Student Entrepreneurs Find Collaborators, Inspiration, and Opportunities at Innovators@Cal

Innovators@Cal — UC Berkeley’s annual flagship entrepreneurship event, which brought together aspiring student innovators, students curious about joining early-stage ventures, and an inspirational keynote speaker tackling the “world’s dumbest problem.” 

Student Entrepreneurs Find Collaborators, Inspiration, and Opportunities at Innovators@Cal

Student entrepreneurs and attendees gather in Blum Hall for a networking and brainstorming session. (Sam Goldman photo)

By Sam Goldman

Earlier this fall, UC Berkeley debuted a webpage spotlighting the breadth and depth of its most innovative alumni and the resources available on campus to support the next generation of game-changing entrepreneurs, along with a series of deep-dive stories highlighting Cal founders and their impacts on society. 

The timing couldn’t have been better: Pitchbook recently ranked Berkeley No. 1 for number of venture-backed startup companies, ahead of the likes of Stanford, Harvard, Penn, and MIT. Berkeley innovators like Jennifer Doudna and Kevin Chou generate international headlines. Campus is home to an ever-growing number of entrepreneurship, innovation, and tech-minded organizations and resources.

But — for the aspiring student innovator with a rapidly germinating new idea — where do they start? Where can they access resources and support to help transform their ideas into reality? Where can they find teammates ready to go all-in?

On November 7, that place was Innovators@Cal — UC Berkeley’s annual flagship entrepreneurship event, which brought together aspiring student innovators, students curious about joining early-stage ventures, and an inspirational keynote speaker tackling the “world’s dumbest problem.” 

Students from a wide range of disciplines and departments across the UC Berkeley campus took turns offering two-minute pitches to a standing room–only crowd in Banatao Auditorium. They highlighted a wide range of innovations, including an app detecting stroke symptoms, an electrical grid–monitoring technology, and simple new methods for improving the availability of menstrual products. Immediately after, speakers and listeners alike gathered in Blum Hall for a lively networking and brainstorming session where students used whiteboards to sketch out their ideas, solicit feedback, and find teammates. 

Student entrepreneurs prepare for the evening’s networking session. (Sam Goldman photo)

One of those blueprints was for the startup Materri, which generates recommendations for the best materials to use in footwear designers’ products, saving those producers time and money in consulting fees. Materri attended Innovators@Cal hoping to recruit software engineers.

“We’re not software engineers, and we’re building a software platform,” said co-founder Kira Erickson. “So that’s been our main hurdle in becoming a successful startup: just finding engineering talent, so we’re hoping to find some talented people to work with us.”

Across the room was Kerisha Burke, who, after researching why Black people hold a disproportionately low percentage of STEM jobs, found that part of the problem was rooted in student opportunities. “Students from underrepresented backgrounds continue to face challenges in pursuing careers in the STEM industry,” she had told the audience, “particularly due to the lack of access to resources that could help them to succeed.” Many of these resources exist outside the classroom — STEM conferences key among them. But these events are expensive to attend and time-consuming to apply for. 

MBA student Kerisha Burke pitches Scholarly Loop. (Sam Goldman photo)
MBA student Kerisha Burke pitches Scholarly Loop. (Sam Goldman photo)

Enter Burke’s Scholarly Loop, an AI-powered platform consolidating all manner of resources to support underrepresented students throughout the entire conference process, from a list of conferences to travel scholarships to tools that facilitate the paperwork side.

“I’ve been looking for an opportunity to pitch,” she said. “And I thought this was an opportunity for me to be vulnerable, open, and to just take a risk. Hopefully this is the first step in me doing that, then going out there and pitching and just getting more comfortable with sharing my ideas with others.”

The event was sponsored by a host of on-campus organizations, including many student-run, spanning the innovation and entrepreneurial pipeline: Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, AI Entrepreneurs at Berkeley, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, Berkeley Venture Capital, Entrepreneurs@Berkeley, Entrepreneurship@BerkeleyHaas, NSF I-Corps, the Student Entrepreneurship Program, and the Big Ideas Contest, Berkeley’s flagship social-innovation competition (pre-proposals applications are due December 6).

The night’s guest of honor was keynote speaker Komal Ahmad, founder of Copia, a logistics technology platform for managing food waste. Ahmad, winner of the 2012 Big Ideas Contest, studied international health and global development as well as Global Poverty and Practice at UC Berkeley, before her work solving hunger earned her an avalanche of accolades, including landing on Forbes30 Under 30 list. Copia redirects leftover food and meals (including from the Super Bowl and the Oscars) to organizations and people who need it now. The company has saved over 6.5 million tons of food, delivered over 5.4 million meals, generated over $21 million in savings for businesses and nonprofits, and operates in 40 states.

The story behind those eye-popping numbers is a single meal that an undergraduate Ahmad, then studying to be a doctor, hadn’t intended to have. 

Komal Ahmad, founder of Copia (Sam Goldman photo)
Komal Ahmad, founder of Copia (Sam Goldman photo)

Walking down Telegraph Avenue, she encountered a homeless man asking for food, and she invited him to join her for lunch. As he wolfed down his meal, he shared his story: His name was John and he had returned from his second tour in Iraq to find that his military benefits hadn’t kicked in. He hadn’t eaten in three days. And yet, “right across the street,” Ahmad said, “Berkeley’s dining hall was throwing away thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food.” 

Hunger was not a problem of insufficient food, she realized, but a logistics and distribution problem. 

“Solving the world’s dumbest problem became my life’s mission and Copia’s purpose,” she said. “Had I never reached out to that homeless veteran, had I never looked up from my phone, Copia would not exist. That day I fed one man. Because of his story, Copia will feed 8 million people” this year.

Yet the journey from one to 8 million was anything but linear.

Ahmad’s first attempt to find new stomachs for 500 leftover sandwiches on short notice had hardly any takers. Fast forward to subsequent efforts where she recruited her own volunteer drivers to ferry food from A to B, then tapped into the existing infrastructure of Doordash and Postmates to scale her endeavor. But after three years, Copia had yet to make much of a splash locally, and Ahmad felt depleted. “I lost my passion,” she said. “I lost my fire.” 

She took a job at Google, listening to the complaints of angry customers for six months before getting fired. She had hit “rock bottom.” 

But her dismissal was the “best thing that ever happened to me.” The intensity of failure, she told students, provides one with a new clarity, allows one’s strengths to shine through, and one’s “genuine self emerges.”

Ahmad returned to her passion, first volunteering at a Silicon Valley food pantry and then recruiting more volunteers. She built the technology and logistical systems to connect all manner of businesses and nonprofits so that leftover meals can find recipients who need them now. Copia joined the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator and became a multimillion-dollar startup.

“It’s not an overnight transformation,” she said. “It’s taking this step over and over — to take the risk, chase the dream, and follow your heart.”

“Whatever comes your way,” she advised, “keep moving forward.”

