{image id=1334924 align=center size=large caption=”President’s Innovation Challenge: Applications due January 2”}

So if you’re a Harvard student wondering if the President's Innovation Challenge – which culminates in a total of $410,000 in prizes – is for you, the answer is a resounding yes.

“​Any Harvard student at any Harvard school is welcome to participate in the President’s Innovation Challenge,” said Jodi Goldstein, Executive Director of the Harvard Innovation Labs. “We accept venture at all stages, and now even have ingenuity awards for high-potential ideas that you may have just started working on. It’s less about how developed the idea is and more about how well-thought-out it is. We don’t expect detailed business plans or financial models. We just want you to focus on the problem, the solution and the customer.”

The competition is designed to harness creativity and ingenuity from across Harvard University. {image id=1334919 align=right size=medium caption=”PionEar, winners of the 2018 Grand Prize in Health and Life Sciences”} Since its inception in 2011, it’s helped thousands of students experience the startup journey first-hand, all while being supported by the Harvard Innovation Labs’ staff and resources at every step.

Ida Pavlichenko, co-founder of the ear infection treatment technology PionEar – which took the 2018 Grand Prize in Health and Life Sciences – called the experience “truly enabling.” “Before the Challenge, I never thought about commercializing the technology,” she said. “An actual business plan was never considered, because as a post-doc, I was focused on the research. The i-lab was instrumental in helping us develop key steps, dive deeper into customer research, and create a story to tell future investors.”

What will you get out of it?

1. A shot at funding

The cash prizes, which are made possible by the generosity of the Bertarelli Foundation, are awarded in May, with four $75,000 prizes and four $25,000 prizes going to winners in four categories:

  • Social Impact or Cultural Enterprise
  • Health and Life Sciences
  • Open (for ideas that transcend categories)
  • Launch Lab X (selected teams in the i-lab’s 9-month alumni accelerator program)

This year, a new prize category is poised to open Challenge doors to even more participants. It’s the Ingenuity Awards: a $10,000 sum reserved for brilliant, bold and insightful ideas at any stage of development.


The funding has helped past winners through many phases of venture development. Larissa Nietner, co-founder of StemGem – the “create your own wearables” kit that took home the 2018 Grand Prize in the Open track – said the prize money has supported her team through many phases of building a high-tech product. “To be able to have the capacity to build a complex and compelling product with a {image id=1334920 align=right size=medium caption=”StemGem, winners of the 2018 Grand Prize in the Open track”} competitive advantage is really a privilege that the i-lab and the prize money have allowed,” she said.

PionEar also used the funding to accelerate multiple key processes. “First, we used some of the funding to get legal advice on incorporation, the regulatory aspect, and advice from product development consultants,” said Pavlichenko. “Next, it allowed us to strike deals with silicone manufacturing companies for manufacturing prototypes. In the coming year, we’ll be using more of the prize money to perform animal trials with the product. Winning the Challenge enabled us to receive a validation grant to do so.”

2. A launching pad for your idea

Sure, the President’s Innovation Challenge is a competition for funding. But it’s much more than that. “​The Challenge focuses on the student experience and the potential for learning as much as on the impact,” said Jodi Goldstein – and previous participants attest to the fact that the process itself is transformative.

“What you’re applying for now is just Phase 1 of the journey,” said Howard Kaplan, Director of Advising & Technology at the Harvard Innovation Labs and one of the Challenge application judges. “You’ll have many opportunities to refine your idea later on.”


First, the application itself offers a unique opportunity to run your idea through various filters and see what you need to refine. The process can also shed light on whether the innovator or entrepreneur journey is right for you.

For Pavlichenko of PionEar, the experience changed the trajectory of her future. “On a personal level, I found that I like entrepreneurship,” she said. “It was a game-changer for my career to realize that I would like to lead this company as a female CEO.”

Approximately 100 Challenge semi-finalists are accepted into the i-lab’s one-of-a-kind Venture Incubation Program. The semester-long program has served as a catalyst for a wide array of now-thriving businesses, including LovePop, Whoop, Six Foods, and Vaxess.

Nietner of StemGem said the program helped the company get a better idea of how to provide the best value to customers. “It helped us define our consumer space. For example, oftentimes when you have a consumer product, it’s an instinct to want to just run a Kickstarter, but it’s much smarter to carefully plan out sales channels and marketing analytics through a comprehensive resource like the i-lab. We’ve participated in a lot of different accelerator programs, but the i-lab is definitely a special place.”

All other Challenge applicants remain in the pool for the Ingenuity Awards, with ample opportunities to connect with each other and the i-lab team over the next few months as they continue to develop their ideas.

Is your idea good enough to apply?

“If you’re serious about driving the venture forward, and actually want your idea to come to fruition, then you have no reason not to apply,” said Howard Kaplan.

“It’s OK if there are holes in your thinking,” Kaplan stressed. “We get incomplete ideas all the time. We can handle it. What we want to see is not that you have all the answers, but that you have the questions and realize that it’s your job to answer them over time.”


What if you’re still not sure whether your idea is worthy? Or if you can’t imagine winning the Grand Prize in May but are still passionate and serious about your concept? Remember the Ingenuity Awards – and the fact that this is an opportunity to fuel and test your idea sooner rather than later.

“This is the first step on a journey, not the last step toward securing funding,” Kaplan said. “Even though $75,000 makes a huge impact, the money is not what’s most important. What’s far more valuable is that if you make it into the Venture Incubation Program, you’ll have 12 weeks to improve your idea and get your venture to a place where you can go out and convince Bill and Melinda Gates or MassChallenge or whoever else to believe in your idea. And if you don’t make it into the Venture Incubation Program, you’ll still have signaled to us your intention to move your venture forward. This allows us to connect you with other founding teams at similar stages of their journey, and to resource and support you more effectively.”

The bottom line is this: going through the application process itself will push you ahead in your thinking. Why not you give your idea the benefit of the doubt?

To read all about how applications are evaluated, click here.

Tips for Success

We asked the i-lab team of application judges for their last-minute advice for Challenge applicants. Here’s your cheat sheet:

{image id=1334926 align=center size=medium}

To read about each tip in detail, click here.

Will you accept the Challenge?

Across the board, all past President’s Innovation Challenge participants – both award-winners and not – point to a resource-rich community as a major driver in pushing their ideas forward.

The President’s Innovation Challenge is an invitation to join this community. It’s an invitation to bring your ideas out of seclusion and into a universe where they may blossom into something you – and the world – can’t yet imagine.

Apply now.

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