The President's Innovation Challenge Five Tips for Success

Five Tips for Success

Howard Kaplan, Director of Advising and Technology at the Harvard Innovation Labs (and one of the President’s Innovation Challenge application judges), shares his top tips for creating a compelling application.


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

Kaplan stresses 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,” he says. “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, Goldstein suggests 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,” Goldstein says. “Many of these ideas address global issues in completely new ways.”


3. Test your idea

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 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.


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,” says Kaplan.

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!)

While a video is not a required part of the application, it’s in your best interest to submit one. “We don’t care about production quality,” says Howard Kaplan. “What we want to see is your passion for your idea.”

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.













1. Is my idea good enough?

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

3. Which questions matter most?

4. What if my team is incomplete?

5. Do I need to make a video?

Get all the answers


January 2, 2019 | Application deadline

Late January | Semi-finalists selected

March 2019 | 20 finalists selected (5 per track)

May 1, 2019 | Live Pitches and Awards Ceremony


Sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on all events and deadlines.