2020 President's Innovation Challenge


“The President’s Innovation Challenge application can seem intimidating – but we don’t want it to be. We want to hear people’s ideas and solutions – both big and small – to the problems they see in the world,” says the advising team at the Harvard Innovation Labs. Here, they answer the most common application questions as the January 2 deadline approaches.

1. Is my idea good enough?

“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,” says one of the advisors.

“It’s OK if there are holes in your thinking,” they stress. “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, above all, this process is an opportunity to test your idea sooner rather than later.

“This is the first step on a journey, not the last step toward securing funding. 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 get involved in our programs, and you’ll have 12 weeks to improve your idea.”

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


2. I have a few days left before the deadline – what should I do?

Whether you have a week or a day left, the answer is the same: “Validate, validate, validate,” they say. “Get out there and talk to people about your plan. Test the market. Find out what still needs more thought.”

You might think that your idea is brilliant and be reluctant to share it. Or you might question whether it’s worth sharing at all. Either way, the only way to get from an idea to a viable venture is to question, learn and iterate.

“If we get a semi-finalist application 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, 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 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. 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?’”


3.Which questions matter most for the Semi-finalist path?

We want to know your traction. This doesn’t mean you need to have paying customers. But we do want to know that you’ve made an effort to gauge the market interest in your idea.

What process have you used to get your venture to the stage that it’s at? This does not need to be an exact framework that you read about. This is a chance to show your thoughtfulness and explain the process that’s gotten you from day one to the present.


4. What if my team is incomplete?

Apply anyway.

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.

Acknowledge the missing pieces in your application – but don’t let them stop you from getting your idea in the game.


5. Do I need to make a video? 

Yes. We don’t care about production quality. What we want to see is your passion for your idea. We want to see your eyes light up as you discuss its story and potential.

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.

Also: Wear a shirt. (Yes, this is based on past experience.) And be aware of what’s behind you. (Ditto.)


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.