That, in a nutshell, is one of the key attributes of a successful entrepreneur, and a life view that UC Berkeley inspires, teaches, and supports. So remember to get your Big Ideas proposal in by December 6 — take a cue from Komal and take that risk. We are here to support you!

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

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

UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas Contest Builds Student-Led Social Innovations
Paige Balcom (second from left) and members of the Takataka Plastics team (courtesy of Takataka Plastics)

By K.J. Bannan

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

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

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

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

Balcom’s experience is a textbook example of the social innovation that the Big Ideas ecosystem catalyzes. Click here to read more about how the program has supported over 9,000 students, through the stories of Paige and two other social innovators who have transformed their Big Ideas into real-world impact.

In the AI Era, Blum Center Students and Alumni Find Ways to Apply the Technology for Social Good

Yet even before AI took center stage this past year, students and alumni of the Blum Center for Developing Economies were embracing the emerging technologies’ potential, specifically for social good. From detecting “deepfake” videos to analyzing agriculture changes and building understanding across communities, Blum Center folks share their experiences, inspirations, and the impact of their AI-driven projects and ventures. 

In the AI Era, Blum Center Students and Alumni Find Ways to Apply the Technology for Social Good
Sarah Hartman, a PhD candidate in ESPM minoring in Development Engineering, analyzes historical and near-real-time satellite imagery in Google Earth Engine to map and categorize fields and landscapes to compare changes over time. She then relates these changes to other timestamped activities such as damage to transportation routes or local military activity. (Video by Sarah Hartman)

By Mengyuan Dong
Master of Journalism ’23

Only about a year has passed since DALL-E, the AI text-to-image model, and ChatGPT, the large language model–using chatbot, ushered in what feels like the age of AI: months of wall-to-wall news coverage of and personal experimentation with the most powerful publicly available artificial intelligence programs. But what started off as images of Darth Vader playing in the NBA and the near-instant generation of new bedtime stories have given way to concerns about how AI can contribute to disinformation campaigns, academic dishonesty, and even an end to whole classes of workers whose jobs can, theoretically, be done by machines.

Yet even before AI took center stage this past year, students and alumni of the Blum Center for Developing Economies were embracing the emerging technologies’ potential, specifically for social good. From detecting “deepfake” videos to analyzing agriculture changes and building understanding across communities, Blum Center folks share their experiences, inspirations, and the impact of their AI-driven projects and ventures. 


Shaping the battle against deepfakes

Raymond Lee (courtesy photo)
Raymond Lee (courtesy photo)

Back in 2019, Raymond Lee, a former Big Ideas Contest winner and a UC Berkeley alum, spotted the growing threat caused by deepfakes — media created using learning techniques that can swap faces, voices, and even entire bodies, making it appear as if someone is saying or doing something they never actually did.

While deepfakes became viral and raised public concerns, no technical solutions stood out then. Lee decided to initiate FakeNetAI, a deepfake detection SaaS (Software as a Service) that aimed to “protect against economic, societal, and political threats.” 

FakeNetAI began as Lee’s capstone project during his master’s program in data science, and it quickly evolved into a startup with the support of his teammates from data science, electrical engineering and computer science, and Haas MBA students. And through participating in the Big Ideas Contest, Lee connected with mentors, conducted market analysis, and developed a mature business plan. 

To train their machine learning model, Lee and his teammates curated a diverse dataset by employing open-source data sets, scraping raw data from YouTube, and collecting deepfake videos created using various methods. The team’s approach and the customized machine-learning architecture resulted in a detection accuracy of over 90 percent.

Since its victory in the Big Ideas Contest in 2019, the startup has successfully attracted media outlets, banks, and social media firms as customers. For NewsMobile, an Indian fact-checking site, FakeNetAI helped identify viral deepfake videos featuring prominent figures like Tom Cruise and Donald Trump. Moreover, it aided in verifying livestreaming videos during a critical moment of the Myanmar coup for another third-party fact-checker.

However, Lee acknowledges that the fight against deepfakes is far from over. The rapid proliferation of deepfake generation has still outpaced the development of detection expertise. Citing the research of Prof. Hany Farid from Berkeley’s School of Information, Lee emphasizes the urgent need for continued research in detecting these highly realistic manipulated videos.

“It’s like a cat and mouse game where you constantly have to outsmart the generation models with your detection model,” he says.

The other challenge is, because media comes in a wide range of formats, it takes a lot of work to train a machine-learning model that can perform well on all different formats. So the more generalized a machine-learning model is made to be, the less accurate it becomes.

FakeNetAI is still growing, and Lee is determined to stay at the forefront of innovation. He has also pivoted his career to do more general AI and data science consulting. “The image generation field has advanced at a rapid rate,” he says, “and there’s always a lot of interesting stuff going on in the video, image and text generation space.”


Understanding abandonment in Ukrainian agriculture amidst war

Sarah Hartman, a PhD student within Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, has been involved in the Digital Transformation of Development traineeship since last year, and will continue as a funded fellow for this upcoming year.

Before joining DToD, Hartman’s research interests in food and water led her to participate in the InFEWS program. What she enjoys the most about these programs is the opportunity to interact with individuals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines.

“I’ve gained a lot intellectually by chatting with people,” Hartman says. “There were things that I learned from the other fellows that have helped reframe how I think about my research or have made me think about potential tools and methods that I hadn’t otherwise stumbled upon.”

In her research on water and agriculture, Hartman utilizes machine learning and AI to map changes and quantify the extent of agricultural activities. Her recent work involves training machine-learning models to analyze satellite images of Ukrainian agriculture during its war with Russia, with a specific focus on abandonment and its underlying drivers. 

The idea stemmed from a teaching experience when Hartman was a graduate student instructor for a Principles of Natural Resource Management class. As the war in Ukraine began during the semester, she noticed the students’ desire to understand the global impact of such events on natural resources and supply chains. She then decided to deliver materials around globalization with a specific angle of Ukraine. For instance, the country is one of the world’s breadbaskets, where fields of sunflowers, wheat, and corn provide food for some of the world’s most water-stressed and vulnerable countries, particularly many in North Africa. The abandonment of Ukrainian fields could cause serious food instability for its importing countries.

Inspired by the dynamic conversations in class, Hartman wanted to pursue a research project on the issue. “I took it personally,” Hartman says. “I’ve been learning how to use satellite images and machine learning to look at agriculture; what better place to do it than to help inform what’s happening in Ukraine in near real-time?”

Are fields abandoned because of a physical tank or destruction? Or because of supply chain issues such as farmers unable to get sufficient fertilizer or no longer able to sell their crop? Hartman’s research looks into these issues by analyzing satellite images and hopes to reveal what affects the overall resilience of Ukrainian agriculture. Specifically, she analyzes historical and near-real-time satellite imagery in Google Earth Engine to map and categorize fields and landscapes to compare changes over time. She then relates these changes to other timestamped activities such as damage to transportation routes or local military activity.

