2022 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists Announced!

Abigail Woolf was reading a research paper in her AI for Healthcare class about the success of a convolutional neural network — artificial neurons used to analyze visual imagery — that could detect referable diabetic retinopathy, a preventable but major cause of blindness around the world. The paper impressed her, but it was mum on actually utilizing an algorithm with so much potential in clinical settings. “I asked in class why the technology hadn’t been deployed,” said the UC Berkeley Master of Development Engineering student, “and the professor said that it was complicated to standardize the data and processes behind everything.”

Her aunt, who has diabetes, has to make frequent treks to the doctor’s office to get her eyes checked. Woolf also knew there were cheap lenses that could be attached to iPhones for use in clinical settings. What if she could combine these powerful algorithms for detecting diabetic retinopathy — which can be more accurate than doctors — with these lenses that diabetics could use at home? It would save folks like her aunt time and money, while allowing ophthalmologists to spend more time on treating cases and less on diagnostics. Woolf, a member of Berkeley’s Health Tech CoLab, envisions “a data/camera package that can be sold or donated as a single unit to clinics for automated DR diagnostics.”

The idea earned a final-round spot in the 2022 Big Ideas competition. Of the nearly 200 pre-proposal applications that were received in November from students across every campus of the UC system, sixteen projects were selected from a diverse portfolio of innovations spanning a variety of social impact tracks, including global health, food and agriculture, financial inclusion, energy and resources, education and literacy, cities and communities, data and AI, and art and social change. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC San Diego, and UC San Francisco all have projects in the finals. Half of the team leads for the finalist projects identify as female. A quarter of the projects are led by undergrads.

During the pre-proposal application period, students had access to a vast array of resources, including information sessions, entrepreneurial skill development workshops, a Big Ideas Alumni speaker series, drop-in advising hours with Big Ideas staff members, and industry networking and feedback opportunities.

Divya Menon, UCLA MBA candidate and founder of Maiden, a trading application for single-family home equity. (Chithra Nair)

“Big Ideas forced me to take a perspective and commit to a solution,” said finalist Divya Menon, a grad student at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the founder of Maiden, a trading application for single-family home equity. Maiden seeks to make full and affordable homeownership possible to middle-income people by combining property laws with financial practices to isolate the speculative market from homeownership.

That speculative market “operates like a shadow market built on imaginary numbers because speculators base their bidding on predicted values, not actual ones,” she said. “Those of us in the real world are competing with the algorithmic imaginations of permanent-wealth speculators.”

She faced this problem a few years ago, when she was looking to buy a house on the Westside of Los Angeles, where she worked. “I could not afford to live in the very place in which my effort and money kept the economy thriving,” she recalled.

Working with Big Ideas program manager Karenna Rehorn helped her turn her findings and research into a practical idea. Contest director Phillip Denny connected her to Saira Qureshi, solution leader at McKinsey & Company, who led her to a more efficient product angle, and to past Big Ideas winner PJ O’Neil, co-founder of Nomad. “As a solo founder, getting to lean on the Big Ideas staff and their network helped me develop this as though I had an all-star co-founder team,” Menon said.

“Being thrown into this ecosystem of innovation, creativity, and competition encouraged us to focus on our social impact, continue to learn how to best develop and present our innovation, and have fun along the way,” said Daniel Haik, a medical student at UC Irvine who’s collaborating with Dr. Marina Tandoh and Abigail Appiah from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana to study how turkey berries can be used to address iron-deficiency anemia, a major cause of sickness and death in adolescent girls in lower- and middle-income countries. “The Big Ideas environment provided us with the perfect blend of autonomy and support: We received invaluable mentorship from experts in the field, such as Dr. Julia Schaletzky, and cultivated not just a motivation for scientific rigor but also an inspiration of the positive social change that a well-developed initiative can impact on the world around us.”

A network of experts from academia, industry, and the venture community undertook an extensive review process to narrow down the field to sixteen very impressive finalists who are on their way to translating their Big Ideas into action.

Biscuits fortified by turkey berries were distributed to students at a school in Ahafo, Ghana. In a randomized, controlled trial, they were found to be much more effective than a UNICEF initiative at addressing iron-deficiency anemia in adolescent girls. (Daniel Haik)

Now, the sixteen teams will be paired with industry mentors who can support the development of their projects during the final round period from mid-February through mid-April. They will also have access to additional skill-development resources and opportunities for feedback and networking. Winners will be announced in May — with awards ranging from $5,000 to the Grand Prize of $20,000.

Menon’s looking to test her model with an institutional partner like a local government or bank. Haik plans a second, larger trial of distributing turkey berry-fortified biscuits in Ghana. Throughout this final-round period, Woolf will continue her research and look for partners for her diagnostic innovation. She’s reaching out to some of the researchers who worked on that paper from her AI for Healthcare class and asking them why the algorithm “hasn’t been deployed in the wild.”

“I am waiting for someone to tell me, ‘this idea is impossible because…’” Woolf said. “But until then, I will believe that it is possible.”

The 2021–22 UC Big Ideas Contest finalists:

Algeon Materials: Sustainable bioplastics from kelp

UC San Diego

Algeon Materials is on a mission to fight climate change and reduce plastic pollution. Plastic manufacturing contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution is a serious threat to the environment. 90% of petroleum-based plastics have never been recycled and can take up to 500 years to degrade. Companies need access to materials that help them meet their business needs (mechanical properties, ESG goals, consumer desire), plastics manufacturers need access to a reliable material supply that works with their existing machinery, and consumers want products that don’t pollute the environment. Algeon Materials is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Kelp, a macroalgae, has properties that lend themselves to plastic creation. Kelp is the ideal solution because it’s a regenerative resource and farming it requires virtually zero inputs: no land, fresh water, or fertilizer. This solution supports 7 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

ASD Independence

UC Berkeley

Unemployment for those living with Autism — at 85% — is a significant barrier that many are unaware of. Such individuals have a difficult time joining the workforce because of a mix of social-emotional skills and sensitivities. Yet, the adaptable device industry for assisting those on the spectrum remains outdated and clearly ineffective, especially for those with noise sensitivity — affecting 65% of the population. ASD Independence seeks to help those with Autism in the work environment by creating a personalized glassware device that alleviates noise sensitivity. By capturing the voiceprint of a customer or any person that is conversed with, the adaptable device can mitigate environmental noises, so anyone with noise sensitivities does not experience the anxiety and other effects that come with hearing. Compared to the current solution of earmuffs and headphones, ASDI can be used in numerous settings where a conversational focus is prioritized.

Black Girls Dreaming: Imaginations, Futurity, and Possibility Beyond

UC Berkeley

Black Girls Dreaming is a multimodal sensory art installation that epitomizes the value of art for social change. The installation brings to life the multiple and often contradictory experiences of Black girls. It is a place for Black girls to hear, see, smell, taste, and witness their own lived experiences. As suicide rates among Black girls continue to rise we are compelled to create this space as a communal healing space for Black girls and allies to join us in our efforts to make the world a more livable and safe place for all Black girls. Further, this silent art exhibit features interactive art rooms exploring topics related to the multiple experiences of Black girlhood. Each room in the exhibit is a carefully created space that features the art work of Black girls across the African Diaspora.

Confidence: Smartphone Data for Brain Injury Recovery

UC Berkeley

Every year, millions of people suffer brain injuries, yet diagnosis and treatment guidance is limited by traditional healthcare options. Confidence aims to improve the experience of brain injury patients and healthcare professionals by using a patient’s smartphone data to provide optimized and personalized care. After a suspected or known brain injury, healthcare professionals will direct patients to download the Confidence application to their smartphones, which will allow the application to locally access and analyze the patient’s data to analyze for changes correlated to brain injury, such as cognition, mobility, emotional stability, and general activity. A summary of this information will be provided to the healthcare team so it can be used to assist in diagnosis and guide treatment options. Ultimately, Confidence will give each patient customized rehabilitation that increases their recovery and opportunities to continue thriving in their community.

