Echolocation Technology that Empowers the Blind

Darryl Diptee used to think of himself as a “closet innovator.”

During his time as an officer for the U.S. Navy, Diptee remembers being told to “color inside the lines and innovate on your own time.” After coming to UC Berkeley in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. in Education, Diptee found himself in an environment that required the opposite.

ZestBio Continues Innovation with Waste-based Products

By Tamara Straus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ZestBio team is in conversation with Method and other green products formulators to share research information on its bottle composition process and household cleaning ingredient possibilities. The team aims to have its bio-based bottle on the shelf in five years. In 10 years, says Protzko, the team wants to expand its production beyond eco-friendly bottles to include different vegetable processing and products for multiple producers.

“This is also a global issue,” says Protzko. “Over 60 percent of oranges that are juiced are in Brazil. That would be an incredible market to tap into when we have a refined process to do it.”

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.


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

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.

A Pattern Searcher from Cal: Rebecca Hui Connects Art, Cows, and Urban Development

By Sybil Lewis

During her sophomore year, Rebecca Hui was still wrestling with her decision not to attend art school—and was tepidly observing her fellow students’ focus on professional careers. Through a friend, the double major in architecture and business got an internship at a landscape architecture firm in Gujarat, India. But her boss refused to let her work; instead, he encouraged her to delve into Indian culture and discover what intrigued her.

Hui decided to follow around cows.

“I was shocked by how much respect cows received in the city—they were like a bourgeoisie,” Hui said. “I wanted to know why I had trouble crossing the road, but all the cars stopped for a cow.”

Hui following cows during her internship in Gujarat in the summer of 2011
Hui following cows during her internship in Gujarat in the summer of 2011

In Hinduism, the cow is considered a sacred animal; and in many areas, such as Gujarat, vegetarianism is the norm. Hui’s interest in human-animal interactions was influenced by her roommate, an adherent of Jain, an ancient Indian religion that advocates a high social consciousness toward animals. Her roommate allowed pigeons to live in their home.

“She would say, ‘If we build our houses on their houses, why can’t they build their houses in ours?’ It became normal to wake up with pigeons flying around my room.”

After her summer in Gujarat, Hui decided to switch her second major from architecture to urban studies and to apply for the BigIdeas@Berkeley competition in the Creative Expression for Social Justice category. She won $3,000, enough to start her project.

The Secret Life of Urban Animals is not a typical BigIdeas project. Hui followed cows in different parts of India to better understand their cultural significance as well as urban planning and sustainable development in the world’s most populous democracy. Upon graduation, she received sponsorship to continue the project as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Fellow and National Geographic Society Young Explorer.

Hui wrote in a July 2011 blog entry: “a system’s state can be understood by observing how molecules bounce around in its environment. I figured that in the same way, much can be revealed about the state of a changing society by following how its inhabitants, a cow in this case, ‘bounce’ around its surroundings. Who knew that following a cow could reveal so much about the city’s changing cultural, social, and even political fabric?”

Some of Hui’s sketches showing the city from the cows’ perspective.
Some of Hui’s sketches showing the city from the cows’ perspective.

Following cows in the densely populated city of Mumbai, Hui noted that people’s relationship to cows varied immensely between rural and urban areas. In rural areas, cows are integrated in everyday life and play an important role as sources of milk and farm labor; they are treated with more familiarity compared to more urban settings, where they are mainly used for commercial activities and in some cases face physical harm from people.

Hui has argued that protection of urban animals and wildlife can strengthen urban planning and public policy. As an expansion of her project, she attempted to study elephants in Tamil Nadu and leopards in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and noticed that that bureaucracy or real estate interests were often prioritized over conservation. If the elephants’ migration patterns were accounted for, she argued, then city planners could create grassy overpasses and roadways to protect wildlife, while still developing for larger human populations.

Some may see this line of reasoning as overly idealistic, especially since India is projected to replace China as the world’s most populous country by 2050. While Hui does not advocate for cows and other animals to roam freely in cities due to the health concerns, she argues that taking into consideration human-animal interactions is imperative to preserving ecosystems that humans benefit from.

Maps that Hui drew to document how cows inhabited the city and dealt with different urban realities such as traffic. Pic 4

Maps that Hui drew to document how cows inhabited the city and dealt with different urban realities such as traffic.