Besides technical analysis, Hartman hopes she could do more outreach and engagement with local communities in Ukraine that are directly affected, which has been challenging given the ongoing war condition. She says she would love to work with organizations with access to the groups. 

Hartman is captivated by the power of analyzing publicly available satellite images. She explains that researchers can access these images and gain insights into any part of the world, dating back to the 1980s or earlier. This accessibility proves particularly invaluable when collecting information on remote and resource-limited regions where data has historically been uncollected or lost. 

What an incredible opportunity to pair images that have been collected for tens and tens of years and use that to analyze things in a way that provides data that may not necessarily be possible otherwise,” Hartman says. “That’s what I see as the potential.”


Paving the way for empathy in the digital age

Kenan Carames, a current Master of Development Engineering student in the AI & Data Analytics for Social Impact concentration, is developing platforms that help people in different communities grow closer together in an online space. Already having a background in data analysis, he joined the program to pursue his interest in social issues and international development.

Kenan Carames (courtesy photo)
Kenan Carames (courtesy photo)

“There’s so much exciting stuff happening in AI both from a technical and social point of view,” he says. “And coming from an engineering background, I do have the opportunity to provide a more technical perspective in the social conversations.”

Over his two and counting semesters, Carames took classes on development issues and intense technical skills such as applied machine learning. A course called Politics of Information taught by Prof. AnnaLee Saxenian, also Carames’ mentor, sparked his interest in political issues around data and the social media space. His passion found a nurturing ground during his ongoing internship with Search for Common Ground Peace, a peacebuilding organization that aims to mediate conflicts and violent areas across the world. 

Carames recently worked on developing a chatbot for the organization to guide individuals in countries including Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan, and Lebanon towards resources that promote empathy and mutual understanding. He primarily helped advance the user experience of the chatbot, which requires a lot of data analysis and visualization of how users interact with the product and which materials get the most engagement. The current structure of the chatbot is more like a decision tree or choose-your-own-adventure, Carames explains, but his team plans to use more natural language processing (NLP) to make it more dynamic and engaging in the future.

“It’s definitely different work than I’ve done previously. And it’s kind of cool to have these social goals that you’re working towards,” he says. “That feels very impactful.”

While Carames is still developing his MDevEng capstone project idea, he is determined to keep exploring efforts to build empathy in digital spaces. The concept of the project will be based on contact theory, he says. The theory holds that contact between two groups can promote tolerance and acceptance under appropriate conditions, and he wants to experiment with it in an online space. 

From an engineering perspective, Carames will explore the system design and algorithm decisions he could make to ensure that when people from different groups come in contact with each other, they’re fostering understanding of each other rather than developing prejudice and hate. He has been learning from a project where researchers use question-and-answer website Quora to facilitate conversations about Israel and Palestine for people living in and outside these areas. 

“It’s a very heated topic, and how do you set up those spaces and design conversations to get people to engage each other in a helpful way?” he asked. “It’s very difficult and messy, but I think that’s why it’s interesting.”

Meet Ilana Lipsett: Big Ideas Mentor and Judge and a Champion for the Future

As a senior program manager at Institute for the Future, a non-profit encouraging individuals and organizations to plan for the long-term, Lipsett looks at the world-to-come through a collaborative lens. But her dedication to innovative futures transcends her office. As a judge and mentor of the Big Ideas Contest, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Lipsett has become a key piece of the program and an exemplar for students who too hope to redesign how we approach forthcoming generations.     

Meet Ilana Lipsett: Big Ideas Mentor and Judge and a Champion for the Future
Ilana Lipsett
Courtesy of Ilana Lipsett

By Alisha Dalvi

When we think about our socio-economic future, endless possibilities come to mind. You may be concerned about the changing climate or advancements in technology or how various social groups interact with each other. Or maybe you’re thinking on a smaller scale, interested in how your community will be affected. Ilana Lipsett explores all of these facets. As a senior program manager at Institute for the Future, a non-profit encouraging individuals and organizations to plan for the long-term, Lipsett looks at the world-to-come through a collaborative lens. But her dedication to innovative futures transcends her office. As a judge and mentor of the Big Ideas Contest, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Lipsett has become a key piece of the program and an exemplar for students who too hope to redesign how we approach forthcoming generations.     

Lipsett is a Bay Area native, born and raised in the East Bay, and frequented UC Berkeley for summer school growing up. She attended college across the state at UC San Diego, studying History, French Literature, and Music. Her unique educational focuses led her down a long and windy road of various disciplines: She started off in Washington, D.C. at the intersection of labor and politics, working on everything from political campaigns to advocacy work for displaced workers. Ten years later, she returned to the Bay Area to get her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. During and after grad school, Lipsett worked for the City of San Francisco at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. This kickstarted her work in urban development with an emphasis in community engagement; her advocacy for creating accessible and inclusive public spaces and public-facing activities translated across different domains: from the City of San Francisco, to a private real estate developer, to her own business, and even at an international scale, supporting community spaces in refugee camps. 

Now, Lipsett advances her brand of public engagement and participatory design at the Institute for the Future (IFTF). Her work has a civic-futures focus, entwining sustainable community solutions into everything from political systems to real estate. One of her many ongoing projects works to expand a predominantly POC housing co-op in San Francisco by creating an accessible STEM center and Performing Arts Center in unoccupied buildings. But Lipsett also values impact through education. At IFTF, Lipsett teaches public classes to an international audience on design futures and foresight essentials. “I really want to give people the tools to think about how the future can be different,” she says. “Then encourage them to get creative and make the changes so they can move towards their preferred future.” Lipsett certainly practices what she preaches: As a singer and songwriter for “The Seastars,” a girl band that uses music to advocate for a climate sustainable future, Lipsett taps into her creative side to encourage others to change their behavior in favor of our environment.

When she is not busy changing the future and using music to empower the world, Lipsett carries teams to victory in the annual Big Ideas competition. Lipsett first heard about Big Ideas in 2018 through her friend, Dani Bicknell, a program manager for Big Ideas at the time. Bicknell told her about the competition and asked if she wanted to be a part of it. “I always love to be involved in the local community, but Big Ideas especially felt like a great fit with the skills I have to offer and how I want to be connecting with others,” Lipsett says. So, on whim, she said yes, but just as a one-time commitment. But that one time, where she served as both a judge and a mentor to a team, was such an incredible experience that she immediately knew that it wouldn’t be her last. “It was such an amazing opportunity to see students see potential in something new,” she says. 

