UC Berkeley startups win at UC Startup Innovation Challenge


As the UC Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship continues to promote innovation and entrepreneurship across the UC system, several startups affiliated with UC Berkeley secured prizes at the UC Startup Innovation Challenge, including a grand prize of $50,000 Thursday.

Taking home the grand prize, former Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory fellow Kevin Kung won the early-stage competition for his startup Takachar, which aims to provide rural farmers with tools to convert agricultural waste into marketable products. According to Kung, the company aims to use waste materials to create an organic substitute for solid fuel which farmers can then sell for profit.

“Our mission is to turn trash into cash, for rural, underserved communities,” Kung said in an email. “The origin of the idea came during my previous work in Kenya, where I saw significant amounts of charcoal being traded by the roadside as a common household cooking fuel.”

Kung added that the company name originates from the Swahili word “Taka,” which means trash. According to a UC press release, the low-cost portable machine developed can transform biomass into valuable commodities and potentially reduce carbon dioxide emissions while providing farmers with a source of income.

Kung initially began his work in this field as part of his Ph.D. and postdoctoral work, he said, but wanted to probe further. Kung added that he sought support from the Cyclotron Road ecosystem at the Berkeley Lab through the Activate fellowship and collaborated with campus assistant specialist Daniel Sanchez.

“I did not want the technology to simply sit idle on a lab shelf, I wanted to spin this out as a company,” Kung said in an email. “We’re building an internal prototype and the next step is to field-test it with actual end-users.”

Launched in 2016, the annual systemwide challenge brings together students, faculty and the broader alumni network to honor impressive innovations of the UC community, according to the press release. Entries are judged on factors such as societal and technological impact, product-market fit, product or service innovation and the team’s enthusiasm and skill.

Nearly 250 UC-affiliated startups — ranging from applications in medical devices, clean-tech and intelligent disaster recovery robotics — entered the competition this year, according to the UC Startup Innovation Challenge website. 10 finalists were invited to pitch their innovations and Takachar was selected as a winner alongside UC Davis affiliated startup Sophie’s BioNutrients.

“We are extremely honored, and are blown away by the event and the quality of the other teams,” Kung said in an email.

Takachar was not the only campus-affiliated startup to earn an award during the competition.

Safi Organics, a startup focused on COVID-resilient fertilizers for farmers, and, which provides insights into job seekers’ skills using cognitive neuroscience, both won the inaugural Social Impact Award, each earning $10,000.

Contact Aryia Dattamajumdar at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AryiaDm.


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