Maria Artunduaga’s Mission to Manage Chronic Lung Disease

On February 26, 2018, Maria Artunduaga had a eureka moment that medical entrepreneurs dream of. In the office of UCSF Professor Mehrdad Arjomandi, she was soliciting advice about a wearable prototype she had developed to monitor oxygen in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

By Tamara Straus

On February 26, 2018, Maria Artunduaga had a eureka moment that medical entrepreneurs dream of. In the office of UCSF Professor Mehrdad Arjomandi, she was soliciting advice about a wearable prototype she had developed to monitor oxygen in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Dr. Arjomandi—a clinical professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Immunology, and Sleep Medicine and a foremost expert on COPD—was telling her about an air trapping investigation he had been doing for over a decade. He was bemoaning the enormous time and expense involved in testing patients with COPD, the third leading cause of U.S. deaths.

Maria Artunduaga

Artunduaga knew these problems intimately. Her grandmother had died of COPD in 2013—and over the past decade, the 38-year-old from Colombia had earned a MD, a Harvard postdoc, a Master in Public Health, and a Master in Translational Medicine and had been obsessively trying to figure out a cost-saving device for the 328 million people worldwide suffering from the lung disease.
“Dr. Arjomandi was talking about air trapping, when patients can’t exhale, and how air changes. It made me think about basic physics, literally,” said Artunduaga. “If you remember, when you are emitting energy either through light or air or water, it changes its characteristics because you have more or less of the medium. In the same sense, if you have more air or less air, the acoustic resonance, the wave energy, is going to change. All the sudden, I realized you could assess trapped air with wearables.”
Artunduaga grabbed her phone and called her husband, Ricardo Garcia, who works as a technical lead on the Sound Amplifier project at Google. For years, she has been watching him probing phones for sound and experimenting with microphones, audio equipment, and the like.
“I said to Ricardo, ‘I know you can use your phone’s microphone to capture sounds and signals. But are you able to capture exhaling and inhaling?’ I breathed in and out. He confirmed the resonance was captured. It was a eureka moment.”

Since that time, Artunduaga has been in marathon startup mode. She pivoted her first COPD project, called KnO2 Sensor (which won third place in the 2017 Big Ideas Global Health category) from being a low-cost monitoring and evaluation wrist device targeted to Latin America—to a COPD solution that would be rolled out first in the United States. Artunduaga explains that the current methods for tracking respiratory disease are Spirometry and Pulse-oximetry, both patient-initiated interventions. They do provide data at discrete points when a patient uses the equipment; yet they often lead to delays in identifying lung function decline in real time. And this lack of timely information often results in expensive hospitalizations from late detection.
Artunduaga’s startup, called Respira Labs, relies on a wearable technology that provides continuous monitoring to patients and doctors by detecting the trapped air in the lungs associated with COPD. The invention is very much of the moment: it relies on low-cost audio sensors paired with AI algorithms on a smartphone platform that models and track the lungs’ resonant frequency, flagging any changes in lung function. According to Artunduaga, no one has ever tried to use sound to measure lung resonance entropy. Indeed, Respira’s Freedom to Operate patent analysis performed by UC Hastings College of Law found no similar patents over the past 10 to 20 years for air trapping measurement with sound. Respira filed two provisional patents, in April and November, 2018.

To develop the idea and find funding for it, Artunduaga has been on an innovation contest tear. Respira Labs has been invited to four national innovation challenges, and chosen for Skydeck HotDesk and CITRIS Foundry Founder-in-Residence programs as well as the Y Combinator StartUp School. Respira also was awarded two grants of $25,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and VentureWell in June and December 2018 to further customer research. Also in December, Respira was selected to move on to the U.S.-West regional finals in 2019 Global Social Venture Competition and the finals in the 2019 Big Ideas Contest in the Hardware for Good category.