Hui admits she has never been a conventional thinker. As part of an independent research project her junior year, she decided to observe how different groups interact with Legos. She left the sets in public areas at the Haas Business School, the university’s architecture building, Wurster Hall, and a local elementary school. She found that the Legos at the business school were built into hierarchical structures, such as pyramids; the architecture students tended to make intricate designs, including Star Wars figurines; and the most creative structures came from the elementary school children.

In her undergraduate classes, Hui often put a twist on her assignments. For the business course Entrepreneurship to Address Global Poverty, her goal was to get the Cal student community more aware of social entrepreneurship opportunities on campus. The end result was a series of illustrations of an octopus, whose tentacles served as a metaphor for the reach of different social entrepreneurship opportunities.

An artisan from Madhya Pradesh who specializes in the traditional art form of Gond painting showcases his work.
An artisan from Madhya Pradesh who specializes in the traditional art form of Gond painting showcases his work.

“When she first came back with the octopus drawing, I chuckled and did not understand it,” said the course’s professor John Danner. “But the end result was much better than the original idea—she has an idiosyncratic way of putting ideas and issues together that stop people in their tracks.”

Hui just likes to search for patterns in human development and thinks that her ability to notice subtle differences in societies stem from her upbringing. Her father was a professor and during his sabbatical leave Hui moved around nine times as a child between Hong Kong, New Jersey, and Arizona, and said she learned to adapt quickly in order to “fit in.”

While the Secret Life of Urban Animals project concluded in September 2014 with a two-week exhibition of Hui’s paintings, drawings, and cartoons at the David Sassoon Library in downtown Mumbai, Hui’s work in India is far from over.

Currently, she is working to found Toto Express, a social enterprise that she says is the first design-licensing agency for rural artisans in India. During the Secret Life project, Hui met many rural artisans whom she learned were unable to generate enough income due to lack of connectivity and marketing. When they migrated to urban areas in search of employment, they ended up encountering a different form of poverty in the slums.

Hui believes it is important to create alternatives to urban migration—what she calls a “prosperous village” that can recognize villagers’ inherent skills and assets. Over eight months in 2014 and 2015, she has conducted three pilot projects with tribes specializing in the traditional art forms of Dhokra metal casting, Phad scroll painting, and Gond painting. She intends to get artisans to upload their designs to an online platform for licensing by corporations.

The platform will capitalize on the estimated $2.5 billion market of holiday gift giving by corporations and a 2014 law requiring that 2 percent of corporate budgets be allocated to corporate social responsibility. Hui hopes that Toto Express’ platform will provide a way for corporations both to meet their gifting needs and meet government mandates. In turn, artisans will benefit from growing profits that will allow them to stay in their trade and village.

Hui with a group of artisans she worked with during Toto Express’ pilot projects.
Hui with a group of artisans she worked with during Toto Express’ pilot projects.

“Many NGOs and craft ventures work with these artists, which is fantastic, but it seems they are often harrowed by supply chain and inventory challenges,” Hui said. “Toto Express increases artists’ incomes without having to send the artwork or artist to urban areas—which usually adds more layers to the supply chain, reducing the actual cash that artists receive.”

Moving forward, Hui is planning a fourth pilot project that would place permanent design centers in three to four villages, to help artists adapt their artwork for various corporate gifts and better use the Toto website.

“I am dedicated to this project because I relate to artists whose reasons for leaving their art spoke back to my reasons for pursuing a more ‘respected’ career path within the often risk-adverse Chinese American community,” Hui said. “But to see that happen to these communities where art is intimately connected to identity, hurt tremendously. I want to change that.”

Makerere University Team First Africans To Win Big Ideas Contest

By Tamara Straus

Growing up in a rural town in Kyankwanzi District, Uganda, Moses Rurangwa witnessed an epidemic of preventable blindness. In his community many people become blind or near blind from trachoma, an infectious disease that affects places with poor sanitation, crowded living conditions, and not enough water and toilets. Trachoma forces the eyelid to turn inwards and causes the eyelashes to scratch and eventually damage the eye.

“Many people don’t know they have the disease until it is too late,” said Rurangwa, “and they don’t know how to get medicine. The first stage is a small itching below the eyelid, which is not always noticeable. But the last stage, if there is no diagnosis or prevention, is impoverishing blindness.”

