Innovation Catalysts program boosts student innovations

Jacobs Institute
Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation
6 min readMay 14, 2018


This spring, ten diverse student teams accessed project funding, Maker Passes, and other resources through a new grant program: the Jacobs Institute Innovation Catalysts. The program, made possible by the Eustace-Kwan Family Foundation, aims to help student designers unlock new potential in their projects. In classes, student organizations, and independently, students are constantly pitching ideas and producing rapid prototypes, and the Innovation Catalysts program provides a pathway for them to go further — whether that means building on an emerging idea or turning an early-stage prototype into a functional product.

The grant program, which is offered jointly by the Jacobs Institute and the CITRIS Invention Lab, is rooted in a focus on investing in Berkeley’s student design community. Reflecting this focus, the institute’s 14-member Student Advisory Board led the selection process for the program, learning about evaluation and grantmaking best practices before working to craft a portfolio of projects with strong potential for impact. “We wanted students to have the chance to empower their peers and gain experience in philanthropic giving,” explains Amy Dinh, the Jacobs Institute’s student services advisor and the manager of the Innovation Catalysts program. Working with the Jacobs Institute’s leadership, the Student Advisory Board selected ten project teams — collectively representing 18 campus departments, from physics to cognitive science — to join the program’s inaugural cohort.

Spark grantee Soravis Prakkamakul, whose project lets musicians control musical interfaces using facial expressions, presents during a cohort kickoff meeting.

Four of these teams received Spark grants: small grants, of up to $500, meant to support the exploration of open-ended concepts or the growth of nascent projects. These projects ranged widely, with teams taking on problems that included low-cost cancer screening and contamination in biochemical processing. Experimentation was encouraged: student Naser Abdelrahman drew from emerging medical research to conceptualize how developers might build customized solutions for people living with limb paralysis, for example, while Soravis Prakkamakul explored how musicians could control audio effects with just their facial expressions.

An additional six teams received Ignite grants, up to $2000, meant to push existing projects to the next stage. Many of these projects had first been developed in fall courses held at Jacobs Hall, including Bioengineering Senior Design Projects, Critical Practices, and Digital Fabrication Everywhere. The Ignite grant offered a structure for continuing work on these projects even after the semester’s end. “We wanted to help students sustain the momentum in their projects,” notes Dinh. “Many great first prototypes or ideas seen at the Jacobs Design Showcases remain in that stage because, even if passion and potential are there, it can be difficult to continue a project without the support provided by a course, funding, or teammates. We wanted to see how much more robust our grantees’ projects could get, if given several more months of work and other resources.”

The Bank of Hysteria installation at the Jacobs Spring Design Showcase.

Several projects supported through these grants focused on engagement with social issues, using creative design to promote conversation. The Climate Kids team, for example, used the semester to work on developing a project they had started in Kimiko Ryokai’s fall Tangible User Interfaces course, focused on using gamified interfaces to educate children about climate change. The spring term allowed them to think through the best form for their project, ultimately moving toward the concept of an interactive board game. Similarly, the team behind a project called the Bank of Hysteria spent the spring working to refine and scale up an interactive installation they had created in the fall. Using Maker Pass resources, they created a more polished and automated version of this physical installation, which aims to validate female anger by collecting messages from womxn, femmes, and gender-nonconforming community members and printing them as “rage receipts.” They also strove to expand their project’s impact beyond campus, launching a digital home for message collection and resources for emotional support. “One of the biggest parts that we’ve been working on is our website,” explains team member Phyllis Thai. “We know there are a lot of resources out there, but there isn’t really one space where they can be accessed.”

Another theme that emerged among the cohort was design for healthcare and clinical settings, an area ripe for impact-focused innovation. The SurgeCare team, which in the fall semester had developed a prototype for a low-cost method of surgical instrument reprocessing, used their grant to develop testing protocols and assembly instructions for their device, aimed at moving toward implementation in low-resource settings. Although they hit some unexpected obstacles along the way — unrest in Ethiopia posted significant challenges to communicating with their partners there, for example — they were thrilled when they learned that a group of graduate students at Ethiopia’s Jimma University had used their instructions to easily and affordably build their own version of the prototype.

Here in the Bay Area, fellow grantees Dan Beckerman and Billy Kim moved between Jacobs Hall’s makerspace and labs at UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital, exploring how best to 3D print anatomical models for orthopedic surgeons to use in surgery preparation, procedure simulation, and patient education. “The facilities at Jacobs Hall have been instrumental in conducting this project and bringing it to the place we are now…these [3D printers] are things that hospitals can’t just go out and acquire for testing,” says Beckerman. “We’re able to utilize these resources to test on these printers and inform hospitals on how to make better and more efficient investments.”

Above left, graduate students at Jimma University in Ethiopia demonstrate SurgeCare’s prototype, which they were able to easily and affordably build using the team’s presentation. Above right, sample 3D-printed precision bone models.

The availability of 3D printers and other makerspace tools played a major role in many projects’ development over the course of the spring. The team of students behind a project termed JARL (Just Another Robotic Limb), for example, used Jacobs Hall’s labs to refine their prototype for a low-cost, wheelchair-mounted robotic arm, which they are designing collaboratively with a local need-knower with quadriplegia. They are currently working on a slimmer iteration with metal parts, ultimately hoping to make the design open-source. Meanwhile, Aaron Pomerantz, a PhD student in integrative biology, has sought to use makerspace equipment to broaden access to science, developing a “Lab in a Backpack” equipped with low-cost scientific instruments. He used the spring grant period to conduct field testing in the Peruvian Amazon, using a centrifuge he designed and 3D-printed at Jacobs Hall, and to plan additions to to this affordable kit for field research and STEM education.

Aaron Pomerantz demonstrates low-cost scientific instruments at the Jacobs Spring Design Showcase.

While Pomerantz may have traveled the furthest, over the course of the semester teams ventured across and beyond campus to gather feedback, conduct field tests, and seek input, with Jacobs Hall and the Invention Lab serving as a home base. From the JARL team’s meetings with their need-knower to Beckerman and Kim’s surgery simulations in San Francisco, the teams kept their eyes trained on real-world context, engaging deeply with experts and potential users. “One of the highlights was the mid-semester check-in, when each grant team shared what they had been up to since the kickoff,” says Dinh. “I was impressed by how many people the grantees had reached out to for assistance — not just staff at Jacobs and the CITRIS Invention Lab, but also fellow students, professional game designers, and researchers at other universities. It can take a village to develop a new project.”

As the Innovation Catalysts program moves into a new academic year, Dinh hopes the program’s own “village” will continue to grow, with its inaugural cohort becoming mentors and sources of support to future grantees and to Berkeley’s student design community more generally. It’s well on its way: applications for the fall grant cohort will open this summer, inviting a new group of innovators to bring their ideas to life.

Learn more about this spring’s ten project teams here. Want to apply for the fall cohort? Sign up to receive an alert when the application opens.

By Laura Mitchell