Some of this funding has allowed Artunduaga and her team to interview over 200 people—patients, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, regulatory and healthcare business experts, medical device entrepreneurs, and investors—to ensure the device meets both patient needs and medical industry demands.
“We spent one hour with each patient,” said Artunduaga. “They had so much to teach us about how their life goes and their medical needs. Many don’t get the testing they need, because they can’t afford the testing and physician visits.”
She added: “The scientific method is very important when you are building a company. People ask me how I’ve been making this work in 10 months. I say, ‘This is science applied to business. You need to ask what is your hypothesis and have a plan for how you are testing your ideas and overriding biases. In 2016, I was so in love with the promise of a patch that was flexible, but in the end after I finished 100 interviews, I realized the technology needed to be different.”
Likewise, Artunduaga’s initial ambition to introduce a COPD solution for the Latin American market got revised after rounds of interviews and research and field visits. One problem was the regulatory environment; according to Artunduaga, most Latin American medical systems are 10 years behind in terms of having the regulatory infrastructure to introduce digital health products. The other problem was funding. Artunduaga says she first believed the best way to address global public health issues was through academia and the public sector. But she soon realized that limited funding to those sectors cripples and delays projects that have the chance for large impact.
Respira’s aim is to target all 700,000 COPD U.S. patients who are hospitalized every year by their physicians. The team, which includes Haas MBA students Nikhil Chacko and Nerjada Maksutaj, has investigated time into market research. They estimate that COPD costs the U.S. healthcare system nearly $72 billion a year—and half of that cost is attributed to emergency room visits and hospitalization. Because COPD is on the rise as a leading cause of death in the U.S. (it increased 44 percent from 1990 to 2015, they believe early detection could reduce the $36 billion currently spent on emergency room and hospital visits.
Artunduaga says Respira’s next big challenges are to validate the acoustic lung resonance measurement, refine the sensor design and the long-term data capture using a mobile device application, and explore machine learning data analysis and prediction. Her team —which is mostly Latinx and half women— includes a mix of seasoned consultants and advisors: Ricardo Garcia, an MIT-trained engineer with 20 years of experience in audio sciences and data signal processing, is the lead advisor for technology development; Santiago Alfaro, an MIT-trained industrial designer with 10 years of experience, is working in wearable design and prototyping; Leonardo Perez, a EU-trained PhD in Mechatronics who is developing the sensing technology; Haas MBA students Nikhil Chacko and Nerjada Maksutaj are leading market research, business development, and fundraising strategies; Selene Mota, an MIT-trained Lemelson Inventor’s Fellow, is the lead advisor on user-centered wearable design; and Luis Serrano, a University of Michigan-trained mathematician, who leads Udacity Artificial Intelligence & Data Science teams, is helping develop the Machine Learning algorithms.
Asked about the significance of being a “minority” founder, Artunduaga is characteristically upbeat and straightforward. “I’m an immigrant, a woman, and a Latina—a triple minority—so I’m always proving myself to other people. That’s the challenge I face every day. But I know I can make things happen. In the past, I managed to build the world’s largest microtia DNA bank, publish in Nature and the NEJM, and become the first female international graduate from Latin America to match into a plastic surgery residency. But I’m not a genius. I’m just very stubborn. If somebody tells me no, I just ask for feedback and I keep looking for opportunities until I make it work.”
Although she comes from a family of physicians —her mother is an ENT surgeon, her father is an anesthesiologist, and her sister is a pediatric cardiac and MSK radiologist—Artunduaga says they consider her choice to be a medical entrepreneur unconventional, because for them, a doctor should be doing clinical work and seeing patients. Yet Artunduaga’s multiple prizes, fellowships and awards—as well as her recent selection as Entrepreneur of the Year in Silicon Valley—is quieting their criticism somewhat.
Artunduaga seems not to be terribly concerned. She is in a race against time and for funding. And she is not afraid to ask questions and make connections.
“Everything here is about connecting with people,” said Artunduaga. “In Silicon Valley, things happen five times faster than any other geography. Yet the culture is amazing. If you have a good idea, you can get 20 minutes with CEOs, founders, regulatory experts, or lawyers. People are willing to help you, if they believe in your idea.”

