The 2020 Annual Report is now available.
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.
In July 2014, a series of natural gas explosions ripped apart Kaohsiung, a Taiwanese city where Po Jui “Ray” Chiu, MEng ’14 (BIOE) had lived with relatives just a year before, while he was completing his compulsory military service.
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.
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 and 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
By Sonia Travaglini