Diabetic Retinopathy Detection with Machine Learning

UC Berkeley

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a major cause of blindness globally, even though it is completely preventable. Currently, DR is diagnosed through retinal images, taken at regular expensive intervals, and manually evaluated by an ophthalmologist. These check ups are non negotiable for healthy vision, and DR prevention for diabetics. This is where AI can help save time and cut costs. There exist numerous machine learning algorithms that accurately, sometimes more accurately than the doctor, identify and diagnose DR from photos. There also exist small, cheap iPhone attachable lenses that can take photos in clinical settings. There is currently a disconnect between these two available technologies. When combined, the ophthalmologist can be freed from diagnostics, allowing them to focus on treating existing cases of eye disease. This innovation will be a data/camera package that can be sold or donated as a single unit to clinics for automated DR diagnostics.

Fluency: AI-Powered Speech Therapy for Every Child

UC Berkeley

Traditional speech therapy is often implemented years after a child starts speaking and has been diagnosed with a speech disorder, rather than aiming for early intervention and ameliorating a speech disorder immediately. For many families, traditional speech therapy is inaccessible, whether it be due to financial constraints or inaccessibility to therapists familiar with their dialect (ie AAVE). Without speech therapy, children can suffer from a diverse host of social issues and problems later in life with job interviews, communication, and academic success. Fluency aims to mitigate these issues by offering affordable, AI-powered speech therapy that adapts to the needs of every child. Through Hidden Markov Modeling and Neural Networks, Fluency can both keep a child’s attention and accurately diagnose a disorder versus a simple pronunciation issue. Fluency has the potential to change the lives of millions of children, and promote equitable speech therapy for every child.

Food Powered Cooler (FPC) to Preserve Fresh Foods for Markets in Kampala Metropolitan Area

UC Davis

About 37.8% of food produce is lost at Kampala markets before reaching the end-consumer. This is partly due to improper storage and preservation methods, where market vendors currently store their fresh food produce in wooden cabinets, which don’t have a cooling element to curb the short shelf-life enigma of fresh produce. The existing electricity or fuel powered refrigerators cannot be implemented at Kampala markets due to the operating costs, which cannot be afforded by the market vendors. Also, solar-powered refrigerators cannot be adopted due to their unreliability while it’s raining or at night, and have questionable power requirements to suffice the large market. Hence, FPC is the proposed solution, which uses energy from the footsteps of people at markets to power the coolers, which increases the shelf life of food without any operation cost requirement (fuel or electricity) — and hence, reduces food wastage at market level.

Intelligent Soil Carbon Assessment Network (iScan): An Unmanned System Based Mobile Sensing Solution

UC Merced

Our big idea is to develop a low-cost, fast reaction, quantification method of sensing soil carbon in practice. The overall goal of this proposal is to determine the biochar being used in a site-specific agricultural application in order to mitigate GHG emissions, using a mobile platform to enlarge the detection range for monitoring carbon emissions in practice. Furthermore, our goal is to improve the quality of life in low-income and disadvantaged farming and adjacent communities and to use it as a sustainable best practice for California agriculture.



In growing metros, 20% of homes are bought by someone who never moves in — institutional speculative buyers who buy for the sake of trade alone. Millennials cannot keep up with the home price increases generated by speculative buying, forcing Gen Y to compete in low-income housing markets for shelter. That pressure contributes to a growing homelessness crisis to the extent that some local governments have begun implementing middle-income housing programs typically reserved for low-income housing. Maiden is a trading application for single-family home equity that blends property laws with financial practices to isolate the speculative market from homeownership, providing housing affordability and full homeownership access to middle-income classes. By focusing on down payments and utilizing a contract type known as a tenancy-in-common to split-off speculative buying from an income-adjusted home value, Maiden provides affordable, accessible homeownership for middle-income, Millennial urbanites — taking us from American decay to the American dream.


UC Davis

Every year, 120 billion single-use cups enter the landfill in the US alone, 45% of which are paper coffee cups. Meanwhile, the number of coffee shops in the US has grown 16% percent between 2012 and 2017, speaking to the growing demand for to-go cups contributing to the climate crisis. MatterCup is a deposit-based, circular-use system for coffee to-go that replaces the single-use cup with a reusable alternative, rendering the disposable cup obsolete. Customers can order their coffee to-go in a reusable cup for a $1 deposit, enjoy their coffee on-the-go, and then drop off the empty cup at any partner location to get their $1 deposit back. By using MatterCup, coffee shops save money after only 35 to-go coffees sold per day and position themselves as sustainable and innovative trailblazers, as every MatterCup prevents the waste of 1000 single-use cups from entering the landfill and harming our planet.

MediRoller Vaccine Applicator

UC Berkeley

Over the past 20 years, vaccinations have prevented over 2 million deaths. This triumph, however, has not been a panacea. Today, 1 million children in low- and middle-income countries continue to die from vaccine-preventable diseases each year. This inequality is largely fueled by technical challenges surrounding the administration of vaccines using hypodermic needles. The MEDiRoller, consists of a novel, handle applicator, containing a spring-loaded delivery system and one of our two types of single-use polymeric microneedle cartridges. The two types of cartridges include a novel cartridge containing a hexagonal solid microneedle roller, that can raster across skin to treat larger surface areas, as well as a MNP cartridge containing a sterile biomedical sponge for sterile vaccine or drug containment and loading, followed by delivery through hollow microneedles. This Big Idea, if successfully developed, will revolutionize vaccine and drug delivery in low-resource communities.

MyAriel Health: Comprehensive Oral Health App for Special Needs Population

UC San Francisco

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that approximately 15% of the global population (1 billion people) have some form of long-term functional disability. People with disabilities or special needs tend to receive less oral health care, or of lower quality, than the general population. We want to innovate the delivery of oral hygiene intervention to fit the needs of the patients with special needs. We propose MyAriel Health, an integrated easy-to-access mobile application combined with an intraoral scanner for patients and their caregivers. With MyAriel, we believe proper oral health management at home will improve quality of life of the patients and their caregivers in a number of ways, such as halting or reversing the progression of existing dental conditions, lowering the costs of future treatments, and minimizing trauma from invasive procedures.

Plant-Based Solution To Anemia

UC Irvine

Iron-Deficiency Anemia is the major cause of illness and death in adolescent girls in developing countries, weakening an already vulnerable population and contributing to the cycle of poverty and gender inequality. Unfortunately, attempts to address iron-deficiency anemia in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are often limited by bottlenecks in access, distribution, and community and cultural acceptance. These issues commonly bring well-funded, national-scale global public health initiatives to a halt. By utilizing naturally growing turkey berries, this initiative mobilizes a ubiquitously accessible, culturally integrated, and uniquely bioavailable plant-based iron supplementation solution to address iron-deficiency anemia in LMICs. In a first-of-its-kind randomized-controlled trial held in Ahafo, Ghana, turkey berry–fortified biscuits outperformed UNICEF’s nationwide initiative by a factor of triple, six times faster, and at a cost of roughly US$15 per adolescent girl over a month and a half.

