UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas Contest Builds Student-Led Social Innovations

Kira Erickson and Ivan Jayapurna, Founders of High Tide, were awarded the 2022-2023 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Grand Prize of $10,000.

By K.J. Bannan

Paige Balcom (2nd from left) and members of the Takataka Plastics team

Paige Balcom, the co-founder, co-CEO and CTO of Takataka Plastics, is changing Uganda — one plastic bottle at a time. 

In 2017, Balcom, who earned her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, was settling into campus life after spending a year in Uganda on a Fulbright research grant. Only a month into her first semester, Balcom heard about the Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest, which encourages and empowers students to solve social issues. She knew she wanted to get involved, but was initially stumped for a meaningful idea. While talking to her father about potential research topics, however, he reminded her about the pollution problems they had both witnessed in Gulu, Uganda. Plastic waste is a significant problem there, affecting the environment, people, and ecosystems, she says. 

“The streets are full of trash — full of plastic waste — and a lot of it was burned too, creating soot and air pollution and toxic fumes. I wanted to make sure that Ugandans also thought it was a problem, so I started talking to some Ugandan friends. They agreed that plastic waste is a really big issue,” Balcom explains. Once she found the problem she wanted to solve, she formed a team with other students on campus. “We went to the library one Saturday morning less than a week before the Big Ideas proposal was due, and just sat there for hours doing a brainstorming session,” she adds.  

The beginnings of Takataka Plastics came together during that long Saturday among the stacks. The team came up with a company name, Trash to Tiles, and envisioned a process where polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles — the kind used for bottling water and soda — would be transformed into usable products such as building tiles and furniture. The process would also aid people in the community by creating jobs and income. 

Although Balcom had participated in other student contests as an undergraduate, the year-long Big Ideas Contest was unlike anything she had done in the past, she says. 

“The Big Ideas Contest really helped set the foundation for a lot of the initial ideas of Takataka,” she explains. “The frameworks and the processes that we went through in the application really pushed us to make rapid prototypes, get feedback from potential customers, do surveys, test the market, formulate a business plan. It really helped accelerate the prototyping process and turn our idea into a viable business.” 

Today, Takataka Plastics employs 45 full-time staffers and 200 part-time plastic collectors in the community. It is the only company in Uganda that locally recycles PET bottles at scale, making a huge difference in the quality of life for Ugandan people. More than 75 tonnes of plastic waste have been diverted from the environment and about a million people have been educated about sustainable waste management practices. Just as important, she says, is that the entire end-to-end process — from collection to new product creation to sales — happens within the city of Gulu. 

“It’s a circular solution where the waste is collected, processed into products, and sold all within the same community,” Balcom says. “We keep all the value-add local so it benefits the local economy and creates more jobs.”

A History of Access and Inclusion

Balcom’s experience is a textbook example of the social innovation that the Big Ideas ecosystem catalyzes. 

The contest itself was launched on the UC Berkeley campus in 2006 with a founding mission to support students looking to create social change. While that initial charge still holds true today, the contest has evolved dramatically over the past 18 years. Big Ideas, once a small, single-semester white paper competition, has grown into an academic year-long ecosystem that provides an array of invaluable resources to aspiring student innovators. “We have learned a great deal about how to best support the ambitions of students who seek to develop technologies, services, and programs that have the potential to make a positive impact on the world,” explains Phillip Denny, the director of the Big Ideas Contest. 

As a result of annual student surveys and continuous reflection, Big Ideas has expanded its portfolio of activities to include skill development workshops, a social innovator speaker series, comprehensive feedback on applications, one-on-one advising, industry mentorship, and team building opportunities for all students. “Our goal today is to increase and diversify the number of students who want to use their energy and talent to make a difference in the world,” says Denny. “Anyone can think of themselves as an innovator, whereas not everyone considers themselves to be an entrepreneur. Big Ideas is a domain where anyone — from the classic business school entrepreneur to the performing arts innovator — can tap into the resources necessary to pursue their vision for positive social change.” 

“Anyone can solve a problem,” Steven Horowitz, Ph.D., principal of Ovidian Group, agrees. “We are getting students and big ideas from all departments,” says Horowitz, who volunteers as a judge and is a mentor for second-round contestants. “You can get an MBA, you can get an engineer, get someone in psychology, social work — really anybody with a big idea.”

Over the years, Big Ideas has intentionally developed how it serves students casting a lens of inclusivity and accessibility. From student outreach to workshop selection, to the eight categories it supports, which include a range of topics to appeal to everyone – from Art & Social Change to Global Health to Financial Inclusion and more, there’s something here for everyone. This approach has fostered one of the largest and most diverse innovation ecosystems in the country. 

In a typical year, Big Ideas receives approximately 300 applications representing more than 1,000 students from over 100 different majors across campus. More than 65 percent of participants are undergraduates and half are women, and combined they hail from more than 35 countries. When it first launched about 60 percent of all the entries were coming from engineering or business students. Now, although those two majors comprise between 30 and 40 percent of contestants, applications come in from all over the campus including journalism, dance, natural resources, and nutritional science majors. 

“From the beginning, our focus has been on catalyzing new types of innovators and reframing the definition of ‘the typical entrepreneur,’” says Denny.  “We wanted to get students from all across campus on the path of advancing social good earlier in their academic careers because it doesn’t take a Ph.D. or 30 years in industry in order to do something meaningful.” 

A Successful Methodology: From Ideation to Implementation

There are two distinct phases in the Big Ideas program. During the pre-proposal application period, which takes place during the fall semester, students are tasked with writing a three-page concept note that identifies a pressing social problem and proposes a creative approach to solve it. The second phase, known as the full-proposal stage, occurs in the spring semester, when the teams that have the most innovative ideas are selected to develop an eight-to-10–page implementation strategy for their social venture. During these two phases, Big Ideas teams move from the ideation stage to the implementation-ready stage. 