As a judge, Lipsett reads and judges student entrants’ social innovations’ pre-proposals based on a specific scorecard, deciding whether it should move on to the final round. There are four factors on which pre-proposals are measured: viability, originality, team, and quality. “Saying no is probably the hardest part,” she admits. “Every proposal is so interesting and creative.” After the finalists have been determined, Lipsett is matched with a team of students to act as their mentor. Lipsett highlights how perfectly aligned she was with teams she was matched with. For example, one project she mentored, Doin’ Good, aimed to provide vocational education to Syrian refugees in Lebanon by creating mobile maker spaces and education centers out of a van. Conveniently, Lipsett had just come back from Bangladesh, creating maker spaces at refugee camps there. And Lipsett’s expertise certainly paid off — Doin’ Good won first in the Workforce Development track in 2019 and was a Grand Prize finalist! 

As a mentor, Lipsett meets with her mentees every week, setting a timeline of work to be done and anticipating and preemptively addressing potential challenges or gaps. From providing connections to people working in the field to helping with the budget, Lipsett was the go-to person whenever her team was stuck. But Lipsett believes it’s the students’ drive that allows the project to flourish. One team Lipsett mentored, Send Help, proposed an AI chatbot that connects citizens with police alternatives during non-emergencies. Essentially, they wanted to make calling non-police first responders as easy as calling 911. Lipsett suggested to the team that the proposal needed an endorsement from public officials, and the next thing she knew, the team had met with the Berkeley City Council and got letters of approval from policymakers. 

Lipsett is certainly not short of accolades in her own endeavors for innovative change. In 2013, the White House awarded the Champion of Change Award to her and her team for creating [freespace], a movement dedicated to activating vacant spaces as temporary community, cultural, and art hubs. [freespace] (written with the brackets) was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, created by the Obama White House, encouraging everyday citizens to get involved in addressing civic issues in their neighborhood. Lipsett, with her team, came up with an idea: “What if we create a community space as a platform instead of focusing on one specific issue?” So, they found a 14,000-square-foot warehouse on the market for $25,000 a month and convinced the landlord to rent it to them for $1. This was the birth of [freespace]. The project had two rules: everything had to be free, and everything had to be participatory. 

“It opened up as an experiment, we didn’t have goals or expectations, we didn’t know where it would go,” Lipsett recalls. But the success was hard to believe. “People would come for one thing and stay for another.” There were paella cooking lessons while artists were making sculptures during a class for programming LED Lights. At one workshop, facilitators encouraged kids from the local Boys and Girls Club to create their own superheroes. Then, costume designers turned their visions into reality, working with the kids to create personalized superhero costumes. This likely would not have happened if not for the random human collision which [freespace] cultivated; the workshop idea came to the costume designers after spending time in [freespace], often surrounded by children. Seeing the benefits of giving the community a space with an open invitation to do and create anything inspired a whole [freespace] movement: While the space in San Francisco was always meant to be temporary, 26 different locations opened across 18 countries around the world. 

This year, Lipsett mentored yet another Big Ideas team. She values investing time to enhance and encourage students’ social innovations. And while she has decades of experience and serves as a mentor, Lipsett still feels she has a lot to learn from others, whether it’s kids with superhero dreams or grad students providing safer alternatives to police calls. “Working with such determined students is so energizing, the whole process is definitely mutually beneficial,” she says. 

Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day Showcases Inventions of Top Student Teams

Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day Showcases Inventions of Top Student Teams

In 2006, the Big Ideas Contestlaunched at UC Berkeley to catalyze and support an interdisciplinary and diverse network of student entrepreneurs to develop game-changing innovations. No longer would entrepreneurship be ensconced within just engineering and business schools and accessible to only a few. The time had come to “open-source” entrepreneurship to include the range of perspectives and interdisciplinary expertise necessary to develop well-rounded solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

Big Ideas Innovation Ambassadors Nurturing Ideas into Enterprises

Big Ideas Innovation Ambassadors Nurturing Ideas into Enterprises

By Lisa Bauer

Founded in 2005 at UC Berkeley, Big Ideas has become one of the largest and most diverse student innovation competitions in the country. The contest supports the next generation of social entrepreneurs–providing mentorship, training, and the diverse resources required to support big ideas from their earliest stages. In 2017, to ensure the contest remains accessible to the widest number of students across UC’s ten campuses, the Big Ideas team designed an Innovation Ambassador program.

Fletcher Lab CellScope Is Ready for Scaling

Fletcher Lab CellScope Is Ready for Scaling

By Lisa Bauer

Nearly a decade ago, more than 80 global organizations came together to sign the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases, to control, eliminate, or eradicate at least ten of the diseases by 2020. Progress has been made on “NTDs” (neglected tropical diseases), but they still affect nearly one billion people, reinforcing poverty in low-resource regions.

UC Berkeley Professor of Bioengineering Dan Fletcher has been working to accelerate NTD diagnosis and treatment with a device so ubiquitous it’s probably in your hand: a smartphone. Fletcher, with a group of interdisciplinary scientists from in and outside his lab, have steadily proved that smartphone cameras can be repurposed as microscopes to identify disease-causing pathogens, such as the bacteria that cause tuberculosis and the parasites that cause River Blindness.

“Phones have enormous imaging and processing capabilities,” explained Fletcher at a recent faculty salon of the Blum Center, where he serves as chief technologist. “Our work has been to harness these consumer electronics to do the complex imaging and image interpretation tasks. We add lenses and automation to the mobile devices; then we capture, geotag and upload the image data we collect, giving us greater information about the spread of disease.”

By removing the need for a laboratory and highly trained technicians to perform image-based processing, the Fletcher Lab’s CellScope, as the family of devices is called, can dramatically expedite NTD treatment by enabling patients to receive rapid, low-cost, and highly accurate diagnoses, even in remote regions. Fletcher and others believe the device has enormous potential to contribute to NTD elimination efforts, because while the drugs to treat NTDs already exist–an efficient, systematic, and affordable diagnosis and treatment method does not.

“Thanks to the London Declaration, major pharmaceutical companies have pledged to contribute the drugs needed to treat many NTDs,” said Fletcher. “CellScope will help us tackle the missing ingredient: the way to identify those in need. For effective treatment and monitoring, we must know who’s infected, where they are, and whether there is reemergence. That’s where technology comes in.”

The latest version of CellScope, called LoaScope, has proven effective in Cameroon, where it is being used to combat a NTD called River Blindness or Onchoceriasis. Endemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, Onchoceriasis is a severely debilitating disease that results in human blindness. Although the antiparasitic drug, Ivermectin, is readily available, treatment via mass drug administration has been halted in some regions due to serious adverse effects caused by co-infection with a worm call Loa loa. Treatment in Loa-endemic regions is complex because if Ivermectin is administered to someone who is simultaneously infected with Loa Loa, the drug can lead to fatal complications.

To safely relaunch mass drug administration of Ivermectin, Fletcher and a team of medical professionals from NIH in the U.S., IRD in France, and CRFilMT in Cameroon launched a pilot project in Okola District of Cameroon, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Local healthcare workers collected small blood samples from patients and inserted them into the LoaScope to measure the number of parasites; if the number was below a certain safety threshold, then the patient was treated with Ivermectin. Patients with parasite loads above a certain threshold did not receive Ivermectin to reduce the possibility of complications from treatment.

