Meet the 2024 Big Ideas Award Winners!

2024 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Pitch Day & Awards Celebration

This year’s Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest received 160 applications from UC Berkeley students and its partner campus, the University of Sussex (UK), demonstrating the commitment of over 400 graduate and undergraduate students to addressing the world’s most pressing social challenges, from womens’ health, climate change mitigation, and financial access for underserved populations. Following a thorough review by experts across academia, industry, and the venture community, 28 finalists emerged. Of these, 20 are led by women, half are led by undergraduate students, and 23 are led by POC students. 

Grand Prize Winner, Code Blue with the 2024 Pitch Day Judges. Left to right: Judge Ashok Gadgil, Judge Dawn McGee, Ashmita Kumar, Co-founder & CEO of Code Blue, and Judge Paul Williams.

On May 1st, 2024, the UC Berkeley community came together to honor all of the teams that participated in the 2023-2024 Big Ideas Contest, as well as to crown this year’s Grand Prize Winner. 

Read about each award winner below!

About Big Ideas: Established in 2006 at UC Berkeley and managed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, The Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest has evolved from a yearly contest at Berkeley into a comprehensive innovation ecosystem. This platform supports UC Berkeley students throughout the year with a variety of resources, including talks by industry experts and alumni, mentorship opportunities, toolkits, and a range of  workshops focused on innovation and social entrepreneurship. Throughout its history, Big Ideas has fostered over 4,000 innovative projects, involving more than 10,000 students, and has distributed $3.2 million in prizes to 600 top projects. These winning initiatives have subsequently secured approximately $1.2 billion in additional funding. It is made possible thanks to its generous partners which include: The Rudd Family Foundation, Blum Center for Developing Economies, University of California Office of the President, the Associated Students of the University of California, Lab for Inclusive FinTech, UC Berkeley Center for African Studies

The 2023–2024 Big Ideas Winners:

Big Ideas Grand Prize Winner​

Team Members: Ashmita Kumar

Code Blue is a plugin built into users’ devices that is designed to detect the early signs of stroke by analyzing already-in-use video and audio streams. It then alerts emergency services and the user’s emergency contact on onset of symptoms to expedite medical intervention, preventing long-term damage and death.

Big Ideas Grand Prize Finalist

Team Members: Ojas Karnavat

Synaptrix Labs is revolutionizing mobility for severe motor impairments through brain-computer interfaces. Their flagship device, Neuralis, leverages EEG signals from the visual cortex, and enables precise wheelchair control via evoked potentials. Neuralis redefines independence, offering unparalleled freedom through cutting-edge brain-computer interface technology for paraplegic patients with ALS or SCI.


Big Ideas Grand Prize Finalist

Team Members: Titli Thind

Narmadaई co-creates sustainable, affordable, and culturally relevant homes for communities displaced by India’s Sardar Sarovar Dam, currently living in 12′ by 16′ tin-sheds. The team will use permaculture design, scalable natural building techniques, and local community knowledge to build homes that bring joy and a host of co-benefits.


Big Ideas Grand Prize Finalist, California Climate Action Prize

Team Members: Kayla Leung, Samuel Nahusuly

SeaWipes proposes a revolutionary shift in single-use hygiene products by introducing biodegradable wet wipes made from seaweed-based bioplastics and fabric. Addressing environmental concerns associated with traditional wet wipes, which contribute to sewer blockages and microplastic pollution due to non-wovens (plastic fibers), SeaWipes offers a sustainable, quickly decomposing alternative.


Big Ideas Award Winner, FinTech for Social Good Recognition Prize

Team Members: Aarush Gupta, Aaryan Chanda

In the United States, over two million individuals hold arts degrees, but under 10% are able to pursue art as a full-time profession. ArtistX addresses this gap with a groundbreaking platform where fans invest directly in artists. Fans purchase coins tied to artists’ digital popularity allowing them to profit as the artist becomes more famous.

Big Ideas Award Winner, California Climate Action Prize

Team Members: Paul​ Bryzek​, Ashutosh​ Tiwari​, Kritika​ Mishra

CarbonSustain offers carbon emissions accounting and AI-driven insights for SMBs, streamlining emissions management across all scopes and facilitating cost-effective decarbonization journeys, akin to a TurboTax for emissions reporting. CarbonSustain simplifies carbon accounting for SMBs, enhancing savings and brand value while aligning with key legislations like California’s Climate Accountability Package.

Cottage Co.

Big Ideas Award Winner, Supply Chain Diversity Prize

Team Members: Mairi Creedon

Cottage Co. is a virtual incubator and digital marketplace for home-based food businesses across the United States, starting in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Alameda County. The platform integrates an online marketplace with a customized, self-paced incubator so that home-based food business entrepreneurs can be sure they’re operating safely and legally while expanding their reach to new customers.

Big Ideas Award Winner, California Climate Action Prize

Team Members: Sanjana Gurram, Pooja Patel, Bryan Wong

EquiPad is a sustainably designed disposable pad alternative, conveniently provided in a roll format for easy accessibility and no need for new infrastructure. The company’s mission is to make our pads free and readily available in all public restrooms just like toilet paper. 


Big Ideas Award Winner, California Climate Action Prize, Supply Chain Diversity Prize

Team Members: Carmela Wilkins

fufu is a food design research hub empowering Black/African Diasporic communities to reclaim their rights as food citizens for food sovereignty. Beginning with our pilot, an up-cycled plant-based Jamaican hand pie, we are fostering community-driven food solutions to boldly address the complexities of Food Apartheid.