ZestBio Continues Innovation with Waste-based Products

Early in 2017, Ryan Protzko, then a doctoral student in biochemistry at UC Berkeley, was working on research to turn orange peels into eco-friendly bottles and contacted a citrus juicer in California’s Central Valley. Would the company be able to spare some orange peels? Yes, responded the representative, the juicer could

By Tamara Straus

Early in 2017, Ryan Protzko, then a doctoral student in biochemistry at UC Berkeley, was working on research to turn orange peels into eco-friendly bottles and contacted a citrus juicer in California’s Central Valley. Would the company be able to spare some orange peels? Yes, responded the representative, the juicer could truck “a couple tons” of wet navel peel to Protzko’s lab free of charge.

Protzko, co-founder of the green chemistry startup ZestBio, tells this story to widen people’s eyes to the gargantuan amount of agricultural waste produced on Earth. Up to 50 percent of citrus fruit, potato, sugar beet, and grape weight is made up of wasted matter: peels, pulps, and pomace—and that matter comprises only 10 percent of the crops’ value.

In numeracy, citrus pulp and peel alone generate 10 million metric tons of waste worldwide every year. Much of it is reused as feed to cattle, but this requires an energy-intensive process. Peels that are not dried can end up in piles of putrefying waste that cause environmental damage to local waterways and release greenhouse gases, particularly methane. It makes one guilty to drink a glass of orange juice.

Nonetheless, the free citrus pulp offer was confirmation for Protzko and his ZestBio partners—Luke Latimer, who received his PhD in chemistry from Cal in 2017, and UC Berkeley Bioengineering Associate Professor John Dueber—that the raw materials they needed were more than available. What they also soon discovered was that agricultural producers are keen to collaborate on green chemistry products which repurpose their waste, increase their crop value, and reduce emissions by repurposing peel, pulp, and pomace for viable and especially non-oil-based products.

“Just the idea of taking agricultural waste and turning it into something else was exciting to producers,” explained Protzko to the sound of a whirring fermentation shakers in his lab at Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Building. “It took us some time to figure out what we should do and what might be economically viable—but that eventually came from talking to big chemical manufacturers and from the industry responses to our academic paper.”

That academic paper demonstrated the possibility of using engineered yeast to convert pectin-rich orange peel waste into plastic bottles. It is an advance enabled by the last 10 years of metabolic engineering, says Protzko. ZestBio’s goal is to use yeast to make chemical building blocks, which include the plastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF)—a bio-based plastic produced from agricultural waste. The team is one step closer to that goal, as demonstrated in a November 2018 Nature Communications paper, in which the researchers solved challenges associated with engineering a microbial strain to convert pectin-rich hydrolysates into commodity and specialty chemicals.

The Nature Communications paper lands a week after one of California’s most extreme environmental disasters—the Butte County fires, which have been attributed to fossil fuel-driven climate change and which covered the Energy Biosciences Institute in smoke the day of the ZestBio interview. Among the advantages of PEF, says Protzko, is reducing reliance on its chemical cousin, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), found in food packaging and plastic drink bottles. Indeed, when it comes to bottles, an environmentally sustainable solution is in demand. A Pacific Institute study found that approximately 17 million barrels of oil equivalent were needed to produce the plastic water bottles consumed by Americans in 2006—enough energy to fuel more than one million cars for a year.

“Waste causes environmental issues,” says Protzko. “If we can create sustainable products then we’re actually replacing oil and other unsustainable resources.”

ZestBio is part of an increasing number of bioscience startups in the Berkeley area—including  Zymergen, Lygos, Amyris, Zymochem, Sugarlogix, Visolis, and Bolt Threads—that have received support from the Energy Biosciences Institute (a BP-funded partnership of UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, a research partnership led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Since 2007, more than 1,000 researchers have been supported, creating what Protzko calls a “thriving community of Berkeley-based startups involved in bioscience for environmental solutions.”

The cell and molecular biologist from Baltimore did not always see himself as an entrepreneur. It was his co-founder and fellow doctoral student Luke Latimer who pushed him to see their PEF research as a business. Their first step, says Protzko, was to apply to the Big Ideas student innovation contest in the fall of 2016.

“Big Ideas was what jump-started everything for us,” says Protzko. “It forced us to think through step by step what everything would look like and develop a foundation for the company. It was our first time transitioning from being just graduate students to thinking about the bigger impacts we could have.”

Latimer and Protzko submitted their pre-proposal in November 2016 and were assigned an advisor, Tony Kingsbury, from the plastics industry, “who was really great about letting us know what challenges we’d be looking forward to. He forced us to think about different products.” The ZestBio team won first place in the Energy & Resource Alternatives category in May 2017.

Since that time, ZestBio has received pre-seed capital from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR/STTR program and is participating in Berkeley’s prestigious Skydeck accelerator program.

“NSF really pushes customer discovery and commercialization. They go after high risk, high reward for Phase 1. What we’re proposing—we definitely know it’s high risk, high reward, because it’s never been done before.”

The ZestBio team is in conversation with Method and other green products formulators to share research information on its bottle composition process and household cleaning ingredient possibilities. The team aims to have its bio-based bottle on the shelf in five years. In 10 years, says Protzko, the team wants to expand its production beyond eco-friendly bottles to include different vegetable processing and products for multiple producers.
“This is also a global issue,” says Protzko. “Over 60 percent of oranges that are juiced are in Brazil. That would be an incredible market to tap into when we have a refined process to do it.”

DOST— Fostering Early Childhood Development in India

Early years of childhood form the basis of intelligence, personality, social behavior, and capacity to learn and nurture oneself. Increasingly, child development researchers are also finding that brain development during the first eight years is the most rapid, with children who receive attention in their early years

By Veena Narashiman ’2020

Early years of childhood form the basis of intelligence, personality, social behavior, and capacity to learn and nurture oneself. Increasingly, child development researchers are also finding that brain development during the first eight years is the most rapid, with children who receive attention in their early years achieving more success in school.

Sneha Sheth (Berkeley Haas MBA ’2016) knew these facts, having designed international programs for women’s empowerment and education for Dalberg, Education Pioneers, and Teach For India. She understood that early education in India was often neglected due to high rates of poverty and illiteracy–and that the nation holds many of the 200 million children in developing countries at risk of not reaching their full potential.

“I met hundreds of mothers, who had never gone to school,” said Sheth of her time working in a Mumbai slum. “They were willing to do whatever it took to get their kids a great education, but they weren’t really sure how. They would often ask me, ‘Well, I didn’t go to school, what can I really do about this?’”

While pursuing an MBA at Cal, Sheth began to think about an education technology project that could serve low-income Indian parents. During the summer of 2015, she and Sindhuja Jeyabal, who was completing a master’s degree at the UC Berkeley School of Information, piloted DOST, meaning friend in Hindi.

Sheth and Jeyabal then turned to the Big Ideas student innovation contest for development and feedback. Their Big Ideas mentor, Anthony Bloome, a senior education technology specialist at USAID, encouraged their ambition to come up with a solution for early childhood development in India. Big Ideas allowed Sheth and Jeyabal to iron out their implementation plan. In May 2016, DOST won in the Mobiles for Reading category.

Soon after, DOST was named one of the Top Three Edtech Startups in 2016 by the Unitus Seed Fund, followed by an invitation to join Y Combinator. In 2017, the team returned to Big Ideas, winning third place in the Scaling Up competition. The nonprofit’s supporters now include the Mulago Foundation, the David Weekley Family Foundation, and the Chintu Gudiya Foundation, among others.

The path to creating DOST was iterative, said Sheth. “At first, we talked to parents about how those who can’t read can still have a lot of weight in early childhood education. We had to show parents that playing, singing, and talking with their kids was a form of education.”

Sheth and Jeyabal recognized a major challenge was getting busy families to come to DOST early education classes. “You can’t change behavior in one session, and you can’t see changes penetrate in a community in just one session,” said Sheth. Even if one parent was able to attend sessions—and it was often the mothers—DOST wanted to involve fathers, grandparents, aunts, and other extended family members in lesson plans. When the team was brainstorming ideas for a practical approach to this problem, they finally asked, What if we just call them?

Due to the widespread use of Nokia cellphones, Sheth and Jeyabal began to consider a technological approach to parent learning. Sending podcasts to parents, they realized, would allow DOST to serve many families and grow rapidly. Parents also wouldn’t need to make the tough decision of deciding between attending a parenting class or cooking dinner.

Sneha Sheth explaining DOST Education to parents in India.

DOST began to develop 1- to 2-minute daily lesson plans and verbal activities as podcasts deliverable to parents’ phones, allowing busy mothers and fathers to integrate their child’s early development into their daily lives. The audio programs instruct parents to teach basic literacy and numeracy. The first audio program is 24 weeks long, and is targeted at parents of children who are two- to six-years of age. As of October 2018, there are 20,000 Indian caregivers using DOST every day, a figure that has grown 100 times in the last two years.

One of the first lesson plans featured how parents could speak to their children without intimidation. By trying a collaborative approach rather than a violent one, parents reported their children were more receptive to instructions and guidance. One of DOST’s most popular mini podcasts encourages mothers to make rotis in different shapes for dinner—fostering pre-numeracy skills at a young age.

To build awareness for DOST, the nonprofit has hired mothers from the communities it targets. “DOST Champions see the untapped potential in their own community and know how to convince their neighbors to join DOST,” said Sheth. “It’s also a plus to create employment in the areas we work in.”

Ultimately DOST’s mission is to provide uneducated parents with the resources to enable their children to excel. “Whether it’s by categorizing rotis as big or small during cooking or naming the colors in a sari,” said Sheth, “these kids will be more prepared for their future.”

VIDI—Another Way to See Surgery

Basic surgeries are far from basic. They require approximately 50 tools, which take about 2 minutes each for an experienced technician to clean. Operations in a trauma unit require as many as 400 tools. And in both environments, surgical tools can be easily misplaced, thrown away, or

By Veena Narashiman ’20

Basic surgeries are far from basic. They require approximately 50 tools, which take about 2 minutes each for an experienced technician to clean. Operations in a trauma unit require as many as 400 tools. And in both environments, surgical tools can be easily misplaced, thrown away, or misassembled. In fact in the U.S. alone, busy surgical teams inadvertently leave an instrument inside a patient about 1,500 times a year.

Solving the problem of surgical tool tracking is the focus of VIDI, a startup launched in November 2017 by Federico Alvarez del Blanco (’18 UC Berkeley MBA), John Kim (PhD ’18 UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering), Hector Neira, (PhD ’18 UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering), and Robert Kim (PhD candidate, UCSD MD/PhD, Neuroscience)—which received a Big Ideas 2nd place award in May in the Hardware for Good category.

The group of Cal students were inspired by a campus workshop on visual recognition sponsored by information technology company NEC. They began to realize that the same machine learning technologies being deployed for self-driving cars could be used to increase hospital efficiency by tracking the flow of sterilization tools used in operations and thus minimizing medical errors.

