What is the Venture Incubation Program?
The Venture Incubation Program is a resource-rich program designed to help all current Harvard students and select alumni at the i-lab, Launch Lab X, and Life Lab pursue entrepreneurial ventures while diving deep into the world of innovation and business. The Venture Incubation Program helps them to develop their ideas by providing advising, mentors, workshops, and numerous resources, including co-working space in our state-of-the-art lab. More on the VIP.
When teams are accepted into the Venture Incubation Program, they have the opportunity to participate in exclusive community events, including orientation, cohort social events, roundtables, and Founders’ Dinners with successful entrepreneurs. They also become eligible for Mentor Matching and other VIP-only resources. Click here for a full description of the program and its offerings.
We expect that teams will take advantage of the resources to make substantive traction during the semester; this is not simply a byline to put on your resume. Beyond that, the program is what you make of it. Some people take advantage of just a few resources, but many others make the i-lab their second home, forming deep connections with other budding entrepreneurs.
What is the President’s Innovation Challenge?
The President’s Innovation Challenge (the Challenge) is a yearly student competition sponsored by the Office of the President of Harvard University and the Bertarelli Foundation that awards more than $410,000 in prize money to Harvard-led ventures that have the best plans for world-changing impact.
To be eligible to compete in the Challenge, you must first apply to the Spring Venture Incubation Program. If accepted, you will automatically have a chance to become a finalist in the Challenge. We will help you to develop your idea and to make traction during the semester, and, if you are chosen as a finalist, we will help you to deliver a compelling pitch for the President’s Innovation Challenge Showcase & Awards Ceremony at the end of the semester.
Entries in the Challenge will be divided into three tracks:
1. Social Impact/Cultural Enterprise
2. Health or Life Sciences
3. Open (open to all other industries and categories)
More information here.
What is the difference between the Venture Incubation Program and the President's Innovation Challenge?
The President’s Innovation Challenge is the culmination of the Spring semester of the student Venture Incubation Program. They go by two separate names because the Challenge is a competition for funding, with prizes funded by the Bertarelli Foundation, Ernesto Bertarelli (MBA 1993). However, they roll into one. So, to be eligible to compete for the money, you have to apply to the Venture Incubation Program. This is also the best way for you to get the resources you need to be well-positioned to win the competition (and grow your venture successfully).
What are the application criteria? Who is eligible to apply to the Venture Incubation Program and the Challenge?
To apply to the Venture Incubation Program and thus be eligible to compete in the President’s Innovation Challenge:
- Teams must have at least one founder who is a full-time, degree-seeking Harvard student. Medical residents and postdoc researchers are eligible, although most are admitted on a case-by-case basis. These designations do not normally have access to the i-lab through their HUID. Research fellows (i.e., university employees) are not eligible, as they are not finishing a degree.
- Teams may submit only one (1) application.
- Individual applicants may be included on only one (1) application and may not be part of multiple teams.
- All participants MUST submit an application by the deadline in order to participate. No late applications will be considered.
- We reserve the right to disqualify any application that we, in our sole and absolute discretion, determine does not fit within our application criteria.
What kinds of ventures are a good fit for the Venture Incubation Program and the Challenge?
We welcome an incredibly wide variety of ventures, both for-profit and non-profit, across almost any industry. We look for ventures that demonstrate the following:
- a solid understanding of a problem that they wish to solve
- a proposed solution that has the promise of real impact
- a proposed plan for growth, scalability, and/or traction, and a demonstration that these things are feasible.
There are certain types of ventures that tend not to fit well within this rubric:
- “One-offs” – ventures that exist to plan for a single event or outcome
- Search funds, aka entrepreneurship through acquisition. We’re looking to incubate original venture ideas.
- Consultancy or advocacy groups. While these have the potential for important impact, they generally do not have the ability to scale or disrupt existing markets/systems.
I have a venture that is already a growing or thriving business. Can we apply to the Venture Incubation Program, or is it just for brand-new ventures?
Yes, apply! We welcome teams at all stages. The Venture Incubation Program is an incubator, so we do focus a lot of our attention on helping new ventures get started. But of course, the definition of “new” can be subjective. We have accepted plenty of ventures that were started a year or so prior to applying, but who joined the program to get help in scaling or gaining traction. Our network of advisors, staff advisors, and so much more of our programming can help you at any stage.
How is the President’s Innovation Challenge judged?
Teams accepted into the Spring Venture Incubation Program automatically become President’s Innovation Challenge Finalists. The entries are judged by a panel of industry experts, who select a pool of 15 finalists in late April. The winners in each track are then announced at the President’s Innovation Challenge Showcase & Awards Ceremony.
The judges use seven criteria we use to evaluate ideas and ventures. They are viability, empathy, rigor, ingenuity, traction, economics, and impact. These criteria form the acronym VERITE!, the French word for truth. VERITE! emphasizes the importance of understanding the truth of the problem, the truth of the customer, and the truth of the solution.
For a more detailed description of the VERITE! criteria, please visit the President’s Innovation Challenge page and scroll down to Click, Listen and Learn.
What are the prizes for the President's Innovation Challenge?
There will be $410,000 in prize money. Each track will have a grand prize winner and a runner-up. The breakdown of prizes is as follows:
- $75,000 – Grand Prize (for each track)
- $25,000 – Runner-up (for each track)
- $10,000 – Ingenuity Awards
Winners of the President’s Innovation Challenge will be awarded Bertarelli Foundation Prizes, made possible by a gift from the Bertarelli Foundation, Ernesto Bertarelli (MBA 1993).
If my team is already in the Venture Incubation Program (or if we have been in the past), do we need to reapply this semester to be considered for the President's Innovation Challenge?
Yes, teams applying for renewal in the Venture Incubation Program must fill out the same application as new applicants. (Teams may apply for renewal in any semester that their Harvard founder is still a current Harvard student.)
I have a great idea for a venture, but I haven’t started working on it yet. Should I apply?
That depends. We’ve had successful teams that started with not much more than a great idea, but who had a well-crafted plan and quickly made progress in creating their venture. There’s a lot that goes into a “great idea” as we see it: a deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, why your proposed solution fits, and some plan for bringing your idea to fruition. Simply having a concept for a product/service – but not the effort or understanding to justify it – is not enough to be accepted into the program/to qualify for the Challenge.
If all you have right now is a great concept for a product or service, you should frequent the i-lab and utilize our other resources – workshops, events, and office hours with staff advisors and experts in residence – to keep refining your idea. These can help you to develop your concept and gain some traction, and you’ll be in a good position to apply to the VIP for next term, and the President’s Innovation Challenge next year (if still eligible).
I have an idea, but I don’t have a team. Can I apply as just one person?
Yes. We have many successful solo founders, so please do apply. In fact, rushing to find cofounders just to create a “team” is something we’ve seen before, and it rarely ends in a perfect match. We base our admission decisions on the quality of the idea and dedication to the venture, not on having a fully assembled team or being ready to launch a successful product right away. We expect most teams to grow and change throughout the program, and we can give you ample advice on how best to go about assembling the right team.
I’ve already entered this idea in another contest or challenge, can I still enter the President’s Innovation Challenge?
Absolutely. You are welcome to enter into other incubator programs & competitions in addition to the Venture Incubation Program/President’s Innovation Challenge. Many of our teams do so. We are not looking for exclusivity; we’re simply looking to develop the best ideas and bring solutions to fruition.
Does Harvard own the intellectual property (IP) associated with my proposal?
No, unless you are working with another part of Harvard that has another agreement, in which case that agreement takes precedence.
Your participation in the Challenge – including winning a prize or using i-lab facilities and resources to develop inventions, software, copyrighted works or unpatented materials as part of the Challenge – will not, in and of itself, give Harvard any rights in those developments.
If Harvard is otherwise entitled to rights in such a development under its Intellectual Property Policy – for example, because the development involves work done under a sponsored research agreement administered by Harvard or with other financial support from Harvard – the fact that you participated in the Challenge or used i-lab facilities or resources to work on the development will not eliminate or diminish Harvard’s rights.
I’m not a Harvard student. Can I find a Harvard student to join my team so that we would be eligible?
Unfortunately, that’s not how this program works. The Venture Incubation Program exists to support ventures founded by Harvard students. We understand that Harvard students often wish to collaborate with talented friends or colleagues who are not current students, so we do not require that all team members be Harvard-affiliated. However, we do not accept teams whom we suspect have just a “token” Harvard founder, but are not truly Harvard-founded.
Can I meet with staff at the i-lab to discuss my application?
Though we don’t hold individual meetings specifically about your application, we welcome you to schedule time during Staff Advisor office hours to discuss your idea, your plan, and what you need help with. Booking office hours with the staff advisor in your industry/vertical will help you assess the progress of your venture and what steps could make you a better fit for the program.
Can we submit supplemental materials such as our pitch deck or written business plan?
No. We challenge you to fit everything you want to say within the answers to our questions. That way, we’re assessing the clarity and impact of the ideas themselves, and not how polished or professional a slide deck might look. You also have the opportunity to submit a 2-minute video to include anything we don’t ask explicitly in the applications. We encourage you to be creative!
What are some common reasons that Venture Incubation Program applications are NOT accepted?
Each application is reviewed carefully by several senior advisors, then discussed. We take into account every facet of the application and make a holistic decision. Teams are not required to have every aspect of their venture fully figured out: e.g. a team could demonstrate either traction or a well-informed plan with a robust team, but does not necessarily need all of those elements to enter the program.
While we cannot give individual feedback on each of the hundreds of applications we receive, here are some of the most common situations in which we might not grant acceptance:
- Not a clearly articulated problem + solution – either the team has failed to provide evidence that this problem is really a problem that they understand well, or we don’t have enough reason to believe that the proposed solution will address the problem in a meaningful way.
- Not far enough along – the team members have found a problem and think they have a solution, but have not done enough research or work to validate that it could become a viable venture. This is why we suggest you sign up for office hours long before you apply, so that you can work on getting to this stage.
- Insufficient market understanding – we don’t see evidence that the team deeply understands its market (including content expertise, competitive landscape, current trends, potential customers, etc.).
- Insufficient expertise/skills – we don’t see evidence that the team has the skills or experience that would be required to realize the venture.
- No clearly articulated business opportunity – even if there is a feasible solution to a problem, we are given no evidence that the team will be able to acquire customers or funders.
- Insufficient dedication or engagement – we don’t see evidence that the team members are really committed to bringing the venture to life, or we have reason to believe that they are unlikely to participate as members in the i-lab community.
- Not eligible – the team does not fit the eligibility criteria described above (e.g. we believe that the Harvard “founder” listed is merely a token founder).
- It’s a consultancy, advocacy organization, a one-off, or a search fund (see above). While we applaud the creation of these types of organizations, they are not the types of organizations that we have the resources to best serve.
- The application was not thoughtful, coherent, or complete. We view the care and thought that you put into your application as an indication of the care and thought that you’ll likely put into your venture.
What are some common reasons that Renewal Venture Incubation Program applicants are not accepted?
Acceptance into the Venture Incubation Program for one semester does not guarantee acceptance in future semesters. We expect teams to demonstrate growth and community engagement while part of the Venture Incubation Program; if teams do not demonstrate these qualities, we will not accept their renewal applications. Here are some of the most common reasons for choosing not to renew teams:
- Lack of community engagement – the teams did not engage with other community members, meet with their advisors, or utilize the i-lab resources.
- Lack of venture engagement – we did not have evidence that the team was working hard to achieve meaningful growth on their venture.
- Not taking feedback well. Arguably, our most valuable resource is our advisors. If we have reason to believe that a team was unwilling to meet with advisors or unwilling to reflect on and grow from advice, we will choose not to renew that team to make space in our program for teams who are going to benefit from that advice.
- Not making reasonable progress/traction. We do not expect ventures to turn into hugely successful businesses in the span of a few months. However, if we don’t believe that you’ve made meaningful progress over the term, we are unlikely to renew you for the next term. We still strongly encourage you to keep utilizing other i-lab resources while working on your venture, and to reapply in future terms.
- Lack of a thoughtful application. Beware of seeing the renewal application as a mere formality. Acceptance in one term does not automatically qualify you for renewal the next. In fact, we hold renewal applications to an even higher standard: the application must clearly express the problem and solution, the progress made so far, and a sense of what the team has learned through the process of being in the VIP.
How is the Summer Venture Incubation Program different from the Fall or Spring Venture Incubation Program?
The Summer Venture Incubation Program is more intense and requires more of a time commitment than the Venture Incubation Program during the school year – which also makes it a more vibrant community experience. We always look forward to the Summer Venture Incubation Program as a sort of “graduate school” version of the program. As such, we expect summer teams to be working on their ventures full-time, and to be in Boston during the entire ten-week program.
As with the Fall/Spring Venture Incubation Program, we accept applications from teams whose Team Leads have finished their coursework during the prior term – for Summer 2018, May 2018 graduates from any Harvard school are welcome to apply as Team Leads.
The Summer 2018 application will be released in late March, and due in late April. See the i-lab newsletter for the announcement of the due date. The Summer 2018 Venture Incubation Program will run for ten weeks, from early June until early August.