ProtoCem: Zero emissions cement manufacturing

UC Irvine

Portland cement concrete is the most widely used man-made material in the world and its production is responsible for 8% of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions. Hence it is of paramount importance to reduce these emissions to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change. The traditional process of cement manufacturing involves the use of fossil fuels to process limestone which generates large amounts of greenhouse gases. Using electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind, it is possible to convert limestone into calcium hydroxide in a device called an electrolyzer. In the further stages of processing, the use of calcium hydroxide completely eliminates CO2 emissions. The electrolyzer also generates high-value gases like hydrogen and other hydrocarbons which are widely used in industry. This technology has tremendous potential to transform cement and chemical manufacturing into a carbon-free, zero-emissions industry.

Rapid Manufacturing of 3D Cell Culture for Vaccine Development

UC Berkeley

The worldwide outbreak of Covid-19 has resulted in the deaths of over five million people and changed modern life forever. Experts warn that another pandemic is likely and that rapid vaccine development is crucial for preventing another mass loss of life. There are two major challenges in vaccine production and distribution. First, vaccines are usually grown in suboptimal 2D cell culture, and the growth of large quantities of vaccines takes months. Second, it is difficult to transport the virus culture from lab to lab and have the cells survive. New technology developed by researchers at UC Berkeley has the potential to overcome these challenges and thus accelerate virus research and vaccine development. The technology combines 3D printing and freezing to create a ready-to-use 3D cell culture product that can be easily shipped all over the world.

The Curbside Spa

UC Berkeley

Hygiene is one of the many problems the 160,000 people experiencing homelessness in California face on a daily basis. There are fewer than 15 public showers available to the public for only a few hours a week in the Bay Area. Recently, the East Bay Municipal Utility District approved the use of hydrant meters for non-commercial purposes, allowing metered access to water hydrants for unhoused individuals and families. Using these hydrants, the Curbside Spa will provide private showers within the dimensions of a parking space. By deploying an easy to use kit of shower parts, we can utilize Oakland’s 30,000 hydrants to bring dignity to the homeless population.

New Cal Students Tackle Social Entrepreneurship in Berkeley Changemaker Big Ideas Class

The Big Ideas Contest and Haas School of Business’ Center for Social Sector Leadership team up for new hands-on course

A group of students pitches their social venture on the final day of the Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas class.

Anvitha Tummala sees many unhoused people on her walks to class, and it raises an uncomfortable thought for her: She and her peers are earning a world-class education at UC Berkeley with access to all sorts of amenities, while those living on the streets in her neighborhood constantly live without stable sources of food or shelter.

“Seeing that every day opened my eyes, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.

Tummala found an outlet in UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas. The class, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in 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 key 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.

In the Big Ideas course, teams of students identify a social or environmental problem, develop an impactful solution that can be implemented through a business model, and ultimately pitch their startup concept to a panel of expert judges. Teams also draft applications to the Big Ideas Contest, 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 runs the first eight weeks of the fall semester.

“Berkeley students care deeply about addressing intractable social issues, and developing viable solutions that will make tangible impacts is no easy task,” said Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny. “This class really creates the foundations for these students to enter programs like Big Ideas and turn their social missions into reality.”

“This partnership between Big Ideas, the Center for Social Sector Leadership, and the campus-wide Berkeley Changemaker™ Initiative is such a lovely example of synergy,” said Rich Lyons, Berkeley’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer and a key figure behind the creation of Berkeley Changemaker™. “The gateway Berkeley Changemaker™ course touches roughly 1,000 undergraduates each year, and typically in the summer prior to the first year, so the ramp from that to this new joint programming is rapidly advancing our impact.”

Early in the class, Tummala and her classmates pitched problems they wanted to solve. Tummala’s made it to the final round of ideas, where classmates who shared her deep concerns joined her to tackle it with a social startup.

Professor Jorge Calderon (front) with students in the Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas Class

Thirty percent of those who become homeless fall down that path after losing a job, explained her teammate, Fernando Campos. The stresses, difficulties, and failures to find a job can lead to substance abuse and other problems that exacerbate homelessness.

Their solution starts with a form unhoused people can fill out that will connect them with job-seeking and healthcare resources. It would be available in shelters for those who end up there, as well as on their startup’s website, which would be aimed at individuals and families who still have internet access but who recently lost a job are thus facing potential homelessness. In addition to connecting folks to vital services to get them back on their feet, Tummala, Campos, and their team would create a curriculum to assist users with the difficult job hunt.

For at least a year, Big Ideas and the Center for Social Sector Leadership had been batting around ideas for experiential social entrepreneurship classes when they learned about the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative. “I was concerned that we inspire and motivate students for social change, and then what?” said Nora Silver, a Haas professor and the founder and faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership. A Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas course would put that inspiration and motivation to work while giving Big Ideas a better on-ramp to its challenging annual competition.

Silver said a gap exists throughout the whole field of social entrepreneurship between people with great ideas and creating institutions that can carry out those ideas. “We didn’t want to set up our students for that kind of hitting-the-wall full-force — running ahead excited and then, boom, ‘What do we do?’”

Silver had a professor at her center who taught a variety of launch classes, Jorge Calderon, who agreed to teach a Big Ideas class. Adapting from his slate of courses and the “purpose-driven design” frameworks he had developed over years, Calderon set up a step-by-step process for his new students to follow: ideation, working through problem discovery, developing and validating a solution and business model, communicating and pitching the concept.

“That sequencing is really important because it starts with really diving deep into what they’re trying to solve for, rather than going the other way around, where they generally come with a solution and then try to figure out where the need is,” he said.

Lessons from lectures, readings, media content, class dialogues, and industry guest speakers are put to work during lab sessions, where students do the hands-on work of developing their social startup concept. Though most of the students are first and second years, much of the curriculum comes from graduate courses.

“We don’t hold back our pedagogy because of their level — because they can keep up,” Calderon said. “I’ve always been impressed with students’ ability to engage and be able to follow through with the process, especially that early in their academic journey.”

As with Tummala, the genesis for many of the topics students tackle are personal, which makes for compelling team-building. “That’s a very powerful opportunity for folks to address things that are meaningful to them and then rally and engage others around that cause,” Calderon said. Communicating and selling complex ideas as simple narratives is paramount in this business. “By the end of the course they do a very good job of that process,” he added.

The Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas class is held in a spacious, modern classroom on the fifth floor of Haas’ Chou Hall. On Wednesday, Calderon was prepping the 10 teams for their final pitches in a week’s time: advice for pacing their presentation perfectly, understanding the emotional arc they would take their audience on, nailing down their “Wow!” fact.

“You want this to be well choreographed,” Calderon said, “like a ballet.”

When lab time rolled around, Nitya Sri Adapala and her teammates began discussing the aesthetic of their presentation’s splash page, where they’d kick off their pitch for addressing food waste.

“One-third of the world’s food is being wasted,” she said. All while homeless and low-income folks struggle to afford food.

Sri Adapala and her team’s startup would transport excess food from the source — say, a family that knew they couldn’t finish their groceries or a restaurant that had whole foods they didn’t get to — to pantries where those most in need can access it. To increase the sustainability of their venture, the food would be transported by bicycle in biodegradable storage containers.

Signing up for the program and scheduling pickups and deliveries would all be done through an app, which would also highlight to diners restaurants that donate their excess food. The service would also alleviate restaurants’ costs, too, explained Riya Patel. She said the team found that dumpsters can start at $500 or $600 a month, and restaurants often fill them with excess food. Diverting that to pantries would reduce the size and cost of the dumpsters restaurants need.

The startup’s revenue would come from a $450 base fee — cheaper than the cheapest dumpster — that establishments would pay for all their pickups.

Though taking their venture to the next level would require more business acumen, not to mention a software engineer to make the app, the team expressed an interest in returning to their social startup a few years down the line, after acquiring more expertise in business and food waste.

