Hands below a light bulb

Credit: Elena Zhukova

Big Ideas timeline

Key dates for the Big Ideas @ Berkeley student innovation contest include:
Nov. 12: Mandatory preproposals are due
March 9: Full proposals are due
April 27: Grand Prize Pitch Day
May 4: Awards celebration

Time is ticking for University of California students to submit their world-changing concepts to Big Ideas @ Berkeley, one of the nation’s oldest and most international innovation competitions.

Three-page preproposals for the competition, which awards up to $300,000 in prizes, are due at 12 p.m. Nov. 12. Contest categories include Art & Social Change, Energy & Resource Alternatives, Financial Inclusion, Food Systems, Global Health, Improving Student Life, Information Technology for Society, and Mobiles for Reading. The newly extended Energy & Resource Alternatives category, sponsored by the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative, is open to all UC students. Similarly, the Food Systems category, is open to undergraduate and graduate students from all 10 UC campuses, as well as six other universities.

Winners are announced in May after a two-month mentorship period and a March 9 full proposal deadline.

Big Ideas’ mission is not only to identify and award promising student innovations, but also to support multidisciplinary teams through a multi-stage, yearlong process. Expanded advising drop-in hours and remote appointments are available with Big Ideas advisers through Nov. 12, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., in order to help students with their preproposals.

For many student innovators, Big Ideas has served as the first step in turning a grand hunch into a viable proposal. Last year, Amelia Phillips and her Big Ideas team won the first place award in the Conflict & Development category for The Somo Project — a socially focused, nonprofit venture capital investment firm that works to identify, train, fund and mentor entrepreneurs looking to drive social change. Phillips credits the process of competing in Big Ideas and the resources available to students as critical elements in getting her project off the ground.

“More important than just funding, Big Ideas @ Berkeley opened up a community that has been and continues to be vital to growing The Somo Project,” says Phillips. “Through advising from the Big Ideas team, I have improved the way in which I describe what we do and how we plan to develop and grow the organization’s impact.”

Since 2006, the contest has provided support to student teams who have gone on to secure over $55 million in additional funding for their for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid ventures. Innovations and enterprises seeded by Big Ideas include: CellScope, which turns the camera of a mobile phone or tablet computer into a high-quality light microscope; the Cal Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of UC Berkeley students, staff and faculty now pushing to achieve carbon neutrality on campus by 2025; Captricity, which sells data capture software to digitize hand-written forms; and Back to the Roots, which creates sustainable food products from coffee grounds and other food waste.

“This contest is multidisciplinary and high touch,” said Phillip Denny, manager of the Big Ideas contest. “It challenges students to step outside of their traditional university-based academic work, take a risk, and use their education, passion and skills to work on problems important to them.”