With this approach, 96 percent of the 16,000 people examined in the Okola District pilot study had Loa loa levels below the safety threshold and were treated for River Blindness, while only 2 percent had to be excluded because of Loa loa levels that put them at risk of complications from treatment (the remaining 2 percent could not receive Ivermectin for other reasons such as pregnancy or illness). Findings from the Cameroon pilot were published in 2017 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The Cameroon Ministry of Health approved the study and backed the use of the LoaScope technology to restart mass administration of Ivermectin for control of River Blindness. Prior to the pilot study, a public health education campaign to encourage citizens to seek safe diagnosis with LoaScope was carried out–including public testing of the Minister of Health with the LoaScope.

Although the Cameroon pilot was a success, the next challenge is scaling the technology so that the millions of people living in Loa-endemic regions can benefit from safe treatment of River Blindness with ivermectin.

“The problem is no longer that we don’t have the tools. We now do,” said Fletcher. “The problem right now is the funding, manufacturing, and distribution gap–how do we best scale this device and get it to the people who need it?”

Funds are needed to mass produce the device, establish a support infrastructure, and develop an IT system. Yet the cost benefits could be significant. For example, currently the cost of a single capillary for the LoaScope is $2; if the process was automated, the cost would decrease to just 30 cents. A similar reduction in cost of the device is possible.

In addition to River Blindness, the Fletcher Lab has identified five other NTDs for which CellScope could be applied. Schistosomiasis is the next disease the lab hopes to test and treat. Like River Blindness, schistosomiasis is a worm-based disease, but the parasites that cause it are detected in urine or stool samples. Thus, instead of taking a blood sample, CellScope would be adapted to analyze filtered urine and stool that is loaded into the same capillary and imaged with the same device.

“The basic technology–a mobile microscope with image processing capabilities–is already there, and with a few modifications we can adapt it to new diseases,” said Fletcher. “Increasing access to high-quality disease diagnosis is beginning to be within reach for low-resource settings with technologies such as these. But the same challenge remains: scaling.”

DOST— Fostering Early Childhood Development in India

DOST— Fostering Early Childhood Development in India

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.

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.”

Big Ideas Judge Ryan Shaening Pokrasso: A Commitment to Social Impact and the Law

Big Ideas Judge Ryan Shaening Pokrasso: A Commitment to Social Impact and the Law

Ryan Shaening Pokrasso (JD ’13), a San Francisco Bay Area attorney who specializes in assisting social entrepreneurs, has been a longtime judge and advisor for the Big Ideas student innovation competition.

Ryan entered the legal profession by way of nonprofit policy advocacy. He served as program director for New Energy Economy, a nonprofit organization in New Mexico, prior to attending law school at UC Berkeley School of Law. While with New Energy Economy, Ryan organized to support a cap on carbon emissions in New Mexico and he co-authored, lobbied for, and helped pass the New Mexico Green Jobs Act to provide funding for training programs in sustainable industries for disadvantaged individuals and families. He also led an effort that culminated in the establishment of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce—an influential network of over 1,200 local businesses dedicated to strengthening local economies through sustainable business practices.

While at Boalt Hall, Ryan was a leader of Students for Economic and Environmental Justice and served as a board member for the Ecology Law Quarterly journal. Ryan worked with students, faculty, and legal practitioners to establish a student run Environmental Justice Clinic to provide pro bono legal services to communities disproportionately impacted by carbon intensive industries and to promote community-driven sustainable economic development in the Bay Area and California Central Valley.

Ryan’s diverse legal experience includes serving as: a law fellow for Accountability Counsel, where he supported indigenous communities impacted by large energy projects paid for by international financial institutions; a law clerk for Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, where he supported litigation on environmental issues on behalf of community groups, government agencies, and municipalities; and a law clerkship for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Judiciary Committee office where he provided extensive policy analysis of congressional proposals for the Senator.

Big Ideas sat down with Ryan to learn more about his career trajectory and commitment to supporting early stage social entrepreneurs.

Why did you found SPZ Legal?

My co-founder—Hash Zahed (UC Berkeley JD ’13)—and I had just completed legal fellowships when we decided to start SPZ. We were both in the process of thinking about next steps and “applying for a job” didn’t sound like it was the right fit for us. When we were in law school, we had talked about the possibility of starting some sort of business together, so that was on our radar. When our respective fellowships were ending, I texted Hash and asked him if he wanted to just start our own law firm. He wrote back, “Yes!”

We agreed that starting a firm would give us the opportunity to meet a lot of common goals. Specifically, we could structure our lives in a way that is often lacking from a career practicing law, we could have a great impact through using our legal knowledge and tools to assist social entrepreneurs in building business focused on social change and environmental stewardship, we could create a great place for others to work, and we could do all of this while making a good living for ourselves (which we did not do for the first couple of years!).

In law school, there is a common idea that you can either make a lot of money, work endless hours, and not be focused on having an impact on society, or you can not make money and have a societal impact. We thought this was a false dichotomy, so we started SPZ.

Can you talk about the dynamics between you and your co-founder? How do you complement each other? What advice do you have for students looking for a co-founder?

Hash and I were great friends prior to founding SPZ. You often hear that you should not mix friendship and business. And in working with our clients, we have definitely seen situations where friendships fell apart in the context of business relationships. But the reason that these friendships fall apart is a lack of communication—when friends were hesitant to have “hard conversations” with each other. Oftentimes, friends just assumed that they are on the same page about plans, roles, and responsibilities for the business, when they were not. However, when friends turned business partners are intentional about communication and focus on discussing things as they arise and as they are envisioned, then it can be the best type of business relationship. The reason for this is that friends have each others’ back in a way that business partners may not. When my son was born, Hash took on everything for a long time and never asked for anything in return. A business partner would not have done this. I am happy to say that Hash and I are still friends! And in fact, we recently added another partner to the firm—David De La Flor—who is also a great friend of ours.

So what I recommend to students looking for a co-founder is to focus on communication and personality fit. Skills, competency, and experience are obviously important, but if you do not enjoy working with your co-founder and spending A LOT of time with them, then it is not going to work.

What is it about working with startups that you’ve found most interesting?

Learning about our clients’ amazing work is by far the most interesting aspect of working with startups. We are learning about deep technology and innovative models for impact on a daily basis. It is really inspiring! And it is also so fun to be able to re-experience the excitement that comes with starting a company over and over again, as we work with first-time entrepreneurs.

Do you think more startup founders are trying to embed social impact into their business model from the start these days?  

Absolutely! I don’t have the exact answer for why this is the case, but I feel like my generation and (even more so) the younger generation after me was raised with the idea that community is important and that there is a calling for each of us to be there for our community. And as community becomes more and more of a global concept, I think that the desire for folks to be there for the broader community around the world is increasing.