“The past eight weeks, though, have been invaluable in starting the process,” Sri Adapala said.

The class is not a one-off incursion of Big Ideas into the classroom. Coming to Berkeley Changemaker™ this spring is a Big Ideas “Special Topic” Innovations OnRamp class about financial inclusion and “the challenge of ensuring that all people have access to affordable, helpful financial services such as savings, payments, insurance and credit in both the developing world and in more developed markets like the U.S.”

For a while, Silver had been wanting to offer a class wherein topics change term-to-term based on what issues students are concerned about. (Without a previous cohort to inform Silver and her teaching team, they decided on financial inclusion for the inaugural “Special Topic” class.) While Silver envisions two instructors — one with extensive topic knowledge and one with deep social-entrepreneurial experience — she discovered that Haas colleague Joe Dougherty had both, and will be teaching the class in the spring 2022 semester. Dougherty, a partner at Dalberg Advisors, has worked at a variety of consulting and professional services firms, including Kearney and Cardno, and has taught at UNC Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies before coming to Haas. Building on his spring class content will be team-based projects that utilize entrepreneurial skills.

Given how fall’s class has gone, Dougherty has much to be excited about.

“One of the great things about this class is seeing the ingenuity from the next generation,” Calderon said. “I think that is something that you can’t necessarily see from the outside of school. But once you’re in these classes, you get to see how creative they are and how passionate they are.”

How EdVisorly Fights for Inclusion in Higher Education

BERKELEY, CALIF. — In the corner of UC Berkeley’s Haas campus courtyard sits a local coffee shop called Cafe Think. It’s usually buzzing with students and professors grabbing a quick bite or using the space to study. During Manny Smith’s first week at Haas as an MBA student in 2019, he ran into Haas undergraduate Alyson Isaacs. 

Smith, an Air Force Veteran, came to Haas after seven years of military service. As a next step in his career, Smith wanted to leverage his military experience to work on a socially responsible project that promotes human equity through entrepreneurship. 

Smith was struck by Isaacs’s story: she navigated a tough community college ecosystem for three years before transferring into Cal’s undergraduate business program, which only has a five percent admit rate for transfer students. Her story prompted the question of why transfer rates from community colleges are so low relative to four year and even graduate programs. Upon doing initial research, Smith found that this problem was deeply systemic. 

Their short meeting at Cafe Think catalyzed a partnership and forged their big idea: EdVisorly. 

EdVisorly is an edtech software application designed to ease the university transfer process for community college students. By improving the transfer process, EdVisorly promises to create greater access to education, support community college recruitment, boost enrollment, and improve university transfer rates. 

The EdVisorly team consists of eight California Community College transfer students, five international students, and three graduate students. They all noticed flaws within the California higher education system that could only be experienced first hand: an underlying caste system divided by socioeconomic status, race, gender, and nationality. Their solution is to create a more transparent and accessible program to alleviate the process for disadvantaged folks — simply put, EdVisorly is made for students, by students.   

According to a 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), ten million undergraduates were enrolled in public two-year colleges in the United States, with over two million in the California Community College (CCC) system. 

Manny Smith and Alyson Isaacs, Co-Founders of Edvisorly

Yet transfer rates from community colleges to four-year programs are very low. Only 18 percent of community college students actually transfer to universities within four years of matriculation. In California, the number is more staggering: 70 percent of students enrolled in the CCC system will neither earn a two-year associate’s degree nor transfer to a four-year college. Many of these students are underrepresented and underserved in higher education, oftentimes from lower income households, students of color, first generation college students, or parents. 

Access to higher education provides a pipeline for upward mobility and equal opportunity. However, in part due to an overburdened administration, CCC students are not given adequate support and resources to obtain consistent university transfer guidance. An overburdened community college faculty, combined with evolving legislation for outcome-driven funding, aggravates the divide.

“There seems to be a lack of cohesion between the districts in the CCC space, which is ineffectual in higher education,” EdVisorly Business Development Lead Hanna Ving says. “If we strive for real progress, we cannot innovate at the pace of bureaucracy. We must instead perform at the pace of students’ needs and demands.” 

Lizzie Allison, a UC Berkeley Haas student and EdVisorly’s Marketing Director, was recruited to bring her own successful entrepreneurial experience to the project. 

“Counselors have an impossible task. My community college had counselors who managed 900 students each, which is an unreasonable workload,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the fault of any individual counselor; they’re overloaded. Making the transfer process easier and more effective for students will make a significant difference in the long term benefit to students, community colleges, universities, and the broader California economy.” 

Essentially, the system has asymmetric and inaccessible information for students, perpetuating an inequitable cycle within higher education. So in creating EdVisorly, their goal was to pivot the focus towards students and create a centralized platform to universalize higher education and fight the status quo. 

EdVisorly offers three-fold innovation: a planning software for students to map out a timeline of courses to prepare for the transfer process; a FAFSA completion widget that uses AI to fill out the complicated and tedious form; and an analytics platform that provides administrators with valuable insights in how schools can increase enrollment, retention, graduation, and transfer rates. It’s designed to democratize access to education by decreasing transfer misinformation and modernizing the student experience. Their focus stays at the student level, prioritizing student success. 

“We want to stay student-focused and students first above all,” says Content Marketing Manager Brandon Ricci. “But we recognize that it’s not just students that can benefit. Our product will help retention rates, so there’s a huge value add for schools in keeping students around who might have dropped out because of misinformation and miscommunication.”

Data Architect Diyah Mettupalli says, “Our solution will also increase future community college population sizes because of the de-stigmatization around the ‘transfer route.’ Basically, we help students, which in turn helps the schools.” 

Currently, EdVisorly is beta-testing across the California Community College student ecosystem, starting with individual students. Their target market now is now California, with a massive community college infrastructure and huge demand for such an innovation. 

Smith recalls, “I remember people asking me, ‘There’s a market for this?’

“I thought to myself, those in the MBA program don’t even understand how hard it is to navigate as a transfer student to Haas. Only a handful of my peers in my cohort went to community college, which highlights the long-term systemic inequities that community college students face in the current higher education ecosystem. And learning that there was only a five percent success rate for community college students just seemed criminal.” 

Since EdVisorly’s time with the Big Ideas program, the team has gone on to enter the Berkeley SkyDeck Hot Desk cohort, the Berkeley Venture Impact Fellows (BVIP) AMP Accelerator, the IVP Haas Seed Fund, the TechStars Launchpad Fellowship, and now UC Launch. These programs, along with the continued support of Big Ideas mentor Steven Horowitz, have been pivotal in helping perfect the product. 

“I thought Manny and Alyson’s initial idea had great potential for social impact,” Horowitz says. “They’ve consistently proven me right. I continue to be impressed with the team’s commitment, compassion, sincerity, and intelligence. I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, and look forward to EdVisorly’s continued growth.”

However, it hasn’t been all smooth-sailing for the team. Like any start-up, the student-led team ran into obstacles. UC Riverside Computer Science student and software lead, Divyanshi Srivastava, works a lot with data and oversees challenges on a daily basis. 

Edvisorly hosts a virtual team meeting. Pictured as follows (left to right): Hanna Ving, Alyson Isaacs, Lizzie Allison, Brandon Ricci, Wajiha Zahid, Diyah Mettupalli, Divyanshi Srivastava

“There are so many hurdles because we are trying to compile information from all of these sources and present them in a reliable, optimal way,” she says. “There are so many discrepancies that currently exist with inaccessible information. Currently, there are resources, none of which are reliable. We’re constantly adapting to new challenges, and taking everything as a learning experience.” 