When Rurangwa moved to Kampala to enroll in Makerere University in 2011, he became a tech geek. He could not put down his cell phone. He decided to major in computer science.  Looking at the issues facing his country, he said he began to feel that “although ICT [information and communication technologies] is not very strong in Uganda, it is a path to solving our own problems. There is capacity—people just need motivation.”

Rurangwa, now 22, might as well been talking about himself. A year or so into his studies at Makerere, he decided to figure out a way to use ICT, specifically mobile phones, to diagnose and prevent trachoma, which 8 million (nearly one fifth of) Ugandans are at risk of contracting. He and two Makerere University classmates—Anatoli Kirigwajjo, a computer science student, and Kiruyi Samuel, a medicine and surgery student—developed an idea for an mobile phone app that would photograph the eye using a smart phone, and examine and compare the image for color, far- and near-sightedness, and the presence of cataracts and other conditions. The images could then be sent to doctors who could make an initial diagnosis, contact the patient for testing, and even track the progress of treatment, if medication was administered. Rurangwa, Kirigwajjo, and Samuel call their app E-liiso: “e” for electronic and “liiso,” the Lugandan word for eye.

Rurangwa says his reason for inventing the app is pragmatism; it could save time, money, and livelihoods. Diagnosing trachoma and other eye diseases is not terribly difficult, what has been difficult for Ugandans is the cost of ophthalmological examinations. A typical eye exam in Uganda costs approximately US$50, too high for a country where the annual per capita income is US$506. The number of trained eye professionals is also very small; most are found in big cities. And in village schools, there are no longer routine screenings because of government funding cuts. But Ugandans do have mobile phones. The Uganda Communications Commission reported there were 12 million subscriptions in the country in 2011 and the number could be slightly above 17 million today, among a population of 36 million.

To fund E-lisso, and its umbrella company, Sight for Everyone, Rurangwa and his colleagues have turned to innovation contests, especially ones with cash prizes and Western connections. In March 2014, they took third place in the BigIdeas@Berkeley contest, which had opened several contest categories for the first time to the seven universities in USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN), which includes Makerere University.

“The E-liiso team was not the only Ugandan team that beat out hundreds of student groups from Berkeley, Duke, and Texas A&M,” said Phillip Denny, project manager of BigIdeas@Berkeley and Chief Administration Officer of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which runs the contest. “There was another finalist from Makerere, behind an idea called Agro Market Day, a mobile app for farmers. What this shows is that African students have plenty of social impact solutions for their own countries.”

Deborah Naatujuna Nkwanga, engagement manager at HESN’s Makerere-based Resilient Africa Network, said that the university is focusing on ensuring that more students and faculty engage in innovation and research activities that serve local needs. “By teaching entrepreneurship, Makerere is also striving to turn out students who are job creators rather than job seekers,” she said. “We have incubation centers within departments, where student ideas are tested, refined, and readied to be scaled.”

Nkwanga noted that Makerere students faced technical challenges that their American counterparts did not. “Internet and power were a regular problem,” said Nkwanga. “At one point, Phillip [Denny] extended the deadline of submission because of Internet and power problems.” Still, eight Makerere groups applied in the tech-dependent open data for development contest category.

The Sight for Everyone team is now finishing up its first testing phase. This has involved processing algorithms for more than 100 photos of trachoma-infected eyes that can serve as comparison images. The team is also testing its mobile application with doctors at Jinja Hospital, an eye center in Kampala, as well as improving its website so that users can post images of infected eyes and get responses from ophthalmologists.

Rurangwa says Sight for Everyone is seeking $30,000 in startup funds this year to proceed with commercial testing of E-liiso. It received $3,000 from the UC Berkeley prize and in 2014 participated in the Microsoft Imagine Cup and Orange competitions. Although the Ugandan government halted new e-health initiatives in January 2012 due to e-health “pilot-itis” and researchers there and at MIT are working on other eye disease apps, Rurangwa is not worried about competition.

“My main worry is that we do not have enough people embracing technology in the [Ugandan] medical sector,” he said. “The only real competition we are facing right now is faith. People wonder if this thing, e-health, can really work.”


For those interested in learning more about Big Ideas past winners and how to apply for or support the contest, visit the Big Ideas website: