competitiveness through vocational skills development, mentorship, social capital development, partnerships with local businesses, entrepreneurship, and digital skills. Participants will be introduced to business management and social capital development skills, thereby enabling them to establish and expand the market for their businesses.


Big Ideas Finalist

There are two main issues affecting bee survival today. Varroa mite, a parasite which is difficult and laborious to detect and treat, and climate change, causing more drastic temperatures and temperature changes, making winter survival more difficult for bees. These issues have caused a year-over-year population declines of 40-50% in bee colonies, a far greater number than the 30% of decades prior. HexaHive aims to solve these problems by utilizing technology to empower beekeepers and help them fight against these issues decimating bee populations. HexaHive will easily integrate into existing beehives and beekeeping practices and utilize novel technologies to detect varroa mite, monitor internal hive metrics, including temperature, and have climate control systems to warm or cool hives as necessary. Through the use of HexaHive, both seasoned and novice beekeepers will have a greater degree of control and understanding of what happens in their hives, leading to greater bee survival.

High Tide Coatings

Big Ideas Finalist

Over 7 million tons of plastic-coated paper are produced annually. Nearly all of which is destined for landfill. Paper can be recycled up to 25 times, but when it’s coated in plastic to protect against leakage, it is not compostable or recyclable. High Tide aims to solve this pervasive problem by producing a bio-based coating from renewable resources that enables compostability and recyclability at end of life. High Tide is designing materials for current and future waste management systems. Its coatings will comply with existing recycling and composting infrastructure, as well as degrade harmlessly in natural ecosystems and landfills. High Tide’s long-term vision is to be a leading material company helping move the world away from petroleum-based plastics. A successful future will be one where highly recyclable and degradable materials like paper can replace plastic packaging, and be discarded in blue AND green waste bins.


Big Ideas Finalist

In India, three out of every five individuals are victims of groundwater contamination. 67% of rural Indian households do not have the wherewithal to treat their drinking water owing to financial constraints. Only 21% of the population living in major cities can afford a safe and clean passage to drinking water. The current solutions prevalent are either wells and piped drinking water from government institutions, bottled water jars, or RO water purifiers. Paanio is a $1 water purifier that uses graphene-based nanotechnology-enabled 5-stage dual purification to remove microbial contaminants, heavy metals, fluorides, and other organic/inorganic pollutants. Inspired by a simple bottle cap, Paanio is ultra-portable and extremely easy to use. Paanio’s non-electric purification mechanism purifies over 75 liters of groundwater for just a dollar, or less than Rs 1/liter. Paanio is an inexpensive and easily maintainable solution that can result in filtered groundwater for over 70% of rural India.

Parity Lab

Big Ideas Finalist

Systemic inequities manifesting through language, caste, geography, religion, and literacy have kept powerful women leaders across rural India from accessing resources to end violence in their own communities. One in three women faces violence in her lifetime. 50-67% of Dalit and Indigenous women in rural India, one of the most oppressed group of women in the world, face sexual violence. Parity Lab is an innovative community accelerator for rural women-led organizations that foster community-driven solutions to end gender-based violence. Parity Lab is an embedded support system that provides capacity building, coaching and community for 1.5 years. Parity Lab aims to support grassroot organizations through Organization Capacity Building (Fundraising; Data; Communications), trauma-informed coaching in local languages for founding teams, and access to a subscription-based 24*7 legal helpline


Big Ideas Finalist

Whether looking for personal, sensitive reproductive care or crisis support, there is a need for an easy-to-use platform that helps you connect to the care you need. Sepal is a helping hand that guides and empowers you through everything from navigating healthcare options to identifying and addressing a traumatic experience. Its trauma-informed approach meets users where they are, and doesn’t require them to have the answers before getting started. Sepal doesn’t begin by asking, “What do you want to do about this?” Instead, it says, “Let’s figure out our first step.” In a sea of confusing and overwhelming information, Sepal is a simplified, safe haven for finding the care you need by thoughtfully connecting you to knowledgeable providers. Its mission to assist care seekers and providers alike makes it a valuable tool for the entire market.

Sofreh Salamati

Big Ideas Finalist

Despite the large and increasing population of forcibly displaced Afghan immigrants in the U.S., there is limited information about their health status and health service utilization. Among this already marginalized population, women are at a higher risk for worse health outcomes given their unique sociocultural barriers to health and healthcare. With over 66,000 Afghan immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area as of 2019, there is an unaddressed need to ensure Afghan women are supported with attaining health and obtaining healthcare services in the U.S. Sofreh Salamati is a novel gathering, designed specifically to meet the needs of Afghan refugee women and created by Afghan refugee women. With our initiative, we facilitate health education and the health benefits of spirituality, address pervasive misinformation and cultural myths, and uplift the strengths that Afghan women already have. As a result, Sofreh Salamati will address practical and sociocultural barriers to healthcare and empower women to feel confident in imagining, seeking, and maintaining good health.


Big Ideas Finalist

SurMice aims to facilitate closer collaboration between universities and zoos by using surplus lab mice as “feeder mice” for zoos in order to cut costs, resource waste, and energy usage for both parties. It is focused on the development of a platform that can standardize this practice across multiple universities, rather than isolated instances of partnerships. This larger platform allows for more detailed matching of prospects and rerouting mice in the event of a supply issue. It also allows other institutions to get involved more easily, potentially averting some portion of the 18,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gasses released in 2011 from a singular Boehringer Ingelheim facility in Connecticut, or the 15 tons of animal waste produced by a single Novus Pharmaceutical facility in 2011. SurMice’s goal is to help educational institutions and wildlife centers undercut the abusive practices of the billion dollar feeder mouse industry, while curtailing lab related biological waste.

The Impact Collective

Big Ideas Finalist

More than 85% of social enterprises shut down within the first three years of operation. A major reason for this is limited access to specialized technical expertise and talent, which is essential in the initial, crucial stages of developing a solution. Emerging and early stage social enterprises either lack the required resources or direct them to other pressing needs to stay afloat. These services are costly largely due to the need for highly skilled and technically trained people. This results in institutional and operational hurdles, and limited growth for these impact organizations. Simultaneously, there is a rapidly growing pool of students and industry professionals looking for social sector learning opportunities. The Impact Collective harnesses this opportunity and embodies the value of building a network and ecosystem for collective action – the collective mobilizes and matches students and industry professionals with social enterprises who have technical needs. It brings together industry professionals, domain experts, and students from various disciplines and technical areas to form interdisciplinary technical consulting teams to serve impact organizations for social change.


Big Ideas Finalist

Farmers in poor countries such as in sub-Saharan Africa tend to have low incomes for reasons that are outside of their control. These problems will only grow more difficult in the coming years, as climate change, urbanization, and growing populations combine to increase demand for food while putting more burden on the suppliers. While many different solutions will be needed to address these problems, they all have a common denominator: they must make farmers more productive, whether by increasing access to capital, technology, or know-how. Poultry is an under-exploited path to prosperity for farmers around the world. To address this gap, Umodzi—a for-profit social enterprise—provides off-grid, turn-key poultry hatcheries to agricultural co-ops, starting in rural Malawi. Umodzi finances and sources startup capital (such as solar panels, batteries, and incubators); trains the co-ops in standard operating procedures; markets and sells the poultry; and shares revenue with the co-ops. In addition, other benefits include clean drinking water for the co-op and the surrounding community, cooking gas, women empowerment, and a nutritious source of food.


Big Ideas Finalist

Constraints on the availability of electric power limit the number of vehicles that can be deployed at one location by EV fleets. Commercial properties pay demand charges based on the fifteen minute period of highest power consumption each month, which determines 30-70% of their power bill. As a result, there are substantial barriers to EV charging at multifamily residences. By using a proprietary, AI-based charging scheduler and advanced charging hardware, WattConnect delivers energy savings when the power grid is most reliant on expensive, nonrenewable energy, then pays EV owners for providing power from their batteries back to the building during times of peak demand. WattConnect promotes transportation equity by providing a revenue stream for EV drivers that offset the higher costs of EVs relative to gasoline vehicles. At the same time, WattConnect facilitates the transition to renewable energy by reducing the strain of EV charging on the power grid.