2020 President's Innovation Challenge


Our advisors at the Harvard Innovation Labs (and some of the President’s Innovation Challenge application judges), shares their top tips for creating a compelling application.


1. Start the application ASAP. Applications are due January 2. 

They stress that the application is the single best thing you can do to propel your idea forward.

“First, it gives you the boxes to put your idea in, forcing organization and order and showing you how much you do – or don’t – know yet,” they say. “Second, the process of filling out the application is the signal to yourself that you’re serious. If your goal is to make your idea a reality and you can’t put it down on paper, you’re not likely to be successful. But if you can imagine being successful, the first step is to write down your idea so you can see where the holes are.”


2. Solve a real problem

The most important metric for Challenge applicants to consider is developing a solution to an actual problem. And when it comes to a solution’s impact and viability, the advisors suggest thinking about the pain-to-gain ratio: the magnitude of the problem being addressed and the differentiating factor between your solution and existing alternatives.

The singular question you need to answer is this: What do you uniquely offer that customers desperately want?

Successful entries look at problems in a completely different way using the team’s unique insight. “We see so many great ideas, and one of the most inspiring things is their breadth and diversity. Many of these ideas address global issues in completely new ways.”


3. Test your idea – but it doesn’t have to be perfect.

The more you can do to talk to the market before the January 2 deadline, the better. “Get out there and talk to customers, competitors, influencers – anyone you can,” says Kaplan. “And if you have just a couple of days left, go talk to people at Starbucks, or get on LinkedIN, make a list of relevant contacts, and email them your one-paragraph value proposition with the simple question: Does this idea hold water?’”

“If we get an application for the semi-finalist path that says, ‘This is my plan’ versus an application that says, ‘This was my plan, but I talked to some people and know I need to change these things because of their feedback,’ the second application is always going to be the stronger one,” he adds. “And that’s not because the idea has been shaped, because the customer feedback may be wrong, but because almost all successful ventures are executing a variation or evolution of their initial idea. What we’re looking for is founders who will be open, curious, and unafraid of the truth – not ones that assume they have all the answers.”

The lesson: get out there and start talking to as many people as you can about how you can evolve your idea into a viable solution. But remember, an imperfect application is better than none at all.


4. Find Collaborators

Jodi Goldstein, who herself has built a half dozen companies, advises applicants to not go it alone. “Do it with a team,” she urges. “Find like-minded students from across the university to maximize this opportunity.”

What if you can’t pull a team together before the January 2 deadline? No problem. “The reason to apply is so we know who you are, because chances are someone is doing something similar in a similar space, and the more we know about you the more helpful we can be in connecting you.”

Nietner of StemGem says the key to finding team members is to “be really passionate about the problem you’re solving. You’ll find people who are also passionate, and that makes the best kind of team.”

“A lot of the benefit we experienced at the i-lab was fortuitous, based on meeting references and contacts at events,” says Nietner. “At many of these events, you’ll meet some Harvard alums – like-minded people – who have been in the industry for years. You meet relevant people who connect you with more relevant people.”


5. Make a video (and show your passion!)

“We don’t care about video production quality. What we want to see is your passion for your idea,” says one advisor.

So prop that smartphone up on the table, hit record, and tell your story of what makes you uniquely qualified to solve the problem you see – and why it matters.


January 2
President’s Innovation Challenge Application due online.

Mid to late January
Decisions sent to applicants.

Late March
Applicants may update their applications to reflect progress on their ventures and ideas.

Early April
Five finalists are chosen for each track competing for President’s Innovation Challenge Grand Prizes. All teams not selected as Finalists are still eligible to compete for Ingenuity Awards and continue participating in the Venture Program.

Early May
Student finalists competing for President’s Innovation Challenge Awards pitch their venture live to a panel of experts who will decide Grand Prize and Runner-Up winners.

May 13
The five finalists in each track — including the alumni tracks — pitch their ventures before a live audience.