MIT review names Blum Center director one of 35 Innovators Under 35

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She follows in the footsteps of Mark Zuckerberg and the co-founders of Google Inc., but she is no millionaire tech CEO. Rather, she is the innovation director of the UC Berkeley Blum Center for Developing Economies.

Lina Nilsson was named one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, the same honor bestowed upon the creator of Facebook in 2007. The list comprises “people who are driving the next generation of technological breakthroughs,” according to MIT Technology Review. Review editors considered approximately 600 nominees for 35 spots, according to David Sweeney, marketing communications manager of MIT Technology Review.

“(Nilsson) understands that the most urgent human problems of today’s world cannot be solved merely through technological solutions but require a deep contextual knowledge and a politics of patience,” said Ananya Roy, education director of the Blum Center and a campus professor of city and regional planning.

Nilsson’s work at the center has included initiatives to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the creation of a new doctorate minor in development engineering. The minor, which will be fully implemented next fall, will allow doctoral candidates to supplement their technical expertise in a particular field and ground it in a deeper understanding of social and political contexts, Nilsson said.

“After my first meeting with Lina, I said to my husband, I met an incredibly brilliant woman today and I cannot wait to work with her,” said Heather Lofthouse, director of special projects for the Blum Center, in an email. “She is highly creative, and instinctive, but her work is always solidly grounded.”

In 2007, Nilsson was awarded a Bonderman Travel Fellowship, which allows recipients to embark on international travel for eight months. Her travels took her to labs in Asia and South America, and she described them as stunted by scarce resources.

When she returned from her fellowship, she said, she was “filled with ideas” about how to provide greater access to lab equipment in developing countries and submitted her ideas to a competition hosted by the UC Berkeley Science, Technology, & Engineering Policy Group.

Nilsson said that she had no immediate intent to act on these ideas but that many friends and colleagues encouraged her to implement them.

“Because Berkeley and the UC system is such a creative place, people immediately asked me when I was going to start working on this,” she said. “It was meant as a theoretical piece of writing. Thanks to the community here, my ideas went from ‘Someone should do this’ to ‘I will do this’.”

It was this community that encouraged Nilsson to help found Tekla Labs. Tekla Labs is a collective of UC researchers working to construct a library of do-it-yourself projects to create high-quality lab materials out of everyday items.

“We ran a ‘Print-My-Lab’ competition — which, today at least, you can’t,” Nilsson said. “But it wasn’t really just about 3-D printing. It was about ‘Let’s take away all our assumptions of what is possible.’ We can afford to think really outside of the box or pretend there isn’t even a box.”

Contact Nico Correia at [email protected]