The team is using their funding towards not only software development, but also completing optimization and implementing more focus groups. Their passion for this project makes no problem too large. 

Smith emphasizes the importance of a great team. “Surround yourself with the right people and the right support systems, and then do what you’re passionate about. Be willing to sacrifice for it.” 

EdVisorly is just getting started. Their momentum is nothing to underestimate. They credit a lot of their traction to the fact that they had experience with the higher educational system. They are turning their utopian ideal of an unbiased, accessible, universalized education system into a working reality, all by disrupting the current system and improving upon it. 

UC Berkeley Computer Science and Technical Product Manager Wajiha Zahid says, “While some people may see attending community college instead of going to a four-year directly as a weakness, EdVisorly sees it as one of your biggest strengths.”

2021 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists 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.

After an extensive and very difficult review process, involving an amazing network of 200 experts from academia, industry, and the venture community, 26 innovations advanced to the final round.   These finalist teams will receive ongoing support from Big Ideas and personalized mentorship from experts across the world as they work to transform their ideas into action. 

Winners will be announced in May — with awards ranging from $5,000 to the Grand Prize of $20,000.

The 2020-2021 UC Big Ideas Contest finalists:

Adatto Market


Women’s healthcare is often more neglected than that of others and there’s a lack of education centered around reproductive, sexcual, and physical health. Adatto, an online care support platform that centers around women’s health, plans to streamline the process for women to book healthcare professionals and mitigate some of the pressing problems when it comes to women’s health. 

Belonging: Protecting the Treasures and Dignity of the Homeless

UC Hastings

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.

Bio For All

UC San Diego

Biotech companies are facing problems at the moment due to outsourcing critical lab work and a lack of workforce diversity. The biotech industry has a need for pipelines to increase the workforce and fill critical jobs. Bio for All provides this pipeline through an apprenticeship program, training and integrating people for a career in the life sciences. They hope to make STEM jobs more accessible to those who did not go through the traditional 4-year college degree route and to those in underserved communities.

Blackbook University

UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz

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.

Catena Biosciences

UC Berkeley

In the age of medical enhancements, Catena has developed a novel platform to create cures for diseases previously thought incurable. Using a new protein conjugation method, Catena allows for the creation of vaccines and cancer immunotherapy. Their technology can bring massive breakthroughs in biological therapeutics, autoimmune disorders, and vaccine development.


UC Merced

Inefficiencies in disposing of food waste and single-use plastics have caused massive amounts of waste to pile up in landfills and oceans. This, CircFoods believes, can be attributed to an unorganized recycling system. With the use of RFID tags and app-based meal planning, CircFoods suggests a virtual inventory that databases type and quantity of foods and indefinitely recycles glass, steel, and muslin bags. Their idea is to create a circular food system and eliminate food waste altogether.

Climate Battle Simulator

UC Irvine

As climate change continues to be one of the most pressing issues of our world, political organization becomes increasingly more important. Climate Battle Simulator sees the fight against big oil lobbying groups as the main battleground to fight the fossil fuel industry. This team offers a simulated gaming environment where players can plan tangible actions to pass climate legislation aimed at mitigating the negative effects of climate change. This virtual arena would simulate political and governmental processes, structures, and strategies in order to help educate and train activists.

Designing Shelters for Dignity

UC San Francisco

Designing Shelters for Dignity has recognized a huge problem for emergency housing: homeless shelters are not conducive to promoting health, minimizing trauma, and dehumanizing. They have taken up the task of renovating and revamping existing homeless shelters to foster a clean, safe, and inclusive environment. Designing Shelters for Dignity hopes that their innovation will allow for a supportive community in order to help destigmatize those battling homelessness and help folks overcome adversities.


UC Berkeley

Earthquakes have reportedly killed more people than any other natural disaster in the past 20 years. The effects of earthquakes can be extremely damaging, and there is not enough adequate preparedness to help reduce the risks. EduQuake provides informative resources for young people to train for earthquake preparedness. Their innovation technique uses an AI app to help teach first-aid, supply kit making, and pre-disaster planning. They aim to also help ease earthquake anxiety and practice post-disaster action through simulations. EduQuake emphasizes educating families and children in an accessible way.

Green Steel Printing

UC San Diego

Carbon Dioxide emissions are at an all time high and exacerbated by iron and steel production, which requires burning coal and putting iron through carbon intensive processes to create the beams that stabilize bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure. Green Steel Printing modernizes the iron and steel production process by 3D printing. By using heat from lasers and green hydrogen from water, Green Steel Printing revolutionizes metal production that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a significant amount.

Impact Food (formerly “AquaMeat”)

UC Berkeley

As food systems and industrial agriculture increasingly damage the climate, progress in the alternative meat industry is needed more than ever.  Overexploitation of fish is affecting biodiversity, harming the ocean ecosystem, and affecting both human and sea animal health. There is a lack in the market of alternative seafood that maintains the nutritional value, taste, and protein. Impact Foods offers a plant-based tuna alternative that uses natural ingredients, driven by technology R&D and food science. Their goal is to prevent extinction of the blue-fin tuna and offer a sustainable alternative to combat the adverse effects of overfishing.

Beat Medical (formerly "Infection Control Breathing Tube Holder and Bite-guard")

UC Davis

Pediatric 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. This 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.


UC Berkeley

Sickle Cell Disease is said to affect 30 million people worldwide, including 100,000 people in the United States. It 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.

LacNation LLC (Formerly “Donor Human Milk for Preemies”)

UC Riverside

Donor human milk (DHM) is essential for preterm infants to prevent the development of debilitating and devastating infections, but the current method of pasteurizing donor human milk is expensive, and kills necessary nutrients. LacNation brings a new pasteurization technique to the table that kills any harmful pathogens while preserving nutrients for preterm infants. Their DHM products also save on high costs, providing accessible and safe care for infants.

Limb-O2: Multi-patient Attachment for Medical Ventilators

UC Berkeley

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for ventilators around the world. In Africa, fewer than 2,000 ventilators serve millions across 41 countries. Limb-O2 is a medical device that plugs into an existing ventilator and increases ventilator capacity of any medical facility. It is cost-effective and accessible for low-resource areas, allowing up to four patients to share a single device. The novel technology serves as a lifeline to patients in need of a ventilator.

Mobile Parklets for Flexible Outdoor Learning (Nimble Spaces)

UC Berkeley

More students are attending school virtually than ever before. Many of these students have distracting environments, lacking both means and resources at home to facilitate an effective educational experience. Nimble Spaces aims to improve the learning experience for many students without adequate access to technology by implementing a mobile study space. Students who are disadvantaged by virtual instruction would be able to work in a converted parking space that serves as a decentralized learning center.


UC Davis

The electric vehicle industry has had a powerful transformation over the last decade. EVs may be great for renewable energy, but still face issues with optimal battery life and affordability. Neutron tackles both problems with its hybrid battery with potential to improve charging time, battery life, and reliability. The battery uses a pay-per-use business model that allows customers to purchase an EV without paying for the batteries upfront, which cuts costs and incentivizes more people to buy EV’s.

Night Market

UC Davis

The USDA states that food waste estimates around 30-40 percent of the food supply. Restaurants discard large amounts of food daily, which likely contributes to food waste. Night Market has created a platform of food waste recovery and redistribution that can be utilized in every city in the United States. Bike-carts and other guidelines would allow for redistribution of food to all members of the community, providing a sustainable alternative to food disposal.