If you could give one piece of general advice to an early-stage social entrepreneur, what would it be?

Focus on communication—with co-founders, with customers, with vendors, with colleagues, and with anyone else who touches your business. If you have a perfect company and product but you don’t know how to be clear and friendly in communications, opportunities for success will fall by the wayside.

What’s one legal question that is never too early to start thinking about?

I would say that you should be thoughtful about protecting confidential information and IP as early as possible!

This is the first in a series of Q&As with Big Ideas judges and mentors.

VIDI—Another Way to See Surgery

VIDI—Another Way to See Surgery

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

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 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.

The Lemelson Foundation and the Blum Center Partner to Equip Students to Deliver on Big Ideas with a Small Environmental Footprint

The Lemelson Foundation and the Blum Center Partner to Equip Students to Deliver on Big Ideas with a Small Environmental Footprint

The Lemelson Foundation, the world’s leading funder of invention in service of social and economic change, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies are embarking on a yearlong collaboration to enable students participating in the University of California Big Ideas Contest to increase their expertise in developing environmentally responsible inventions and innovations. The initiative exposes students to sustainable practices with the goal of increasing awareness around environmental impact throughout the invention and business model development process–from the materials used to the end of lifecycle implications.

The partnership between The Lemelson Foundation and the Blum Center will enhance the importance of environmental responsibility in the Big Ideas Contest, with special emphasis on the Hardware for Good category. Additionally, there will be an increased focus on engaging students from low-income and underserved backgrounds to participate in the contest.

Since 2006, the Blum Center has hosted the Big Ideas student innovation prize, to provide mentorship, training, and resources for budding social entrepreneurs across the University of California system. Hardware for Good encompasses everything from wearable and assistive technologies and devices to improve agricultural productivity to smart home systems that improve energy efficiency and safety. The 2017-2018 winner in the Hardware for Good category was Innovis Medical, a blood clotting prevention device for civilian and military trauma care that is being tested on cardiac patients at UC Davis Medical with the aim of FDA approval by 2021.

Said Phillip Denny, director of Big Ideas: “Since 2006, over 6,000 students from more than 100 majors have participated in the Big Ideas Contest, raising more than $2.4 million in seed funding that has been invested across 450 ventures. In this age of climate change and resource constraints, we need more students focused on planet-saving big ideas. We are thus immensely grateful to The Lemelson Foundation for making environmental responsibility an explicit element of the competition and for strengthening our outreach to low-income and first-generation college students. Diversity in innovators leads to diversity of innovations.”

With support from The Lemelson Foundation, Big Ideas 2018-2019 activities will include educational programs coupled with outreach to keep environmental responsibility top-of-mind as student inventors and innovators design new devices and ventures. Judging criteria will also be modified to reflect greater emphasis on environmental impact. Among the student education programs will be the “Inventing Green” workshop on October 22 to raise awareness and understanding of environmental responsibility in innovation and entrepreneurship among the University of California’s 240,000 undergraduate and graduate students and participating students from Makerere University in Uganda and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Lemelson Foundation funding will also support Blum Center practitioners-in-residence who will provide environmentally responsible design expertise to Big Ideas student teams and their projects.

“Students have the passion and drive to make the world better through inventions and entrepreneurship, and the Big Ideas program will better prepare them to ensure the solutions of today don’t become the problems of tomorrow,” said Cindy Cooper, program officer for The Lemelson Foundation. “Thinking holistically about environmental impact early on can also lead to more creative product ideas and put startups on a path to being more competitive and resilient as they grow to scale. We’re excited to see what students come up with.”


Big Ideas Winner Ricult Advancing Machine Learning for Improved Smallholder Farming

Big Ideas Winner Ricult Advancing Machine Learning for Improved Smallholder Farming

Globally, 1.5 billion people depend on small farms, which produce roughly 80 percent of the developing world’s food. Yet smallholder farmers remain some of the world’s most impoverished and food insecure people.

Aukrit Unahalekhaka, a co-founder of Ricult, a 2017 Big Ideas winner, knew this implicitly. He had grown up in a family of farmers in rural Thailand, and had witnessed firsthand his community’s struggles with the land. As a graduate student at MIT, he decided to put his education toward a critical piece of the global hunger challenge: financial inclusion for smallholder farmers.

Together with fellow MIT graduate student Usman Javaid, a native of Pakistan, Unahalekhaka has spent the last three years building a digital platform for smallholder farmers to access credit. The founders have been motivated by the fact that farmers who own less than two hectares are economically stuck; they have no means to invest in their properties or agricultural improvements–and often rely on loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates, trapping generations of farmers in cycles of debt and poverty.

Unahalekhaka and Javaid also have understood that access to credit is not the only problem for smallholder farmers. Credit is intertwined with other challenges, such as transportation logistics and precise weather forecasting. They thus designed Ricult to offer an integrated digital platform across the entire value chain, tracking end-to-end data and leveraging learnings to boost agricultural productivity and efficiency for all stakeholders, from farmers to input suppliers and buyers. Ricult is an apt name for their innovation. It underscores the importance of the middle of the agricultural value chain (“ricult” are the middle six letters of the word “agriculture”).

Since March 2017, the agtech startup has been working in Thailand and Pakistan, with plans to expand to neighboring countries. It also recently raised $1.85 million in seed funding, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the lead investor. Further, Ricult is collaborating with the Telenor Group’s telecommunications company, DTAC, to expand across Thailand, and has caught the attention of seed investors such as 500 Startups.

Ricult is now taking off, but in the early years developing ideas for an effective platform was a challenge. Another challenge was finding funders. The team spent several years applying to student innovation contests, receiving awards from MIT Ideas and the DOW Sustainability Challenge. The founders turned twice to UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas Contest, to take advantage of its eight months of product development, advising, and mentorship. In 2016, Ricult won third place in the Food Systems category. In 2017, the Ricult team earned second place in the 2017 Scaling Up category.

“The exercise of writing a thorough business plan for the Big Ideas competition proved invaluable,” said Unahalekhaka. “It ensured that everyone on our team was on the same page and helped us think through the key points of running a business. We Skyped with Big Ideas staff and mentors several times and received prompt, detailed feedback that helped us strengthen our business.”

One early idea for the Ricult platform was to harness machine learning and predictive analytics for farmers, input suppliers, food processing companies, and banks alike. To do so, the Ricult team developed local and national partners along the agricultural value chain in Pakistan and Thailand. Services to farmers include: access to agricultural inputs, such as improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides that are synchronized with crop cycles and priced at least 30 percent below the market rate; and advanced agronomic analytics and insights, such as soil testing, optimal crop rotation, and microclimate weather analytics. By cutting out unnecessary middlemen and decreasing crop spoilage, Ricult is aiming to transfer cost savings to farmers and increase their profitability.

