At Berkeley, it’s the students who have the Big Ideas

UC Berkeley is alive with big ideas. And for teams of students who come up with the most inventive ways to solve real-world problems, a $300,000 pot is up for grabs in this year’s Big Ideas @Berkeley contest.

Watch video of Big Ideas @Berkeley

The competition, in its sixth year, opened Sept. 12. Students have until Nov. 21 to dream up and design potentially high-impact projects across a broad range of topics: including global poverty alleviation, energy-efficient technologies, “creative expression for social justice,” information technology, emerging and neglected diseases, improving student life and scaling up big ideas. The projects can tackle pressing problems as far away as the other side of the globe or as close to home as the Berkeley campus itself.

The contest gives students “the opportunity to put the ideas they develop in lecture halls and laboratories to work around the world,” according to sponsors of the cross-campus Big Ideas initiative, which involves various multidisciplinary centers as well as student government. 

Last year, prizes averaging $5,000 went to 51 teams, made up of about 200 undergraduate and graduate students from a wide range of departments across campus.

One was MBA candidate Iris Shim, whose team won $15,000 for its “Crop to Cup” idea. It involved developing low-cost, web-based software to increase transparency, traceability and quality assurance along the global coffee supply chain, and improve economic opportunity for low-income communities.

“I don’t think our project would have accelerated the way it did if we hadn’t received the support and funding to get us into the field,” says Shim.

A 2008 winner, Laura Stachel, had the idea of creating an inexpensive portable device to power critical lighting in places like emergency rooms without electricity in developing countries. The “solar suitcase” has now been used in 14 countries, including Nigeria and Haiti.

Two-time winners Nikihil Arora and Alejandro Velez proposed a business using ground coffee waste to produce “Back to the Roots” gourmet-mushroom-growing kits now sold at Whole Foods Markets nationwide. The Big Ideas award “ends up being more than a grant,” says Velez. “It gives you the confidence to go forward.”

At Berkeley, Big Ideas winners are adding to the curriculum, working on sustainability and improving student spaces.

“We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that all the smarts are with the professors,” says Ashok Gadgil, professor of engineering and Rudd Family Foundation Distinguished Chair of Safe Water and Sanitation, in an online video describing Big Ideas @Berkeley. “Students are just as smart,” he adds. “They’re just younger, that is all.” (Go here to watch a longer version of the video.)

Contest applicants face a two-part process. Pre-proposals are due Nov. 21. Finalists will be announced in January, and will be able to work with mentors to develop final proposals, due March 5, 2012. Full details can be found on the Big Ideas contest website.

A gift from the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation is helping to support the contest.