“Over the course of the academic year, we identify the most creative and high-impact solutions being developed by students across UC Berkeley, and then enable them with the skills, networks, strategy, seed funding, and recognition that are critical to helping them take the next steps towards realizing their ‘Big Idea,’” Denny says. Big Ideas continues to support its alumni long after the competition ends, too. Big Ideas alumni are connected to the myriad of accelerator and incubator programs located on the Berkeley campus, in the Bay Area, and beyond.

The Somo Africa Team in Nairobi, Kenya.

This is why the Big Ideas Contest is so revolutionary. Students who enter the contest essentially embark on their own customized pre-accelerator program. Amelia Hopkins Phillips, along with team member George Rzepecki, found this out firsthand back in 2015 when they entered the Big Ideas Contest. Their idea, Somo Africa, grew out of the time Hopkins Phillips spent in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya in 2012. She was working at a school in the impoverished region, which was home to 250,000 people living in less than one square mile. 

Somo was designed to help local social entrepreneurs change their communities from within, Hopkins Phillips explains, breaking the cycle of poverty by empowering Kenyans to succeed in business. During the team’s research period, they discovered that local business owners faced simple yet debilitating issues such as a lack of business recordkeeping. Without records and documents such as profit and loss statements, it was nearly impossible for them to succeed. They couldn’t apply for loans, for example, or get other types of credit. Somo envisioned bringing training and tools to low-income businesses, such as in accounting, marketing, and sales — key skills that could improve business outcomes but weren’t necessarily intuitive or easy to learn independently. 

That year Somo was chosen to move ahead into the second phase of the contest, eventually winning a first-place award.

“We work in urban areas, rural low-income areas, and we support businesses from either that initial stage of starting or just in the early days of building their businesses,” Hopkins Phillips says. “We provide them with everything they need to be able to start and grow. We finance businesses, provide advisory and training services around that, and we help them access markets outside their local communities.” To date, Somo has trained over 6,650 entrepreneurs, 56 percent of whom are women and 87 percent are youth, across Kenya and Tanzania and provided micro-loans and grants to more than 420 businesses, which has led to the creation of over 10,000 local jobs. 

Like Somo’s entrepreneurs, no one who enters the Big Ideas Contest needs to have business experience either, Denny says. All they need is an idea and the desire to make a difference. That benefits students as well as the world at large. 

“When I talk to investors, they’re always asking me about what the latest, greatest big idea is. And through Big Ideas we have lots of success stories about the innovations launched through our program that are making an impact across the globe,” he says. “But what I like to add is that you have to think about the students themselves. We are the earliest of early-stage social innovation programs where students may just have vague ideas that are often still rattling around in their heads — and we’re helping them translate those ideas into implementation strategies so they can get going.”

Finding Support — and Inspiration

Manny Smith (far left) and the EdVisorly leadership team

Manny Smith, the current founder and CEO of EdVisorly, is another typical Big Ideas participant. His entry into the Big Ideas Contest was one of 438 pre-proposal applications in 2019. That year, the EdVisorly vision was imagined as a platform designed to revolutionize the community college–to–four year university transfer experience and improve degree attainment. Smith had a special affinity for this mission as a first-generation college student who came to Berkeley by way of the U.S. Air Force Academy, from which he graduated in 2012. In 2019, he applied to the UC Berkeley Haas MBA program

Smith, who developed satellite systems and software during his time in the military, credits working with mentors Steven Horowitz and Phillip Denny as a significant part of his team’s success. “When I separated from active duty in the Air Force, I came off of very large and advanced technology programs,” he explains. “But what I didn’t know was how to communicate that value in the civilian business world.” 

He didn’t know how to create a venture-backable pitch deck, he says, and he lacked a network that had this expertise. The Big Ideas mentors, however, taught him these foundational skills and more. He learned from experts how to best build a business, including attaining budgeting skills and creating a tangible business strategy and timeline. 

“In the real world, you have to write proposals,” Smith says. “You don’t just have an idea and a pitch deck and then hope that it works. You have to write a proposal to a customer. With the Big Ideas Contest, you have to do the exact same thing. In my opinion, it was, by far, one of the best experiences that we had at Berkeley in terms of entrepreneurship and business.”

The team’s big idea was one of the 27 winners the year he applied. Today, EdVisorly is a nationwide community college-to-university transfer platform — the first of its kind. 

“Community colleges educate six million freshmen and sophomores every year in the United States,” Smith adds. “Eighty percent of freshmen entering community college aspire to attain a bachelor’s degree, however, only thirteen out of a hundred will ever achieve this. EdVisorly is changing that.”

Since winning the Big Ideas Contest, EdVisorly has racked up significant investments, including a pre-seed and seed-funding round. This type of capital infusion for Big Ideas Contest applicants isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s something that Denny says is most spectacular about watching everyone go through the application process: The contest generates a huge return on investment. 

Companies such as EdVisorly is just one of more than 3,000 social venture applicants that have received support from Big Ideas with 550 of the projects winning awards that average between $7,000 and $8,000. “We’ve awarded about $2.5 million in prizes. And what’s been really cool to see — the 550 winners who received awards have gone on to leverage an additional $1.2 billion in additional financing through venture capital, foundations and grants, crowdfunding through friends, family rounds,” he says. “$1.2 billion — it’s just really amazing.” 

“I am fortunate to get to work with these extraordinary student innovators who are so passionate, intelligent, and committed to making a difference,” Denny adds. “Their energy inspires me on a daily basis because I see what they’re putting into it and know that they’re the ones with the power to build a better future.”