Big Ideas Award Winner, Supply Chain Diversity Prize

Team Members: Kaone​ Tlagae​, Risper​ Rwengo​, Anjana​ Shekhar

Habari is the eBay of small and medium-sized artisan businesses in Africa; a conduit for these artisans to regain their creative power and independence from big predatory corporations, expand their reach to US-facing markets, generate long-term income that can transform their lives and local communities.

Movement As Leadership

Big Ideas Award Winner

Team Members: Colby Sameshima

Movement as Leadership is an evidence-based, dance-based, leadership development and team-building modality that increases authentic social connection at work. MAL aims to fight the loneliness epidemic and reduce employee attrition, starting with pilot workshops at Pixar and UC Berkeley Haas.


Big Ideas Award Winner, California Climate Action Prize

Team Members: Mia Wesselkamper

PLU stickers are the new age equivalent of plastic straws — a symbol of the significant environmental challenges posed by seemingly inconsequential items. To enable development of fully compostable PLU stickers, Nopa has developed a compostable adhesive using a drought resistant and heat tolerant plant.

Open Credit

Big Ideas Award Winner

Team Members: Jenny​ Su​, Tiger​ Souvannakoumane​, Edward​ Chan​, Annie​ Guo​, Pavitraa​ Parthasarathy

Open Credit is the next generation credit bureau helping lenders expand credit access by providing lenders exclusive access to real-time data not available in credit bureaus. Open Credit helps lenders improve their ability to service their customers, enabling better decision-making and financial inclusivity for all.

Big Ideas Award Winner, California Climate Action Prize

Team Members: Prerana​ Gambhir​, Neil​ Shah​, Claudia​ Vazquez​, Apurv​ Naman

Pyronaut revolutionizes wildfire risk management by leveraging AI analysis of diverse data sources, including third-party satellite and first-party drone imagery, to deliver precise wildfire risk assessments for properties and communities. It is also a proactive mitigation platform that lowers the physical, emotional, and monetary losses to communities caused by wildfires.

The MEGAN Protocol

Big Ideas Award Winner, HealthTech CoLab Prize

Team Members: Maxwell​ Johnson​, Valentin​ Astie

The MEGAN Protocol offers a groundbreaking, AI-powered diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease, combining a wearable sensor system with a reinforced-learning algorithm for comprehensive neurological assessment. It democratizes healthcare access, ensures early detection and monitoring, and significantly reduces diagnostic costs, making it a revolutionary solution in the field of neurodegenerative diseases.

UC Berkeley Big Ideas Contest Finalists Announced 

28 Student Teams Showcase Innovation and Diversity

Berkeley, CA – February 1, 2024

Following an extensive review involving over 100 industry and startup experts, 28 student teams (full list provided below) have been selected to advance to the final round of the highly competitive Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest. This year’s competition received an impressive 130 applications, reflecting the ingenuity and commitment of over 400 graduate and undergraduate students to solving the world’s most pressing social challenges. In addition, the Contest received 30 applications from its international partner, the University of Sussex (U.K.)

A noteworthy trend in this year’s applications is the significant integration of artificial intelligence (AI) with nearly 50% of the projects leveraging aspects of AI to address a broad array of challenges that include: conducting wildfire threat assessments using aerial drones, revolutionizing mobility for individuals with severe motor impairments, and addressing the systemic farm labor shortage in the U.S. Other common themes also emerged, highlighting the multifaceted approach of UC Berkeley students to address pressing global issues. In addition to the prevalence of AI-focused projects, there is a notable surge in FemTech innovations aimed at addressing a broad range of women’s health challenges. These projects showcase the students’ dedication to leveraging technology and services for the betterment of women’s health, spanning areas such as reproductive health, maternal care, and mental well-being.

This year’s contest witnessed a surge in innovations dedicated to tackling climate-related challenges, both in California and globally. With a heightened awareness of the urgent need to address environmental issues, students are showcasing inventive solutions to combat climate change, enhance sustainability, and contribute to a more resilient future. “UC Berkeley students continue to impress us with their innovative spirit and commitment to addressing a wide spectrum of global challenges,” said Big Ideas Director, Phillip Denny. “The emergence of FemTech innovations and projects addressing climate challenges demonstrates the depth and breadth of our students’ engagement with critical issues that impact society.”

Also noteworthy is the fact that 20 of the 28 finalist teams are led by women, underscoring Big Ideas’ commitment to fostering an inclusive and equitable environment for aspiring innovators and early-stage startups. Additionally, 14 of the finalist teams are led by undergraduate students, highlighting the diversity of talent across various academic levels.

The finalists are set to embark on an intensive journey as they enter the final round of the competition. Each team will be paired with a mentor, providing valuable guidance and support as they refine their projects. They will have access to a robust set of skill development workshops, team-building opportunities, and networking events. Among the newest workshops offered to finalists will be a training on Supply Chain Diversity, developed in coordination with the procurement team at the University of California Office of the President. This offering is designed to support early-stage founders by showcasing the opportunities of a diverse and inclusive supply chain for sourcing their technologies and products, and how this approach can enhance the overall value and likelihood of success for startups.

2023 Grand Prize Winners, Kira Erickson and Ivan Jayapurna, co-founders of High Tide

The core focus for Big Ideas finalists over the next months will be the development of comprehensive 9-page implementation strategies and the development of compelling 90-second elevator pitches. Big Ideas will culminate on May 1 at the Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm (RSVP forthcoming.) This event promises to be a showcase of ingenuity and passion, where the finalists will present their projects to a distinguished panel of judges and a diverse audience, including industry leaders, faculty, and fellow students.

The Big Ideas Contest not only celebrates innovation but also provides a platform for students to transform their ideas into impactful ventures. With a strong emphasis on mentorship, skill development, and networking, the contest nurtures the next generation of leaders and change-makers.

For more information about Big Ideas, or the upcoming Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration, please visit or email

About UC Berkeley Big Ideas Contest: The UC Berkeley Big Ideas Contest is an annual competition that empowers students to use their skills, knowledge, and creativity to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. The contest provides a platform for students to develop and showcase their innovative ideas, fostering an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to positive change. It is made possible thanks to its generous partners which include: The Rudd Family Foundation, Blum Center for Developing Economies, University of California Office of the President, the Associated Students of the University of California, Lab for Inclusive FinTech, UC Berkeley Center for African Studies

The 2023–2024 UC Big Ideas Finalists:


Big Ideas Finalist

ArtistX is a platform transforming the music industry by enabling fans to invest directly in the artists as individuals, not just their artwork. Fans gain a personal stake in the artist’s digital footprint by investing in coins tied to each artist and coin values are reflective of metrics such as streaming numbers and social media engagement. This investment goes beyond conventional support as it’s a tangible share in the artist’s burgeoning career with the artist’s coin value reflecting real-time digital statistics. ArtistX leverages the XRPL blockchain for transparent, secure transactions, ensuring a direct and intermediary-free channel between artists and fans. ArtistX is more than just a platform, it’s a MOVEMENT to democratize music by giving artists financial independence and fans the opportunity to be part of their favorite artist’s journey.

Carbon Sustain

Big Ideas Finalist

Carbon Sustain is carbon emissions accounting and insights as a service for enterprise. Carbon Sustain streamlines scopes 1,2, & 3 emissions, boosts savings, and helps companies elevate their brand. Carbon Sustain offers AI-driven actionable insights facilitating a cost-effective journey to Net Zero while enhancing the environmental aspect of its brand image. Powered by legislation tailwinds including the US Inflation Reduction Act and California’s Climate Accountability Package, CarbonSustain delivers a service akin to a TurboTax for carbon emissions reporting for small & medium businesses. Carbon Sustain works with companies per Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 climate action using AI insights to optimize the decarbonization journey.


Big Ideas Finalist

The number one reason people do not purchase electric vehicles is charge anxiety– the worry about navigating the charging ecosystem. This anxiety is only exacerbated for those in multifamily buildings with no means to charge their car at home. ChargeNest is a software network of electric vehicle charging stations that drivers can access through our phone app. Stations on our network are available for rent on a nightly basis, turning dormant hours for these stations into a convenient home-charging experience for apartment dwellers and other EV drivers without home charging access. This gives people a reliable, convenient charging experience that simulates the ease of home charging, the charging method most preferred by drivers. ChargeNest not only removes this charge anxiety from our customers but also allows them to charge overnight when electricity prices are their cheapest.

Code Blue

Big Ideas Finalist

Code Blue is a consumer-facing app designed to detect early signs of stroke for all people. The app analyzes photos and speech patterns in audio to identify potential signs of stroke, and alerts the user’s emergency contacts through automated calls and texts if detected, expediting medical intervention. The app offers live detection or the option to upload images or audio clips for analysis.

CogB Theater

Big Ideas Finalist

Alarming statistics, particularly prevalent in rural communities, highlight the correlation between substance use, depression, and youth suicide rates, emphasizing the imperative for tailored interventions. In response to Wyoming’s mounting mental health crisis, worsened by high suicide rates and limited access to youth-centered art programs, the ‘CogB Theater’ initiative emerges as a novel approach. Project CogB Theater leads by tailoring Cognitive Behavior Therapy exercises for youth through art-based activities. Rooted in the evidence-based Positive Youth Development/Creative Youth Development framework, the project combines CBT with art to promote self-expression, coping skills, and resilience. The goal is to provide transformative art experiences addressing economic constraints and mental health challenges. By prioritizing safety, equity, and creativity, the project strives to comprehensively and sustainably tackle the youth mental health crisis.


Big Ideas Finalist

Connect-A-Roo is a free, personalized mobile application designed to address the pain points of current nonverbal communication, especially within classrooms with kids who have Autism. The app includes personalizable modules as well as sentence and word-building games. Also, visibility adjustment settings are be included and the app is designed to be affordable for low-income families. The Connect-A-Roo team will use modern code, open-source collaboration, and surveys for user feedback. The app’s affordability is ensured through funding from Glass Slipper Initiative, with features being updated frequently to reflect current research findings and implementing user input to combine all the positive aspects of apps that currently exist. Overall, Connect-A-Roo will enhance the way kids with ASD can demonstrate improvement in communication in the classroom to help develop more comprehensible IEP plans, alleviate the financial burden of having to purchase multiple apps and reduce the probability of misdiagnoses.

Cottage Co.

Big Ideas Finalist

Have you ever purchased anything from a bake sale or lemonade stand, or brought home homemade breads, jams, or pickles from the farmers’ market? If so, you’ve been a customer of the cottage foods industry. Cottage foods are prepared for sale in home kitchens and regulated by state and county cottage food laws, which can expand entrepreneurship opportunities for individuals who lack the resources to access commercial kitchens. Currently, there is not an integrated platform to provide both an online marketplace and customized support for cottage food producers through all stages of business growth. Cottage Co. is a web and app-based community and marketplace for cottage food entrepreneurs. The platform will be initially designed to support California cottage food business owners in the Bay Area counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, with the long term focus on serving cottage food entrepreneurs in all 50 states.

Counter Culture

Big Ideas Finalist

Counter Culture, a Human-Food Interaction (HFI) hub, centers Black geographies and African diasporic knowledge to directly confront food apartheid—the systemic denial of equitable food access due to racial and economic segregation. The hub catalyzes change across three pillars: developing climate-conscious upcycled products, fostering citizen-powered service design, and employing data visualization for widespread knowledge sharing. These innovative tools are deployed to empower communities and drive the structural transformation necessary within the food system. The hub’s pilot project is focused on pillar one: creating a climate-conscious edible up-cycled product, in the form of a “Beef” patty utilizing food byproducts setting a tangible precedent for circular innovation.

Debunk Information Verifier

Big Ideas Finalist

Debunk Information Verifier, is a news verification platform for aspiring journalists. The platform uses an automated fact checking Bot to share timely verification tools and resources to equip the journalists with essential media literacy skills. It is run by a dedicated team of Ugandan Fact Checkers and Journalists who produce high-quality how-to-video explainers, lessons, workshops and training to facilitate easy learning for aspiring journalists. It is also a resource center offering mentorship, support, and personalised news verification sessions for student journalists. It will be accessible on web and mobile, with content that is downloadable, shareable, and usable with limited data. The platform will enhance the journalistic skills for next generation journalists and amplifier accurately produced news stories to reach a wider audience to counter misinformation before it spreads further in communities.


Big Ideas Finalist

Period products are currently unsustainable and inaccessible. Research has shown us that this comes down to what products are made out of and how they’re distributed. EquiPad is a sustainably designed disposable pad alternative, conveniently provided in a roll format for easy accessibility and no need for new infrastructure. The mission of EquiPad is to make pads free and readily available in all public restrooms just like toilet paper. This can be achieved by eliminating the barrier to entry for schools and workplaces to implement free pads and by utilizing underused biomaterials. This unique design can use any form of plant waste and be produced with current pad manufacturing infrastructure, which lowers costs while optimizing for sustainability and comfort. With the responsibility of purchasing period products shifted from menstruators to institutions, EquiPad will be a paradigm shift in public menstrual product accessibility.


Big Ideas Finalist

Plagued by age-old patriarchal influences that confine women to abject poverty along with systemic limitations that make access to markets an impossible ideal, Sub-Saharan Africa is anaesthetized to the $26 trillion opportunity that is endowed in its small and medium-sized enteprises led by African women. Habari has spotted this rare and niche opportunity; by serving as a conduit through which these businesses can access markets, expand their reach and in turn, generate income African households and communities, Habari is unlocking the potential harbored by 70% of the informal economy. Through an ecommerce platform that not only shelves the products but sells true and authentic stories of entrepreneurs in Africa, Habari is changing the face of business in Africa.

Homes with Hope

Big Ideas Finalist

‘Homes with Hope’ is a social enterprise aimed at co-designing and implementing carbon-neutral homes for communities displaced by large development projects in India. The first project will be implemented in a village in Madhya Pradesh, where villagers displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam live in 10 ft by 10 ft ‘transition huts’ made from tin sheets. The long-term goal is to collaborate with the government to provide affordable, sustainable, and resilient housing. The projects will be co-designed with the local community at the intersection of Laurie Baker’s affordable housing philosophy and Permaculture Design. The innovation includes passive solar designed housing, closed-loop water systems, urban food systems, waste management, skill-building, and employment for local communities.


Big Ideas Finalist

Ida is a reusable menstrual product that is free of suction and low maintenance. We stand out in femtech by reimagining the menstruation experience rather than twigging superficial form factors. As a product-led growth business, we leverage antibacterial material and stent technology for optimal compactability and safety. Ida won’t suction out the intrauterine devices (IUD) like menstrual cups or disks (ouch). Ida won’t funnel into the 200,000 tons of waste per year in the US like pads & tampons. Instead, ida will give menstruators the same control over periods as going to the bathroom. With only an upfront cost, a few months of use will pay for itself. Ida will cater to an audience who is comfortable with using tampons, and will transform menstruation into a no-fuss experience while also advancing SDG 3 (Good Health and Well Being), 5 (Gender Equality), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and 13 (Climate Action).


Big Ideas Finalist

Jones is an AI-powered personal finance platform that empowers young people to achieve their dreams. 74% of Millenials and Gen Z report challenges with financial planning. Jones fills this gap by offering personalized financial guidance rooted in community. Unlike existing tools, it allows users to share and view financial trends by hyper-specific demographic factors such as profession, zip code, or immigration status. Jones is deeply mission-driven and aims to democratize financial health for all.

M.A.R.S. unit [Modular-Agricultural-Resilient-Solar unit]

Big Ideas Finalist

Solar power technologies have been introduced worldwide to achieve sustainable development. However, conventional solar technology holds many limitations and there are cases, where the imprudent installation of solar infrastructure is degrading people’s quality of life. Countries in Oceania like the Marshall Islands are extremely vulnerable to accelerating climate change events. Issues in the region usually receive less attention from the international community due to their small size in land, population, and economy. Although the region has high solar potential, the implementation of sustainable solar projects has been stagnating due to the complex combination of the region’s unique social challenges and the limitations that conventional solar technology has. The Modular-Agricultural-Resilient-Solar unit (M.A.R.S.) is a novel compact-modular agrivoltaic solar technology and that is designed in a way that adapts to the unique characteristics of the Marshall Islands and enhances the communities’ socio-environmental resilience.

Movement As Leadership

Big Ideas Finalist

We are in an unprecedented loneliness epidemic, with one-in-two adults in America reporting experiencing loneliness—this same figure is 70% for marginalized identities. Simultaneously, the U.S. is reckoning with record employee dissatisfaction at work, with most employers experiencing greater attrition issues than in years past. A growing body of evidence links the two, arguing that unless we feel truly connected to others in our work environments, we will experience loneliness. Movement As Leadership is an evidence-based, dance-based, leadership development and team-building modality that increases authentic social connection at work.

Nopa — A Biodegradable Adhesive For PLU Stickers

Big Ideas Finalist

The use of price look-up (PLU) stickers is integral to the global agricultural supply chain, streamlining the tracking of produce and enhancing the purchasing experience. However, these seemingly inconspicuous stickers present a massive challenge when it comes to environmental sustainability. The stickers are petroleum-based, rendering them non-biodegradable. This becomes a critical issue as PLU stickers lead to contamination of the composting stream, causing rejection of large volumes of produce which instead finds its way to landfills. Nopa has drawn on indigenous knowledge to develop a method of concentrating a plant extract for application as a fully biodegradable adhesive on PLU stickers. This innovative application of ancient knowledge not only addresses the environmental concerns associated with petroleum-based adhesives, but also aligns with sustainable practices while showcasing the potential of indigenous wisdom in shaping contemporary advancements in packaging technology.

Nurturing Infants in Need

Big Ideas Finalist

Breast milk is essential for infant development, providing unmatched nutrition and immunity. However, not all infants have access to their mother’s milk, making donor milk a vital alternative. The key challenge is preserving donor milk’s complex nutrients and immune properties during storage and processing. Addressing this requires innovative preservation techniques that can maintain the milk’s essential qualities. Thiseffort is crucial for ensuring that all infants, regardless of their circumstances, can benefit from the foundational health advantages of breast milk.

Open Credit

Big Ideas Finalist

Open Credit is empowering lenders to expand credit access for low-income, limited credit history & underserved individuals through alternative data. Open Credit will provide lenders access to a network of Buy Now Pay Later data and alternative data to optimize underwriting. Lenders are incentivized by receiving access to data across other BNPLs, and additionally from revenue sharing for the data they provide to Open Credit.


Big Ideas Finalist

ProAgro is an AI software platform with a two-sided marketplace that matches farmers and farmworkers to optimize their workforce. Through the platform, farms can optimize their request for labor to fit exactly their needs and they can benefit from recommendations and proposals to decrease their labor costs, by distributing and organizing farm workforce over multiple neighboring farms and consequently fit closely their labor needs each day at a time, allowing them for example to exchange their current employees with each other for a short period of time. The farm owner portal entails that there’s a recruitment assistance, employee information management, time and attendance tracking, and assistance with compliance and regulations on visa application. Whereas the farm laborer portal has a background screening and onboarding, legal assistance with an automated H2A application, and development of skills through our online training workshops.

Project Rewrite

Big Ideas Finalist

The STEM gender gap is still far from resolved, however, sparking an early interest can play a significant factor in reducing these gaps which is heavily influenced by the role models students are exposed to in their youth. Nonetheless, STEM textbooks don’t equitably mention the accomplishments of women scientists. As an example, one study published in the Journal of Chemical Education showed that women only constituted “3% of the named science, technology, engineering, math and medical professionals” when examining 10 chemistry textbooks. Project Rewrite strives to bridge the gender gaps that continue to exist in STEM education by “rewriting” elementary school science textbooks with a novel generative AI tool to promote equitable representation in STEM. This big idea seeks to break down the structural barriers in our education system that promote gender biases, thus motivating a generation of young girls to build a life-long passion for science.

PYR Health: PCChM Chip

Big Ideas Finalist

In the realm of cancer care, particularly in developing nations, accessing critical healthcare services remains a formidable challenge. Chemotherapy, while boosting survival rates, presents a myriad of issues, especially for patients in poorer, remote locales with restricted access to hospitals. The cytotoxic effects of chemotherapy on blood cells demand continuous monitoring, yet the current method, the Complete Blood Count (CBC) test, is hindered by its complexity, cost, and inaccessibility. PYR Health offers a groundbreaking solution addresses this by introducing an affordable, at-home CBC monitoring device. By leveraging a microfluidic chip and advanced machine learning, it not only democratizes access to vital healthcare data but also transforms outpatient chemotherapy monitoring. This device empowers patients, enables timely interventions, and revolutionizes healthcare accessibility, while also providing data-driven insights to medical professionals.


Big Ideas Finalist

Pyronaut is fully autonomous drone swarm response system that is able to effectively contain even the most intense wildfires, thereby limiting emotional distress, casualties, and monetary loss. It consists of a set of remotely piloted drones and supporting infrastructure that aims to provide valuable data at the onset of a wildfire to enable more effective asset and incident response management. Semi-autonomous fixed-wing drones are ready to respond to a wildfire at a moment’s notice from strategically located dispatch centers across the wildland-urban interface. One pilot is needed to fly multiple drones in autonomous formation, effectively increasing the capacity of every firefighting pilot. We seek to serve firefighting agencies, first responders, government service providers, and aviation management services.


Big Ideas Finalist

SeaWipes are biodegradable wipes addressing the global environmental and health hazards posed by traditional wet wipes. Current wipes, often made from synthetic fibers, contribute to severe environmental issues, including the formation of fatbergs in sewage systems and the proliferation of microplastics and nanoplastics, which pose significant health risks. Microplastics pollute oceans and food supplies, which results in human consumption of nanoplastics capable of infiltrating cell membranes and damage liver and lung cells. SeaWipes, composed of seaweed and cellulose, offer a sustainable, anti-microbial, and rapidly decomposable alternative, effectively preventing these problems. This project will both mitigate the environmental damage caused by non-biodegradable wipes, and leverage the rapid growth and carbon absorption properties of seaweed, making it a robust, eco-friendly alternative.

Synaptrix Labs

Big Ideas Finalist

Synaptrix Labs is developing Neuralis, a transformative EEG-driven assistive technology addressing the mobility crisis for over 5.4 million Americans and another 50 million across South Asia facing neuromuscular conditions. Neuralis is a discreet EEG-integrated headset with strategically placed dry electrodes decoding signals from the visual cortex, that interfaces with existing wheelchairs for seamless navigation. Its novel AI-based processing pipeline delivers accelerated responsiveness, overcoming industry-wide limitations on decoding speed. With a user-friendly mobile app and cloud integration, Neuralis ensures precise, near-instantaneous translation of users’ intentions into smooth wheelchair movements. Synaptrix, led by a visionary team and supported by esteemed advisors including Nobel laureates and neuroscience experts, is slated for clinical trials at Columbia University in 2024. Synaptrix stands poised to bring this groundbreaking technology to those in dire need.


Big Ideas Finalist

Dysmenorrhea, or period pain, affects up to 90% of menstruating women, with more than 40% experiencing symptoms every menstrual cycle. Consistent with the historical neglect of women’s health, there are a lack of effective and accessible solutions for women experiencing dysmenorrhea. For many women, common over the counter pharmaceuticals are ineffective, intolerable, and associated with significant adverse effects – from nausea to gastrointestinal erosion. Designed for and by women, Tempus aims to develop intravaginal solutions for the delivery of effective pain relief to the uterus and surrounding tissues, circumventing problems posed by oral administration of common pharmaceuticals and offering more targeted therapeutic effects. By creating a product that specifically addresses dysmenorrhea, Tempus hopes to empower women with improved quality of life, drive conversations to destigmatize female pelvic pain, and contribute to widespread change in the treatment of women’s health.

The MEGAN Protocol

Big Ideas Finalist

Building upon the framework of the Visual Spacial Learning Test (VSLT) for Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, The Megan Protocol is a novel device that serves as a testing platform for the evaluation and tracking of neuroresponsiveness and neurodegradation. The bedrock of this project is a custom TensorFlow machine learning model trained to recognize a handful of predetermined gestures performed by the subject during the test through a microcontroller embedded with the ML model and harnessed to the wrists of the subject. The testing process itself builds upon the foundations of established neurological practices but also allows for the testing of multiple sensory stimuli and the ability to screen both motor skills and memory at the same time. The device provides a uniquely holistic view of a patient’s status, and unlike many other tests, has a much smaller learning curve for those carrying out the testing process and is inexpensive to fabricate.


Big Ideas Finalist

More than 50% of American adults have at least one chronic disease and should monitor blood pressure at home, but don’t. Why? Current methods for blood pressure monitoring are inconvenient and lack actionable insights, limiting effective health tracking for all blood pressure related conditions like preeclampsia, heart diseases, stroke and so on. VitalSense provides a reliable wearable system for regular blood pressure monitoring, enabled by patented cuffless ultrasonic sensors and machine learning algorithms. VitalSense, designed to serve will serve pregnant women and individuals at risk of chronic diseases, establishes reliable personalized health baseline and offer early notification of health risks in a real time and long term.

Lessons Learned Building a Plastic Recycling Startup in Uganda

Since 2020, Takataka Plastics has transformed Uganda’s discarded bottles and packaging into tiles, face shields, flower pots, chairs, coasters and phone holders. (Engineering for Change)

Since 2020, Takataka Plastics has transformed Uganda’s discarded bottles and packaging into tiles, face shields, flower pots, chairs, coasters and phone holders. (Engineering for Change)

Undergrads Explore Financial Inclusion in Second Berkeley Changemaker Big Ideas Class

Xavier Aguirre Villarreal’s father is a farmer in Coahuila, Mexico. “We get to work with a lot of people from very different places in Mexico,” the senior exchange student says. That includes individuals from very poor communities in the northern state. Aguirre Villarreal’s family does its best to give its agricultural workers the best work and wages it can, but the very small towns they live in, he says, “are disconnected from the cities. They don’t have grocery stores, they don’t have big stores; they just have local stores,” like tortillerías, butcher shops, and hardware stores. 

Coahuila, Mexico (photo by Rubén Mendoza Cabrera)

Seventy-four percent of Mexicans don’t have access to credit; only a third have received education in financial matters. Their financial options are limited.

Aguirre Villarreal, who’s majoring in law at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico and minoring in business at Berkeley, came across UGBA192N.4: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas, a course on financial inclusion: “ensuring access to affordable financial services such as savings, payments, insurance and credit in both the developing world and in more developed markets like the US.”

“I’ve always wanted to make a change in these communities,” Aguirre Villarreal says of his father’s workers, “and I thought it would be a good idea to take this class and maybe develop a project to implement in Mexico.” 

“A perfect cauldron for producing actionable solutions”

The social entrepreneurship course, the first topic-oriented curricular offering of the Big Ideas program, is a partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen. The Big Ideas Contest is a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems. The course ran the first eight weeks of the Spring 2022 semester and was taught by Joe Dougherty, a partner at the social-impact consultancy Dalberg Advisors and an instructor at Haas.

“Financial inclusion doesn’t get the recognition it should as a vehicle for improving well being and lifting people out of poverty,” said Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny. “This class is a perfect cauldron for producing actionable solutions, what with Berkeley students’ passion for improving the world, Joe’s deep expertise in this field, and the resources of Big Ideas, Berkeley Changemaker, Haas, and the Center for Social Sector Leadership.” 

“I couldn’t agree more,” added Rich Lyons, chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer and part of the Berkeley Changemaker team. “The financial inclusion focus makes room for progress across all three sectors — private, public, and civic — and the changemaking skills this course develops are pivotal.”

The course follows Fall 2021’s first-ever Berkeley Changemaker: Big Ideas class, taught by Jorge Calderon, in which teams of students identify a social or environmental problem, develop an impactful solution to implement through a business model, and ultimately pitch their startup concept to a panel of expert judges.

Going forward, the topics of spring-semester Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas classes will change year-to-year based on student priorities. For the first year, “we looked at the student interest in the Big Ideas categories and noted financial inclusion was getting more and more interest,” said Nora Silver, a Haas professor and founder and faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership.

The goal is to maximize learning and social impact.

“It seems to me that there are a number of ways to learn information,” Silver said. “One I favor is learning by doing, so anything experiential has a learning advantage to it. And since there are many ways to learn how to do something, why not learn it over a topic in which you have interest or concern? It was from that orientation that the idea emerged to have a class in which students learn how to have a positive social impact on an issue they cared about.”

“Really important life skills”


It turned out the right instructor to teach making a social impact also had deep experience in financial inclusion. Dougherty has spent much of his career working in financial inclusion in developing countries, and has taught undergrad and graduate courses at Cal for several years.

In addition to covering financial inclusion in the US and low- to middle-income countries — what it is, how financial systems work, how people get excluded, what can be done about it — the class covers the three C’s of any Berkeley Changemaker™ class: communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. Early in the semester, students started working in teams, which culminated in final presentations where they shared either an idea for a financial-inclusion program or an assessment of an existing system or business. Dougherty brought in guest speakers in the financial inclusion field, including Cal alum Radha Seshagiri, director of Bay Area nonprofit SaverLife, and Courtney Cardin, co-founder of Aura Finance.

“It’s pretty awesome for students so we can get in touch with these successful people,” said Xeyu Wu, a junior studying civil engineering whose group did an analysis of TomoCredit, a credit card with no interest, fees, or required credit history.

Only a minority of Dougherty’s students were business majors: others came from STEM fields, political science, and development studies. “It was like a breath of fresh air to start this class,” Dougherty said. “The students were really engaged, really asking good questions. They’re a really diverse group, coming from several countries and lived experience related to the financial inclusion space.” 

Financial inclusion is a very timely topic, he added. “Just in the last decade, the number of people who were served by a formal financial institution has skyrocketed because of technology. From a financial inclusion point of view, it’s a tremendous opportunity because it means the transaction cost for financial service providers has dropped radically and allows them to serve people affordably.” 

Students also learned fundamentals for themselves, given that basic financial literacy is not typically taught at any level of schooling. “People get well into their 20s without knowing how compound interest works,” Dougherty said. “People get into their 50s without knowing how compound interest works! These are really important life skills that people are not always given an opportunity to learn.”

“Really puts you in the shoes of people who are excluded”


Aguirre Villarreal’s group project was called NamaCard, with “nama,” he said, a Nahuatl word that can mean “protect” or “progress.” People in small towns in Mexico, like those who work for his family, would use NamaCard at their local stores much like a debit or credit card. 

Given how difficult it is for many Mexicans to access credit, NamaCard won’t require a credit check. “We are trying to incentivize these marginalized communities, inside these little towns, to migrate from a cash system to a card system,” Aguirre Villarreal said.

By using machine learning to analyze users’ social media and their spending with the card, NamaCard would begin to build a credit score that users can then leverage in the larger financial system. And as they build their credit score, a user can access perks from their bank, such as a better credit line or an in-app financial-education class about, say, stocks or investing. It would be a positive feedback loop, where building credit unlocks better financial education, which informs better financial action.

In Mexico, Aguirre Villarreal explained, in order to receive a deposit from someone, a place has to be registered as a bank. NamaCard would partner with a bank like Banamex, which would act like a community development financial institution, lending money to local businesses like tortillerías, butcher shops, and hardware stores, from which card users could then withdraw and deposit money, making their lives easier. (These actions would be backed up by a mobile authentication process). And a fee paid by these stores that accept NamaCard would allow the stores to see customer spending trends, which could help make the businesses more targeted and efficient.

Amid learning the ins and outs of insurance and savings, credit and loans, and all the steps needed to build a financial startup — and putting that to use in the setting of a small town in Mexico — what stuck with Aguirre Villarreal the most was the hardship and exclusion faced by everyday Americans. 

“I was really shocked by the situation around the world,” he said of financial exclusion and insecurity, “but I was most shocked about the situation here in the US. Being Mexican, we have always looked to the US as a successful country; I believe most people around the world have this view of the US.” The reality, he learned, was that nearly half of Americans cannot pay a sudden bill over $400.

“The class really puts you in the shoes of people who unfortunately are excluded or banned from financial systems,” he said. “You get to think about how lucky we are. That was what I most liked about the class.”

Big Ideas Grand Prize 2022

In its annual Pitch Day event, the 2022 Big Ideas Grand Prize went to “SMART Cookies” from UC Irvine

"And this years’ Big Ideas Grand Prize Award Goes To…"

BERKELEY, May 6, 2022 – In its annual Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration on May 4, judges of the UC-wide Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest awarded the 2022 Grand Prize to the “SMART Cookies” project from UC Irvine, a community-based solution to iron-deficiency anemia. The Grand Prize award winner takes home $10,000 on top of any earlier awards earned in the past year.

SMART Cookies is the brainchild of UCI fourth-year medical student Daniel Haik and Ghanaian partners from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Dr. Marina Aferiba Tandoh and Abigail Owusuaa Appiah. Through this collaboration, their team has developed “a bioavailable, plant-based, iron-supplemented biscuit” made from turkey berries, a tropical fruit packed with iron, antioxidants, and vitamins A and C. In a randomized, controlled trial at a school in Ahafo, Ghana, the fortified biscuits were found to be far more effective than a UNICEF initiative similarly aimed at lessening iron-deficiency anemia in adolescent girls.

Fourth-year UC Irvine medical student Daniel Haik of SMART Cookie, the 2022 Big Ideas Grand Prize winner. (Credit: Blum Center/Big Ideas)

“Working with Big Ideas introduced our team to a vast network of experts in international development economics and clinical trial design in the earlier stages of our growth,” said Haik. “Their support will enable our team to begin a nationwide distribution of SMART cookies, which is a dream come true.”

The other big winner of the night was the Madojo team, inventors of a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers. They won the inaugural Binance CharityLIFT Initiative Award. The Binance Charity – LIFT Initiative, powered by Big Ideas, seeks to empower students by nurturing new ideas and social entrepreneurs working on Fintech and Blockchain-empowered credibility/legitimacy, banking, remittance, financial literacy, gamification solutions, workforce development, among many others.

The Madojo team, (L-R) Daniel Huang, Victor Okoro and Joshua Iokua Albano, winners of the Binance-LIFT “Blockchain for Social Good” Grand Prize. (Credit: Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering)

The Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT), established with generous support from Ripple Impact and Binance Charity, is a research partnership led by IBSI aiming at unlocking the potential of digital financial technologies to benefit underserved populations around the world. LIFT has three major thrusts: research, experiential learning, and community building. 

“This is only the beginning for Madojo,” said Victor Inya Okoro, a Master in Development Engineering student on the all-MDevEng Madojo team. “We plan to use the network we built during the program to continue to iterate on our idea, and the funding will help us get started in the right direction.

Other Grand Prize finalist teams included UC San Diego’s Algeon Materials, creating biodegradable and sustainable bioplastics from kelp to replace traditional petroleum-based packaging; the Foot Powered Cooler from UC Davis, a low-cost, energy-efficient cooling system designed to reduce post-harvest food losses at marketplaces in Uganda; and Carbon Pricing DAOs from UC Berkeley, a decentralized autonomous organization tool ​that enables the most accurate and scientifically rigorous pricing of carbon.

Of nearly 200 Big Ideas applications received last fall from 700 grad and undergrad students representing every University of California campus and more than 70 disciplines 16 finalists were selected in February, across the Social Impact Tracks of Global Health, Food and Agriculture, Financial Inclusion, Energy and Resources, Education and Literacy, Cities and Communities, Data and AI, and Art and Social Change.

“The multidisciplinary focus was incredible all of the finalists harnessed the power of their teammates to provide powerful solutions,” said Rhonda Shrader, Executive Director of the Haas Entrepreneurship and NSF I-Corp program at Berkeley Haas School of Business and one of three Grand Prize judges. “So inspiring to see the energy, imagination and connectivity across all of the UCs we’re stronger together.”

Pitch Day judge, Rhonda Schrader (center), alongside fellow judges Francis Gonzales (left) and Rick Rasmussen (right). (Credit: Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering)

Founded in 2006 at UC Berkeley, and managed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies,  Big Ideas has grown from an annual contest at Berkeley to an innovation ecosystem that serves students at all 10 campuses across the University of California, with year-round programming including industry and alumni speakers and mentors, toolkits, and courses and workshops on innovation and social entrepreneurship. Over its history, Big Ideas has supported over 3,000 innovations, involving more than 9,000 students, and awarded $3M in funding to 500 winning projects that have gone on to secure approximately $1B in additional funding.

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.