Non-Invasive Ultrasonic Deep Brain Stimulator (uDBS)

UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego

Deep Brain Stimulation, a neurosurgical procedure involving the placement of a neurostimulator —a pacemaker for the brain— can be extremely invasive and cause dangerous side effects. Focused Ultrasound (FUS) is a non-invasive alternative that uses harmless sound waves from outside the skull to reach brain regions in any depth. FUS has therapeutic applications for a wide range of neurologic and psychiatric conditions that are wearable and portable.

Not the Police

UC Berkeley

There is a staggering amount of non-violent and non-criminal incidents that result in police dispatches, as reported by the LAPD. 911 calls for these non-violent incidents 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 recognize the many problems with law enforcement and the need for alternative first responders. They propose a chatbot that can provide non-police services for non-violent situations at the touch of a button. They aim to reduce exposure to police for at-risk individuals, which can save lives.



Liquid biopsy holds tremendous potential to transform the diagnosis and treatment paradigm for cancer. NurLabs is a patent-pending, non-traditional, non-invasive liquid biopsy platform using materials science and machine learning for early cancer screening, bringing a fresh perspective to an old problem.

Plastic2Food Agriculture


The lifestyle 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

The world is currently facing a huge plastic waste problem. Landfills and oceans are filling at dangerously high levels around the world. ReFuel is developing a technology that breaks down plastic into valuable byproducts, like butanol and terephthalic acid, that can be used and applied in the fuel, paint and coating, or clothing industries. ReFuel’s innovation has the potential to not only target the plastic waste problem, but help many other industries reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Sal-Patch: A Periodontal Microneedle Patch to Treat Periodontitis


Periodontitis, a dental disease impacting 50 percent of adults in the United States, can lead to other health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and gangrene. The current treatments in the market are not effective in addressing bone loss. Sal-Patch offers an implantable microneedle patch that both repairs the receding gum line and regenerates bone loss. Periodontitis is especially prevalent in impoverished communities, and Sal-Patch wants to mitigate the issue with its low-cost, accessible device.

STEMpathy Resources

UC Berkeley

Students studying the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are paving the way for the future, but STEM has a huge pipeline that prevents certain disadvantaged students from pursuing it. In order to make STEM education accessible and equitable for all, STEMpathy created an edtech resource platform for students and teachers alike. With the goal of spreading empathy and amplifying diverse perspectives, STEMpathy is designed to empower any high school student to pursue STEM.


UC Santa Barbara

Plagues of purple sea urchins have led to a 90 percent decline in a species of kelp and seaweed—known combatants of climate change— along the California coastline, the World Economic Forum reports. Ranching is an effective solution to remove and upcycle sea urchins, which is what Unicado plans to do. They provide sea urchin fisheries and accumulate roe from purple urchins sustainably, which can be used as a gourmet delicacy in seafood. Unicado’s innovation can potentially restore balance to the kelp forest habitat in California and create carbon neutral consumption of uni.

A Big Idea to Tackle Global Water Contamination

Dana Hernandez, Jay Majumdar and Chandra Vogt prepare an arsenic removal experiment by first measuring the initial pH of a synthetic groundwater solution. September 2019.

It began with a D cell battery, a couple of nails, and a styrofoam dinner plate in the garage of Professor Ashok Gadgil, a UC Berkeley Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty member since 2007.

Twenty years ago, Gadgil was struck by the problem of arsenic contamination in groundwater. By the early 2000s, the arsenic issue grew to affect about 100 million people worldwide. Today, that number has risen to 200 million. 

Arsenic is a potent carcinogen that can materialize in groundwater, highly toxic when the water is used for drinking purposes. The World Health Organization reports arsenic-contaminated water as one of the greatest threats to public health in the world. Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in groundwater in a number of countries, including Bangladesh, India, Mexico, and the United States of America. In most areas, the arsenic concentration in groundwater is low enough for safe consumption. However, groundwater in problem areas with higher arsenic levels need rigorous treatment, which is expensive or difficult to administer on a large scale.

“Nobody had solved the problem of removing arsenic in an affordable way, and that was a challenge that seemed worth tackling,” said Gadgil. “It seemed that this problem was just being ignored, or very unsatisfactory solutions were offered due to the political and economic powerlessness of these people.This is a classic situation we encounter around the world, and it doesn’t seem right.” 

In an attempt to find a solution, Ashok started experimenting with an idea that came out of MIT — allowing iron nails to rust in water and using that rust to capture arsenic. The problem was, this solution wasn’t viable on a large scale and failed altogether for high concentrations of arsenic. The rate at which iron nails rust is small compared to the rate at which arsenic must be captured from the water that flows past the nails. The MIT system works only for marginally elevated arsenic contamination, and that too works only on very small scale flows.

In that garage, Gadgil had an epiphany: electricity can be used to control the rate at which iron rusts. The iron nails became a long wire of iron and eventually, large steel plates. 

Susan Amrose, Case van Genuchten, Caroline Delaire, Siva Banduru, Sara Glade, and Dana Hernandez, UC Berkeley doctoral students, became interested in the issues related to the science, engineering, technology design, scale up, field testing, and full-scale implementation of the idea. All were, at one time or another, in the core technical team. Around that time, Hernandez scouted fellow students in a course offered through UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Practice to lead the business development and social impact evaluation aspects of the project. 

Their team currently consists of nine undergraduate and graduate students. Three team members are Civil and Environmental Engineering graduate students, four are engineering undergraduates, and two are computer science or data science majors.

Dana Hernandez gives a tour to visitors of the first large-scale ECAR plant in rural West Bengal, India. The tube settler shown allows for arsenic-laden iron precipitates to settle out while arsenic-safe water flows up. September 2016

The biggest initial discovery the team made was how to convert arsenic into its most capturable form: arsenic V. They discovered that arsenic III, which is extremely hard to capture, naturally converts to arsenic V through the iron rust process. After this discovery, there was no looking back; the ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation project (ECAR) was born. 

“In many ways, we found lucky breaks that nature’s own chemistry provides, like the fact that oxygen from air dissolves in water naturally, which pushes arsenic III into arsenic V during natural conversion of iron rust in water from Fe(II) to Fe(III),” says Gadgil. “Nobody expected that and nobody knew that. But the point was to take calculated risks and try things. And here we are.”

Banduru joined the project in India as a field engineer in 2011, quitting his teaching job in the middle of the academic year. After two years, he came to Berkeley to do his Ph.D. work.  

“What motivated me to work on ECAR is the simplicity, effectiveness, and robustness of the technology,” Banduru says, now a postdoc at Berkeley. He is now the technical design lead of ECAR. 

Hernandez joined in 2016 after earning her masters at UC Berkeley as a field engineer, and is now a project director for developing and field testing more advanced versions of ECAR in California’s Central Valley.

“Being there for this phase of the project, seeing all the years of work, and then also addressing challenges that come up when scaling up a technology that works quite effectively in the lab but has unanticipated challenges in the field is very exciting” Hernandez says. “We solve those issues and adapt and work together in this very large, multidisciplinary team.” 

ECAR is meant to remove arsenic from large amounts of groundwater in an affordable, sustainable, and accessible way. It’s unlike any other arsenic removal systems in the market, as it is a zero liquid discharge technology (ZLD), the dream of all water-treatment designers. ZLD means that all incoming water molecules show up in the outcoming stream, with all contaminants removed as solids. ZLD effectively means there is zero water waste. Most ZLD technologies remain unaffordable, but ECAR is.  