VIDI (which means “see” in Latin) is being developed to do the following: As technicians prepare instruments before a procedure, a camera facing the surgical tray tracks where each tool goes and ensures the number of tools present in the beginning remains constant throughout the process. When a tool goes missing, the technology alerts technicians of a possible error.
Neria, Kim, del Blanco, and Kim initially decided to target hospitals’ Central Processing Departments, where most tools are sterilized, since this area is more accessible than operating rooms. “We figured it was a good place to start. The less high stakes for a prototype, the better,” said John Kim. The team also realized sterilization operators are vastly underappreciated and underpaid, even though they are expected to enable fast turnover of surgical tools. “These technicians don’t stay in the same hospitals for a long time, because they burn out quickly. Also, every hospital has a different technique and different name for their procedures. It’s super easy to get confused and make a mistake as an operator,” added Kim.

Yet the focus on the Central Processing Departments did not yield enough information about tool loss. So the VIDI team members turned their attention to the surgical room. By placing a table top camera facing the surgical tray (filled with cleaned instruments), VIDI was able to automatically catalog the tools, a feature that cuts the operator’s time by half.

To further their idea, Hector Neria, John Kim, and Robert Kim participated in the National Science Foundation I-Corps, and conducted upwards of 100 interviews to understand the state of the medical field. From there, they entered the Haas NEC Innovative Solutions Fair, where they partnered with MBA student Federico Alvarez del Blanco, and subsequently won first place. Throughout the process, they explored new markets.

Said John Kim: “Our initial motivation was to tackle the issue of surgical tools being left in patients [a term called RSI], but that only accounts for 5 percent of all misuses… It’s not a huge market. We discovered that tracking the instruments was not well managed, and hospitals were having a hard time converting to new tools.”

At this stage, they were ready for Big Ideas ideation and mentorship.

“Previous competitions were mainly focused on customer discovery,” said Kim. “We needed Big Ideas to receive feedback on our value proposition, and this feedback helped us understand more about our competitors and where they lie in the market.”

With the help of their Big Ideas mentor, product development specialist Bayan M. Qandil, they began to frame their business proposal. “One of our biggest hurdles was determining hospital workflow, and where VIDI fits in [it],” said Kim. “Big Ideas allowed us to experience the hospital atmosphere more intimately, so we could understand of how the day-to-day works. Their feedback was invaluable.”

One of their main takeaways and pivot points began with the realization that unlike other companies, VIDI users wouldn’t be the ones buying the product. In fact, the financial decision makers—hospital administrators—would never touch VIDI, yet they were still the people the team has to convince. “It’s a tricky situation to be in, but ultimately a good challenge,” said Kim. “Interviewing technicians from UCSF and the CEO of John Muir’s Medical Center helped us understand the balance of things. Hospitals realize the gravity of surgical mistakes and want to eliminate them. ”

VIDI now has the capability to detect 50 surgical instruments in a hospital setting. In September, they were chosen as finalists in the 2018 Collegiate Inventors Competition, which rewards innovation and research conducted by college students and their faculty advisers. They’ll be traveling to Virginia in November for the final round, in the hope to receive funding to advance their project.

The VIDI  team, which chose its name from Julius Caesar’s saying veni vidi vici, is not shy about its excitement for the future. Said Kim, “The healthcare system desperately needs improvement—and our team wants to get our hands dirty as soon as possible to help hospitals with these unforced errors.”

MarHub: A Technology to Help Refugees Navigate Asylum

In 2016, as Sarrah Nomanbhoy was starting her MBA at the Haas School of Business, the refugee crisis in Europe was in its second peak year and over a million applicants applied for asylum to the EU.
Nomanbhoy, a native Californian, had been watching

Veena Narashiman ’2020

In 2016, as Sarrah Nomanbhoy was starting her MBA at the Haas School of Business, the refugee crisis in Europe was in its second peak year and over a million applicants applied for asylum to the EU.
Nomanbhoy, a native Californian, had been watching the refugee crisis unfold since her undergraduate days at Stanford, where she studied international relations. She understood that the forces behind the crisis were bound to exacerbate the situation and the number of displaced people would only increase. She also began to understand that only 2 percent of refugees have access to voluntary repatriation, resettlement, or local housing solutions; the rest face long-term encampment, urban destitution, or perilous journeys.