As important, farmers that work with Ricult are gaining access to formal credit and affordable loans at interest rates at least five times below market rate. Ricult links farmers directly with buyers and guarantees payment within 48 hours, a significant departure from the traditional 60- to 90-day turnaround. Timely compensation allows farmers sufficient time and capital to prepare for the next planting season without being trapped in debt to middlemen.

The model, driven by data analytics technology, has increased farmer productivity by 50 percent, according to Ricult reporting. The company also is selling its land data to banks, said Unahalekhaka: “It functions as a form of collateral, so that farmers can finally access formal loans. Basically, we are solving two problems in one.”

Ricult is one of a growing number of social enterprises in developing countries reaping the benefits of technology. While computational advancements have numerous applications for sustainable development, leveraging machine learning to boost agricultural productivity is among the most promising. Investments in agriculture are widely viewed as the greatest weapon against global hunger and poverty; and growth in the agriculture sector has proven to be two to four times more effective in raising income among the poorest compared to other sectors.

“We are a double bottom line company,” said Unahalekhaka. “We want to prove that you can operate a sustainable business, while also contributing to the social good. This model is rare in Southeast Asia, but it’s proven an attractive idea to Thai investors who are keen to give back to the rural communities they grew up in.”

By Lisa Bauer

Big Ideas Abroad

Big Ideas Abroad

In February 2018, Big Ideas Contest Director, Phillip Denny, traveled to Kampala, Uganda to explore opportunities for Big Ideas expansion in Africa, in partnership with Makerere University. Makerereone of Africa’s leading institutions of higher education—has been a key partner of Big Ideas since 2013. Over the last five years Makerere’s involvement in Big Ideas has grown steadily, as has its reputation as a regional leader in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship among students. Big Ideas is working with Makerere to advance the mission of the competition, which challenges students to dream big about how they might change the world, and supports them to execute that vision.

“Like Big Ideas, Makerere provides a supportive ecosystem that helps students, particularly those who are in the early stages of innovation, realize their dream of making a positive impact on society,” said Denny.

This year, over 50 student teams, representing over 150 students, from Makerere University submitted proposals to Big Ideas, and nine teams advanced to the final round—a record for Makerere. During his trip, Denny mentored teams as they worked to complete their final proposals. He was impressed by the creativity of their innovations, as well as the incredible energy and commitment shown by each team.

“What stands out to me in my work with Makerere students is that many of them are from communities that are directly impacted by the challenges the students are seeking to solve,” said Denny.  “When you meet with them you immediately grasp their passion and dedication, which is undoubtedly fueled by their personal and first-hand experiences with the issues they’re trying to solve.”

Deborah Naatujuna, Engagement Manager for the Resilient Africa Network, which hosts the Big Ideas Contest at Makerere, noted the many ways Big Ideas has fostered student collaboration and innovation on campus.

“One of the requirements of the contest is to have a strong team, so students who ordinarily work alone have been able to onboard students from other disciplines. For example, engineering students will work with business students. We did not have this interdisciplinary engagement before, but the contest has improved collaboration between students from different disciplines,” said Naatujna.

The contest has also had a significant impact on students’ relationships with faculty members, breaking down barriers and fostering an innovator-mentor relationship that did not exist before.

“Big Ideas has fostered an innovator-mentor relationship that is not intimidating. Students at Makerere are used to working with academic supervisors in an environment that can often be intimidating for the student, but mentorship through Big Ideas is focused on constructive feedback and collaboration. Participating in the contest has helped students work with their professors in a more collegial way and develop close relationships with their mentors.”

When Big Ideas first launched at Makerere five years ago, the majority of proposals submitted were from male teams. Since then, the involvement of female students from Makerere has also grown.“In the beginning, we had very few females taking part in Big Ideas, but now we have more. Some of the teams are led by women while other teams are completely female. When female students worked with their male counterparts [before], the male students would do the majority of the work. Now we are seeing all-female teams as well as mixed teams in which everyone takes part,” said Naatujuna.

Innovations that were developed on Makerere’s campus include Mama-OPE, a cell-phone based lung monitoring device that helps diagnose pneumonia, and PedalTap, which won 3rd place in the highly competitive Global Health category. Mama-Ope was recently featured on CNN/Africa, and in 2017, PedalTap won Johnson & Johnson’s first Africa Innovation Challenge.

To learn more about the Big Ideas Contest, visit 

Big Ideas Winners Increase Access to Extension Services in Rural Uganda

In rural Uganda, extension services help farmers apply cutting edge technologies and best practices that promote agricultural productivity and improve rural livelihoods.

Big Ideas Winners Increase Access to Extension Services in Rural Uganda


By Francesca Munsayac and April Young

In rural Uganda, extension services help farmers apply cutting edge technologies and best practices that promote agricultural productivity and improve rural livelihoods. While most African countries have extension programs that arm local farmers with the  agricultural information they need to succeed, limited resources often prevent extension workers from visiting more remote areas. Furthermore, the vast majority of technological solutions for agriculture are only offered English, limiting the reach of other IT innovations. To address this challenge, Big Ideas Contest winners, Linlin Liang and  Daniel Ninsiima, developed “m-Omulimisa”, a phone-based platform that increases access to extension services for rural Ugandan farmers by providing critical agricultural information via SMS messaging in a local language. Through m-Omulimisa, any farmer in Uganda, regardless of location, can ask agricultural questions in any language via text message, and receive answers from a trained extension officer.

According to Liang, m-Omulimisa, which means “mobile extension officer” in native Luganda, bridges the access and information gap left behind by existing agricultural extension programs. The m-Omulimisa team teaches extension officers how to use the platform, and in turn, these officers train farmers how to submit their questions. The platform currently has over 100 registered extension officers and is being used by nonprofit organizations like World Vision, Sasakawa Global 2000, VEDCO, as well as local district governments, to reach underserved farmers.

“Our product utilizes SMS services as a vehicle to communicate between officers and farmers. We made our decision to use text messaging based on what was available and affordable for farmers. Over 65% of Ugandans own mobile phones, and most of these are basic phones which can be used only for calls and text messaging. Only about 5% of Ugandans own smartphones. Additionally, the cost of text messaging in Uganda is a fraction of the cost of calling or data for the Internet. ” Liang said.

While developing their platform, the team confronted various challenges, including mobile illiteracy in rural areas, lack of motivation on behalf of the officers to answer the farmer’s questions, and limitations in the last-mile distribution of agricultural inputs.

The team tackled the issue of mobile illiteracy by working with extensions services partners to integrate mobile phone literacy into every aspect of farmer training and, in the future, they plan on developing videos in local languages that will instruct users on the basic functions of a mobile phone. Next, they will create a reward system that incentivizes and increases extension officer engagement. Lastly, they plan on building a network of community based “agripreneurs” (agricultural entrepreneurs) that will help farmers get access to products by increasing distribution channels in rural communities.  