In 2016, the team started field operations of their full-scale demonstration plant in rural West Bengal, India. In only nine months of monitoring, they demonstrated that the plant had reduced the arsenic concentration from 250 parts per billion in raw water to three parts per billion. ECAR’s technology has become an essential part of the local community. The plant sells arsenic-safe drinking water so that all costs are covered, and the operating company (an Indian licensee of the ECAR patent which is owned by the Regents of the University of California) gets a modest profit. More importantly, those living locally can purchase large quantities of water at a small fraction of their income. Safe drinking water that meets all relevant WHO, US EPA, and Indian regulations for drinking water is sold for about one cent US per liter. It’s a win-win for folks living in these communities.

Ashok Gadgil explains how ECAR works to students and teachers during the plant’s inauguration day at Dhapdhapi High School in West Bengal, India. July 9, 2016

The next generation of ECAR, called Air-Cathode Assisted Iron Electrocoagulation (ACAIE), was developed in 2019 with the help of the Big Ideas Contest, an annual competition based at the Blum Center at UC Berkeley and open to all University of California students.

“Big Ideas is extraordinarily important to get something done,” Gadgil says. “You need somebody who says, ‘Yeah, that might work, we’ll take the risk,’ because the impact might be very big and it’s easy for an idea to die at its most nascent stage.” 

ACAIE is designed to alleviate the arsenic problem in rural California. In 2020, the student team made new developments in the design and implementation of the technology’s reactors. Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny connected undergraduate engineering students to help the team create an app to remotely monitor voltage and current, which are important performance metrics of ACAIE.

Siva Bandaru secures the connections from the power supply to the 60 liter per hour ACAIE continuous flow-through system. July 27, 2020.

“The networking was key for me,” Banduru says. “We were able to reach out to other Big Ideas student winners when we were trying to scale up and received immediate feedback. That was really helpful in our thought process and implementation phase.” 

Though ECAR’s impact has already been massive for a local community, the team aspires to do more. The technology has the potential to dramatically reduce rates of excess internal cancers from drinking arsenic-bearing water. Drinking water with 100 ppb arsenic would cause 70,000 excess cancers in a population of one million. ECAR and ACAIE can bring that number down to 70. Twenty-one million excess deaths can be avoided. 

Big Ideas also helped to streamline the process of testing ACAIE in Allensworth, California. 

Gadgil maintains the journey towards creating and developing ECAR and ACAIE couldn’t have been possible without the interdisciplinary and ambitious student team, without Big Ideas, and without making a few mistakes along the way. 

“There’s a lot of very inspiring people who are so passionate about the work that they’re doing,” says Hernandez. “That just motivates me further to continue pushing our project forward and address the arsenic problem.”


Big Ideas for an Unprecedented Year

2020 has been a challenging and stressful year in so many ways. COVID-19 has affected the entire world, exposing inadequate public health systems and causing disproportionate impacts based on economic class, existing health conditions, physical environments, and race.

Yet amidst so much uncertainty and turmoil, there is unprecedented opportunity for change. We have the capacity to envision and create a new world that is more just, prioritizes climate concerns, addresses poverty and hunger, and improves economic and social equality. If there was ever a time when your innovative and bold ideas are needed, it is now.

So, what’s your Big Idea?

As a college student, there is absolutely no better time than now to think about what matters to you—and to build your idea into something tangible; something real. It is no surprise that some of the most innovative companies and social enterprises were created by college students. You have extraordinary access to classes, programs, co-curricular workshops and supportive advisors who are enthusiastic to help you succeed. You have a ready-made pool of talented fellow students from many different disciplines and diverse backgrounds to build your team. Most importantly, you have the energy and fresh ideas that are needed now more than ever to tackle the most challenging issues facing our society. So, if you have an idea and it’s there nagging at you, what are you waiting for?

At Big Ideas, we are committed to helping you with your early-stage, social-impact innovation. We have four weeks left until the November 20th application deadline! In over 10 years, the Big Ideas Contest has awarded 500 winning teams a total of $2.5 million in prizes. Big Ideas participants have the chance to win up to $20,000 in awards, receive mentorship and extensive feedback from judges, and access valuable development workshops and networking opportunities.

Three-page applications are due November 20th at 1:00 pm PST. Check out our website for more information on this year’s application requirements and details on how to apply, or sign up for a 1-on-1 advising session with a Big Ideas advisor to talk through your idea and see if it is a good fit. 

Are you still on the fence? Well, don’t take it from us– listen to Big Ideas alumni!

Time is running out! Apply now to the Big Ideas Contest!

If there was ever a time to think big and be bold, now is the time. Apply to get mentorship and funding for your Big Idea!


Industry Advising Clinic

Review the bios and profiles of the industry advisors who will be participating in the clinic on November 9th.

Big Ideas Industry Advising Clinic is happening Wednesday, March 31, 4-7pm!

Review the bios and profiles of the industry advisors who will be participating in the clinic on March 31st. To book an appointment, click on the Advising Sign-Up button, read the instructions carefully, and follow all of the required steps on the sign-up sheet.

These appointments book quickly — First-come-first-serve — Limited 2 sign-ups per team

Lawrence Ocubrn Image

Lawrence Coburn

Twine, CEO, Co-founder
Serial Entrepreneur


Jill Finlayson

Women In Technology Initiative, Director

Andrea French

Andrea French

UC Office of the President, Strategic Program Manager (I&E)


Francis Gonzales

Social Impact Design Strategist


Ed Henrich

SCET, Startup Executive


Jeremy Hammer

Harness, Co-Founder & CEO

Sara Beth Janzen_Image

Sara Beth Janzen

CA Academy of Sciences, Director of Corp & Foundation Philanthropy

Joe Dougherty_Headshot

Joe Dougherty

Dahlberg Advisors, Partner

Erica Lock2

Erica Lock

Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Vice President


Kaitie Penry

National Security Innovation Network, University Program Director


Nadir Shams

Skoll Foundation,
Associate Director

Groundbreaking Innovations and Inspiring Innovators at Big Ideas Pitch Day

The 2020 Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day served as the capstone to the most competitive year in the history of the program. The 2019-2020 contest attracted a record number of innovators, with more than 400 projects and 1200 students.

On September 23, seven of the top teams from the Big Ideas Contest presented their final pitches for Grand Prize honors and an additional $10,000 in funding. Despite a myriad of challenges brought about by COVID-19, each participant successfully delivered inspiring four minute pitches from various locations around the world. 

This important student-led, social innovation competition first launched at UC Berkeley in 2006. In the span of fifteen years, Big Ideas has invested $2.5 million in awards to 500 social impact projects, supporting over 8,000 students and 2,500 ventures. 

“With each passing year, more and more students rise to the occasion and use their energy and talent to face dire challenges facing our planet,” said Big Ideas director Phillip Denny. “The projects we heard from today are just a fraction of the transformative social innovations developed through the Big Ideas program with potential to really make an impact.”

The FootMo Kit team tests their livestock disease diagnostic system.

Over the past year, the seven finalists worked with mentors to develop their projects into working, viable products. Finalists were chosen from hundreds of other projects, all tackling varied and complex global issues from global health, food insecurity, climate change, affordable housing and disaster relief. 

Upon the conclusion of the seven pitches, the decision was left to an esteemed panel of judges including UC Berkeley Changemaker Initiative lecturer Alex Budak , Amelia Phillips of SOMO,  Andrea French from the UC Office of the President, and Sony Innovation Fund’s Austin Noronha. 

Taking home the 2019-2020 Grand Prize award was FootMo Kit, a point-of-care diagnostic for foot and mouth disease detection of livestock. Mushusha Richard and Athuaire Rabecca of Makerere University in Uganda led the winning pitch. 

Their product is targeted towards the cattle industry in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the world’s fastest growing population at 2.6 percent per annum. Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to have 2.5 billion people by 2050. Not only is local agriculture pivotal in feeding the population in this region, but around 60 percent of Africa’s economic activity is based on livestock. 