At UC Berkeley, Nomanbhoy learned from Law Professor Katerina Linos that many asylum seekers arriving in Europe lack adequate information about how to apply for asylum, particularly how to prepare for the arduous asylum interviews. This motivated her and fellow graduate students Jerry Philip (Haas MBA ’18) and Peter Wasserman (Haas MBA 18) to apply for a Hult Prize focused on the refugee crisis.

MarHub intern Ramah Awad (left) and Jerry Philip (EWMBA ’19) show MarHub’s prototype to NGO staff in the Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece.

Their idea was to come up with a digital means to inform asylum seekers about what to expect at asylum interviews and to convey a variety of legal rights, including the option to review interview transcripts and replace a translator. According to Nomanbhoy, about 70 percent of asylum seekers receive negative decisions after this first set of interviews, and many are in limbo pending the outcome of the appeal process.

With support from various Berkeley grants, the team traveled to Greece during the summer of 2017 to research the project. They saw firsthand that refugees often seek asylum alone, without much legal advice. Although legal aid organizations were on the ground, they witnessed there were not enough resources to accommodate the many asylum cases. As a result, the refugees often went into the life-defining interview process blind, reducing the chances for a favorable outcome.

When the three students returned to campus, they began to develop a chatbot, called MarHub (a reference to the Arabic greeting marhaba), which would allow refugees to receive personalized information regarding their specific path to asylum. Among the team’s insights is that a vast majority of Syrian migrants in Europe and the Middle East own smartphones and thus can be serviced remotely, without a large team on the ground.

Said Nomanbhoy: “The gaps in legal assistance are widely acknowledged, but it’s just a very difficult problem to tackle. When refugees seek asylum, there isn’t enough legal aid to go around. The procedures are constantly changing, and it is difficult for organizations to disseminate new information. We just make that information more accessible.”

By the fall of 2017, the MarHub team knew they had a strong idea, but they were struggling with their implementation strategy. They turned to the Blum Center’s Big Ideas student innovation contest for mentorship and support.

“Big Ideas forced us to flesh out the logistics of our pilot,” said Nomanbhoy. “We discovered some small pitfalls in our initial strategy, and thankfully we were able to proactively address them.”

Katy Digovich, who works for the Clinton Health Access Initiative and served as MarHub’s Big Ideas mentor, proved especially beneficial, as she has expertise in implementing technology solutions in resource constrained environments.

“Katy helped us think about building strong partnerships and managing the expectations of our key stakeholders,” said Nomanbhoy. “There are so many people affected by this refugee crisis. We realized the dangers of wanting to go too big too quickly.”

Feedback from the judges in the first and second rounds of the competition helped Nomanbhoy and her colleagues refine their purpose and think carefully about their approach. Utilizing feedback from the judges in the first and second rounds of the competition allowed the team to refine their purpose and helped them win third place in the Connected Communities category in May 2018.

The Marhub team is now preparing to launch a limited pilot in Lebanon early next year. Refugees there will be able to access MarHub on Facebook messenger and receive updated information instantaneously. After refugees answer a few questions, for example, the MarHub tool walks them through what to expect and how to present their case. The information comes directly from legal organizations devoted to the refugee crisis, protecting refugees from misinformation.

In the short term, Marhub’s chatbot will help people apply for refugee status and resettlement
and provide information about legal rights. In the long term, the team hopes to connect refugees with a wide range of services, including job placement, health services, and housing.

“The scale of the crisis is overwhelming, but we’re starting with a narrow focus,” said Nomanbhoy of her team’s approach. “We hope to expand our scope as we learn more about the needs of our stakeholders.”

Can these Berkeley students make Mexico’s devil fish the next big thing?

2018 Big Ideas Contest Winners Mike Mitchell and Sam Bordia, both graduating this month with a master’s degree in international development, have launched an audacious plan

2018 Big Ideas Contest Winners Mike Mitchell and Sam Bordia, both graduating this month with a master’s degree in international development, have launched an audacious plan to make the invasive, environmentally harmful, diablo fish the world’s next source of affordable protein and create a new market that will pay fishermen and help control the spread of the “devil” fish.

Big Ideas Teams Recognized as “2017 World Changing Ideas” by Fast Company

Fast Company, the world’s leading progressive business media brand, today recognized four teams from the Big Ideas Contest with “2017 World Changing Ideas Awards.”

By Sarah Bernardo

fast company logoFast Company, the world’s leading progressive business media brand, today recognized four teams from the Big Ideas Contest with “2017 World Changing Ideas Awards.” The company’s Co.Exist branch launched the prestigious awards competition in 2016 to recognize ingenuity in social entrepreneurship.

A judging panel of 25 prominent entrepreneurs, authors, designers, and venture capitalists assessed over 1,000 entries to select 12 winners and 192 finalists. The Big Ideas teams included one winner and three finalists, and were among an impressive group that included organizations such as Microsoft, Etsy, the World Food Programme,, and Ford Motor Company.

The current and past Big Ideas teams selected as “World Changing Ideas” (listed below) include a diverse range of projects focused on improving disaster response, accessing to safe drinking water, combating recidivism and developing innovative assistive technologies.

Information for Action
Winner: Apps Category
Information for Action (IFA) is​ dedicated to social change powered by citizens and technology. IFA deployed a user-centered design strategy to launch the first-ever browser extension and web application that links news to action. The application allows quicker engagement when a natural disaster strikes. Community organizations can post actions to recruit volunteers and advocate for their work, then individuals can immediately sign up to hand out meals to victims, distribute supplies, and help people find shelter. (2017 Big Ideas Current Finalist, Information Technology for Society)

Drinkwell – SHRI Community Sanitation Facilities
Finalist: Developing World Technology Category
SHRI fights alongside communities to end open defecation as a key step in an ongoing struggle for health equity and social and economic justice.  SHRI’s water filtration system is installed through a partnership with DrinkWell Systems, a Kolkata-based company. It is WHO certified and removes arsenic, flouride, iron, and bacteria from water, making it safe to drink. Water is sold to customers for $0.008 per liter. (2016 Big Ideas Winner, Global Health)

FITE Film — From Incarceration to Education
Finalist: Photography and Visualization Category
FITE Film is an in-depth documentary that delves into the stories of four formerly incarcerated students at UC Berkeley. The aim is to combat high rates of recidivism through the production and distribution of a documentary film that will be screened in prison and youth detention facilities. Shot and filmed specifically with an audience of the currently incarcerated in mind, it will engage and guide the viewer, directly connecting him or her to beneficial programs with the aid of a resources database. (2016 Big Ideas Winner, Art & Social Change)

Finalist: Students Category
WheelSense is an open-source, modular, adaptable, add-on system for wheelchairs that provides spatial awareness for visually impaired and movement-restricted users to prevent obstacles and ease their navigation. This allows users to maintain complete control of the wheelchair by compensating for any visual/spatial impairments, making independent travel more realistic. (2017 Big Ideas Current Finalist, Hardware for Good)

About the Big Ideas Contest: Big Ideas is a year-long, annual student innovation contest that provides funding, support, and inspration to interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students who have creative solutions to address pressing social challenges. The Big Ideas program is managed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, an interdisciplinary center established in 2006 at UC Berkeley to improve global well-being by developing innovative technologies and systems, and by inspiring a new generation of changemakers.

About Fast Company: Fast Company is the world’s leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, leadership, world changing ideas, and design. Written for, by, and about the most progressive business leaders, Fast Company inspires readers to think beyond traditional boundaries, lead conversations, and create the future of business.