When asked how Big Ideas contest helped the team translate their ideas into further action, Liang responded, “Before the contest, all we had were ideas, but no resources to change our ideas into action. The Big Ideas award made it possible for us to use our education, passion, and skills to start creating a tangible product to make a positive impact in the lives of smallholder farmers in Uganda. Even during the proposal stage, the training and mentorship from Big Ideas were phenomenal. We had a great mentor, Sean Krepp, who was connected through Big Ideas and helped us to rethink and reimagine the business model, partnership strategy, and product development. His guidance was vital in developing our winning proposal and starting a promising social enterprise.”

When asked if they had any advice for future students participating in Big Ideas, the m-Omulimisa team suggested the following:

(1) Identify the unique positioning of your product or service and how it adds value to prospective partners. In their case, many organizations are already providing agricultural extension services through the traditional face-to-face (in-person) approach, but there are not enough extension officers to serve every farmer.  Their platform makes it possible to help more farmers in a timely manner at minimal cost.

(2) Human capital is critical in the early stages of developing your innovation. It is very helpful to have a team member who has extensive connections or experience with stakeholders in the industry or field where operations are taking place. Exploring potential partnerships with other existing products and services is also significantly helpful.

(3) Communicate with your team as regularly as possible. Fluid internal communication is a critical prerequisite for early-stage decision-making. If you are working with team members overseas, take advantage of both formal and informal communication tools (e.g., emails and Facebook).
Liang and Ninsiima are currently in the registration process of becoming a social enterprise. According to Liang, they will continue refining their business model to better reach underserved communities. In addition, they are looking to partner with university-based and agricultural researchers  in order to build a coalition of experts who can respond to farmer’s questions. With this support,  m-Omulimisa believes farmers will become vital actors in the movement to alleviate hunger and poverty in the developing world.

5 Questions with Ryan and Hash from SPZ Legal, advisors to social impact enterprises

5 Questions with Ryan and Hash from SPZ Legal, advisors to social impact enterprises

By Peter Bittner

Hash Zahed and Ryan Shaening Pokrasso met at UC Berkeley Law and now are partners in their own firm, SPZ Legal, focusing on social enterprises that use business as a tool for positive change. Fed up with the paradigm that doing business and doing good are mutually-exclusive, their firm specializes in serving clients focused on the “triple bottom line,” measuring success in terms of people, planet, and profit. In their spare time, they give back to Berkeley — serving as judges and mentors for Big Ideas, providing legal advice to social start ups via the Blum Center’s Practitioners in Residence program, and guest lecturing in the Social Innovator OnRamp class, a course dedicated to nurturing social enterprises that are seeded in competitions like Big Ideas.

Hash Zahed

 1) How did you get where you are today?


 I was born in Iran. I’ve always had an international appreciation for the way I look at the world. I went to undergrad at Berkeley and then did consulting work at a small consulting firm in Oakland, Mason Tillman Associates, for a year to advocate for minority- and women–owned businesses in public contracting. I realized the challenges that small businesses face in competing with large corporations, and learned the importance of law and policy in leveling the playing field.

I went to law school and then did a one-year fellowship at UC Berkeley Law School through the New Business Counseling Practicum, which is the only way to get real hands-on experience at the law school outside of the litigation context –  i.e. providing transactional legal services. At the Practicum, I assisted in advising non-profits and small businesses, who otherwise would not have access to sound legal advice, with navigating the legal landscape of starting a business. I enjoyed working with entrepreneurs so much, I decided to do it for a living.


Ryan Shaening Pokrasso
Ryan Shaening Pokrasso

I came to the legal profession by way of non-profit policy advocacy work. I originally studied ecology and evolutionary biology in undergrad. I became extremely concerned about climate change and started working at a non-profit in Santa Fe, New Mexico and talked with businesses about their role in helping solve the environmental crisis.

I went off to law school because I originally thought I wanted to study environmental law, but I found that businesses can play a large role in causing a lot of change. I also found that environmental law involves a lot of litigation whereas businesses, particularly in social impact, are all about trying to build something constructive. I saw law as a real opportunity to create and assist new businesses who wanted to impact the world in more positive ways.

On Hash and Ryan Meeting:

We met before law school started at Admitted Students Day, when prospective students come to the campus to learn about the school and get to know one another. We immediately got along and decided to live together, and did so all three years of law school. Being that we both came from entrepreneurial families, we always talked about starting our own practice one day. After our respective fellowships, we decided to take the dive instead of waiting around for the right time. Starting a practice recently out of law school is not the norm, so there was definitely some level of anxiety when we first got started. But we feel that having gone through the experience of starting a new business makes us better advisors to our clients.

2) How did you get involved with the Blum Center? What do you do?

Hash and Ryan:

We first met folks from the Blum Center last year at the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Expo, a few months before the Big Ideas contest was about to begin. We were Practitioners in Residence, which connects on-campus innovators and social entrepreneurs with a wide range of experts from Industry, non-profits, government, and social enterprises. We were also judges, and mentors in the Energy and Resource category and in the Global Health category in the 2015-16 competition.

3) Why do you volunteer with Big Ideas? What do you get out of it?


We get a lot out of it. We get inspired. The students really are thinking big about solving some of the biggest problems in the world.

When you’re starting an early-stage venture, there’s not a lot of resources out there to help you out. We’re happy to walk teams through the process of thinking where the money is going to come from – how are they going to make it as a sustainable venture – whether that’s as a for-profit or non-profit legal structure.


What keeps me excited is the novelty of the ideas from the teams. They come with idealistic energy, but they’re not unfeasible. I have to add that we also are amazed at some of the complex legal issues that come up for Big Ideas teams, whether it’s issues in international law or intellectual property rights. We’ve especially enjoyed helping several science-heavy teams navigate through the complex legal terrain.

Hash leading a workshop to advise Big Ideas teams on legal structure for their social ventures.

4) As former judges, what are some tips you have for Big Ideas teams in the competition?

Hash and Ryan:

Really take advantage of the time and use the mentors and resources provided to you. The Big Ideas contest is an accelerator and the more students invest in the experience, the more they will get out of it—and the better they will do. We’ll also add that the teams that have the most realistic budgets and feasible plans for implementation have an advantage. The more detail you include and research you can put into the proposal, the better the outcome in our view as judges.

5) As the 2016-2017 competition gets underway, what are your hopes for the program?

Hash and Ryan:

We want to see the program continue to grow! We’re very passionate about entrepreneurship and, as alums, are still very involved at Cal. It’s exciting to see the Big Ideas contest gain such stature nationally—and even internationally—and to be a part of something impactful.

We also plan to hold a larger workshop on social enterprise organizational structure  open to all teams to be able to share our expertise with more students. We have already delivered seminars to both the core Development Engineering class and the Social Innovator OnRamp course on legal forms for social start ups, and greatly look forward to our continued involvement with the Blum Center.

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Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship