Calling all student innovators — What’s your Big Idea?

Sep 6, 2016

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The annual Big Ideas Contest launches on September 6th.  As one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious social impact contests, Big Ideas provides up to $300,000 directly to students each year for their groundbreaking initiatives. Armed with the training and seed funding provided by Big Ideas, student teams have gone on to secure over $150 million in additional funding for their for-profit, nonprofit, or hybrid ventures.

For many students, Big Ideas serves as the first step in turning a dream into a viable product, service, or organization. Undergraduate and graduate students receive valuable feedback, work with mentors at the top of their fields, and have multiple opportunities to expand their professional networks.

In the 2016-17 contest, Big Ideas is bringing back its 8 categories from last year: Art & Social Change, Energy & Resource Alternatives, Financial Inclusion, Food Systems, Global Health, Improving Student Life, Information Technology for Society, and Scaling Up Big Ideas, for past winners only.

This year’s contest also features a brand new category: Hardware for Good. Spearheading this new and exciting partnership with the Autodesk Foundation, Big Ideas is helping leverage the “Hardware Revolution” for social benefit. In essence, the category is responding to a unique opportunity within today’s innovation space. 3D printing, CAD software and makerspaces have dramatically decreased the price of prototyping and manufacturing physical goods, creating more space for at-home entrepreneurs to develop hardware solutions. The opportunity to develop solutions for lower-resourced communities are endless, as hardware innovations can now be prototyped faster, cheaper, and more conveniently than ever. Proposals submitted to the Hardware for Good category can encompass everything from wearable technologies and assistive technologies to novel devices that improve productivity, efficiency and safety for consumers, small business, industry, and the world.

Big Ideas has come a long way since its founding. When the Big Ideas contest launched 11 years ago, it was a unique concept on a college campus: give teams of students with potential breakthrough ideas small sums of money and a variety of support — and see what happens. The experiment has proven wildly successful.

Unlike many business competitions, Big Ideas is multidisciplinary — attracting engineers, science majors, public health majors, as well as students from over 100 majors including business— and is focused on supporting a variety of social ventures including for-profit enterprises, non-profit organizations and community-based initiatives. The contest challenges students to step outside of their traditional university-based academic work, take a risk, and use their education, passion, and skills to work on problems important to them.

As the contest enters its eleventh year, 16 universities will participate, including all 10 campuses of the University of California system as well as campuses throughout the world associated with the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network.  With most categories open to over 500,000 students, the Big Ideas Contest is one of the largest interdisciplinary student innovation competitions in the world.

“The Big Ideas competition helped us frame our thinking around the problem and get better understanding of our customers” said Denisse Halm, co-founder of Social Force, a management platform that connects mission-driven small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with relevant community-driven non-profits. “With the Big Ideas funding we will be able to launch our pilot and test our venture in the market.”

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“Our experience with Big Ideas was incredibly positive,” said Katie Niemeyer whose big idea seeks to empower financially and economically disadvantaged women in Mongolia. “We garnered the support we needed from the Big Ideas staff and our mentor. We sharpened our proposal-writing skills which helped us gain additional funding opportunities after the contest was over.”

From September to March, when the Full Proposals are due, teams have the opportunity to attend multiple information sessions, idea generation and networking events, writing workshops, editing blitzes, and office hours with Big Ideas advisors in person and online. In addition, finalist teams will be matched with mentors with expertise relevant to their project from a range of social enterprises, academic institutions, nonprofits, and businesses.

Big Ideas is made possible by the generous support of the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation and brings together entities as the Blum Center for Developing Economiesthe United States Agency for International Developmentthe Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Societythe UC Berkeley Food Institutethe UC Global Food Initiative,the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiativethe Associated Students of the University of California, andthe Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative —as well as over 300 judges and mentors annually.

Prospective applicants are strongly encouraged to attend a Big Ideas Information Session, scheduled to take place at 6:00pm (PT) on both Wednesday, September 7 and Tuesday, September 27 in Blum Hall, B100.

For more information about rules, categories, resources, funding, and contact information, please visit the Big Ideas website at http://bigideas.berkeley.edu

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