Foot and mouth Disease proves detrimental to the livestock sector and FootMo Kit aims to mitigate the problem through an accessible, highly accurate, cheap and portable diagnostic tool used to detect the disease in cattle. 

The inspiration behind FootMo Kit was personal for Richard, who grew up in Southwestern Uganda in a cattle-dependent farming district. “There were so many times I was unable to raise even my school fees due to foot and mouth disease outbreaks that affected me and my community,” Richard said. 

FootMo Kit’s groundbreaking technology is the only diagnostic tool with real-time testing capabilities and the highest sensitivity, which fights threats of cross contamination of the disease between cattle. 

“It was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait,” Richard remarked. “I was sleepless that night when I remembered that this is the first time a Makerere University team won the Big Ideas Grand Prize. It was history made for myself, FootMo Kit and Makerere University.” 

The FootMo Kit team plans to empower farmers all across Uganda and expand to East Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa within the next five years. With full force, they see FootMo Kit serving millions of farmers in Africa and raising the average income of farmers 4 dollars a day by 2025. 

The FootMo Kit team conducting field interviews and field tests in Uganda.

“We’re very happy that our work has been acknowledged and that we are getting the necessary resources, support and ecosystem so that we can scale our product to market,” said Richard.

Professor Daniel Fletcher, Big Ideas Faculty Director noted,“It is clear all teams have a path to success and we are excited to see each move forward.” 

Every pitch in this ambitious group amplified how passionate participants are in making real change. The 2019-2020 Big Ideas Contest ended on a strong note. It’s exciting to see what new ideas will come about next. 

To learn more about all of the 2019-2020 Grand Prize finalists, please read the profiles below:

Sundial Foods: Presented by Jessica Schwabach, Sundial is a sustainable startup based in California that makes plant-based meats using only natural ingredients. 

Pumzivent (formerly Automated Ambu Bag System): Pumzivent, pitched by Peter Kavuma, designs ventilatory devices to help battle acute respiratory distress in low-resource locations. 

Biomilitus: CEO Trevor Fowles pitched black soldier fly larvae as a solution to create a high value animal feed product, which could combat the growing problem of organic waste. 

FakeNet AI: CEO Raymond Lee presented a powerful algorithm that detects and blocks deepfake media to protect against the expanding problems of fraud, abuse and disinformation. 

Heliovap: Casey Finnerty pitched a unique, low-impact and affordable desalination technology that supplies fresh drinking water to remote communities. 

When You Were Young: Director Tracey Quezada delivered a heartfelt presentation on the problem of chid sex trafficking. Her team is working on a social impact multimedia campaign that touches on the lasting effects of child sexual abuse on communities of color. 

About Big Ideas: Big Ideas is an early-stage innovation competition that provides funding, support and recognition to interdisciplinary teams of graduate and undergraduate students who have creative solutions to pressing social challenges. 

The 2019-2020 Big Ideas program was made possible through the support and generosity of following sponsors: The Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge, University of California Office of the President, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), the Lemelson Foundation, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies

For additional information: 

Phillip Denny


Seven “Big Ideas” to Change The World:
Grand Prize Pitch Day Previews

Social entrepreneurs envision a better world — one with accessible healthcare and education, clean water and medicine. They ask themselves difficult questions like: How can I make a more sustainable and equitable future?

Social entrepreneurs envision a better world — one with accessible healthcare and education, clean water and medicine. They imagine communities empowered by circular economies and they understand technology as a tool for social good. They ask themselves difficult questions like: How can I make a more sustainable and equitable future? — and from there, plan cohesive and multifaceted solutions to pressing social issues. 

Each year since its founding in 2005, Big Ideas is inspired by the passion and drive of the student entrepreneurs who ask these same questions, motivated to innovate for a better world around them. 

On September 23, from 12:00-2:00 pm PST, seven finalist teams, hailing from Makerere University, UC Davis, and UC Berkeley, will present their innovations to a panel of esteemed judges for the title of the Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Winner and a prize of $10,000. (RSVP HERE!)

Live pitches on Sept 23!

Click the image to RSVP

These finalists asked and are now answering important questions:

“After seeing how student teams persevered during this incredibly challenging year, I am confident -–now more than ever–- that this generation of problem solvers and inventors possess the curiosity, compassion, and commitment for the multi-pronged attacks needed to make this world a better place for all,” said Phillip Denny, Big Ideas Director, on the unique challenges posed to this year’s finalists due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 2019-2020 finalists have pursued complex social issues, rising to the top of 1,200 student innovators who submitted their visions to the Big Ideas Contest in the fall, all while enduring the chaos of 2020 and adapting their social innovations to uncertain and changing environments.  Scroll down to learn more about each finalist team:


Designing Medical Technology within a Country’s and Hosipital’s Limited Capital

In low-resource settings, medical support is limited and advanced respiratory support systems are rare. In Uganda, there are only 55 ICU beds to support the country’s population of nearly 42 million. Motivated to find a medical solution to an issue that plagues low-resource hospitals, Peter Kavuma and his team of biomedical engineers developed a low-cost, easy-to-maintain ventilatory device called the Automated Ambu Bag System.


Understanding Insects as an Underutilized Tool for Sustainable Food Systems

In 2019, a team of UC Davis researchers and students, including PhD student Ferisca Putri, discovered an underutilized tool that could solve the growing threat to human food systems: insects. Putri and her team launched BioMilitus, a sustainable business that harvests black soldier fly larvae with food byproducts, and as a result creates a sustainable animal feed, a product that traditionally relies on unsustainable ingredients like soybean, corn, and fishmeal.


Blocking Manipulated Media Content Through Advanced Detection Algorithms

The first time Raymond Lee, a 2019 graduate of UC Berkeley’s Master of Information and Data Science, saw a Deepfake, a video in which a person in an existing video is replaced with someone else’s likeness, he was surprised at how real it seemed. Concerned about the injustice that could result from manipulated news media and social media content, Lee and his team launched FakeNet AI, a Deepfake detection technology.


Empowering Rural Farmers through Disease Detection Technology

When Richard Mushusha, a master’s student at Makerere University in Uganda, conducted a series of interviews with rural farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, he discovered a common demand: livestock farmers need a low-cost device that can track major animal disease outbreaks. Inspired to design a portable tool used by farmers to detect Foot and Mouth Disease in their cattle, Mushusha and his team launched FootMo Kit.


Tapping into the Ocean: Supplying Drinking Water to Remote Island Communities

Increasing pollution and growing populations limit water access for communities around the world. Disproportionately affected are remote island populations, often left without reliable water sources as irregular weather patterns become a reality. This is why Kelly Conway and her team committed themselves to developing a flexible, off-grid desalination technology that can allow people to tap into abundant water sources, like the oceans.


Transforming Science into Protein: Two UC Berkeley Students’ Mission to Revolutionize the Alternative Meat Industry

In 2019, Jessica Schwabach, a UC Berkeley undergraduate and Siwen Deng, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s PhD program in Plant and Microbial Biology, met in an Engineering Challenge Lab on alternative meats. After the class was over, they put their science backgrounds together and co-founded Sundial Foods, a sustainable business that approaches plant-based meat creation from a new angle.


Challenging Stigma and Silence: How “When You Were Young” Empowers Voices of Color

When Tracey Quezada learned her own family member had been sexually assaulted by a family member, she was surprised by how little mainstream media covered child sexual abuse (CSA) for communities of color. She became motivated to address the ongoing trauma CSA has on families, communities and society as a whole, sparking her interest to direct the documentary film “When You Were Young”.