In 2005, the UC Berkeley Office of the Chancellor created a competition called Bears Breaking Boundaries to mobilize resources to support UC Berkeley students. Initially the competition was jointly funded by the Omidyar Network, an investment group created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar; the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC); and numerous institutes and research centers across campus. The competition was designed to encourage student-led research initiatives and to increase the role that students play in pioneering research, education, and service activities on campus. The competition involved multiple categories, as shown below.

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In its first five years, the structure of the Bears Breaking Boundaries competition was primarily a white paper contest: Student teams were provided with general guidelines and invited to submit papers describing their ideas to improve society. After a single round of judging, winners were selected within multiple categories to receive awards ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 to be used as scholarships or to advance their project ideas.

Pivot in Approach

In 2010, UC Berkeley’s interdisciplinary Blum Center for Developing Economies began managing the Bears Breaking Boundaries competition and renamed it Big Ideas@ Berkeley. Following an extensive review that included surveys of students and past winners, the Blum Center pivoted the Contest’s approach to incorporate the following improvements:

  • Make Big Ideas more accessible to students from all disciplines: Surveys indicated students from every discipline were equally interested in participating in student innovation competitions. However, the vast majority of students who actually entered these types of contests came from engineering and business school programs.
  • Make Big Ideas more accessible to undergraduate students: Although 80% of first and second year undergraduates indicated they would be interested in participating in an innovation contest, only 30% had heard of Big Ideas.
  • Provide an ecosystem of resources to assist and encourage students as they develop their ideas: Although 72% of students surveyed said they would be interested in participating in a business plan or idea contest, less than 10% had actually done so.

In response to this analysis, in the fall of 2010, Big Ideas changed its format from a one-round competition to the current structure it utilizes today, a multidisciplinary two-round, resource-rich contest that aims not only to fund, but also to support and encourage earlystage changemakers. By offering additional resources (mentorship, workshops, networking, team building) Big Ideas encourages broad student involvement, provides needed supports to all students who wished to enter the Contest, and levels the playing field between undergraduate and graduate student applicants. The pivot led to a stark improvement in undergraduate student participation, from 24% in 2006 to an average of 67% in the past 4 contest years. Furthermore, Big Ideas developed uniform branding and style guides, and increased its marketing and outreach in an effort to attract more students, especially undergraduates and students from underrepresented departments.

Expansion to multiple universities

As Big Ideas grew from year to year and diversified its funding sources and partnerships, it also expanded contest eligibility to schools outside of UC Berkeley. Initially, the majority of categories offered through the contest were only open to UC Berkeley students. In 2013, Big Ideas opened the majority of its contest categories to the entire University of California school system. In 2014, through the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab, Big Ideas established a working partnership with USAID’s Global Development Lab and incorporated an additional six schools, including one located outside of the US (Makerere University in Uganda). To learn more about how Big Ideas manages a global innovation competition, see the chapter on Cross-Campus Expansion.

10 Year Impact

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Information from 2015-2016 contest cycle

Since its founding, Big Ideas has grown to become one of the largest and most diverse social innovation competitions in the country. Whereas 30,000 UC Berkeley students were eligible for Bears Breaking Boundaries in 2006, over 500,000 students are currently eligible for the Big Ideas competition. To date, the Contest has provided $1.6 million in seed funding to social impact projects. It continues to grow each year, with the 2015-2016 contest accepting more applications and recruiting more judges and mentors than any other year in the history of the Contest.

Big Ideas has played an immense role in fostering the innovation ecosystem at UC Berkeley and other participating universities. It has shaped the dialogue on the importance of social entrepreneurship programming on college campuses, and incorporated more triple bottom line thinking into school-based startup landscapes. Specifically, Big Ideas believes it affects UC Berkeley and other participating campuses in the following ways:

It inspires and accelerates the output of university-based social ventures. As of the 2016-2017 contest, Big Ideas has supported over 4,000 students submitting more than 1,400 projects, and provided seed funding for almost 400 for-profit enterprises, non-profit organizations, and community-based initiatives. Those winners have gone on to collectively secure over $150 million in additional investment, meaning for every $1 invested by the Contest, teams obtain, on average, an additional $100. Big Ideas strengthens and expedites the development of social impact projects through nine months of goal setting, tailored feedback, mentorship and networking, team building, seed funding, and validation. It also inspires the creation of new initiatives by challenging socially-minded students to start their own projects, and providing them with a low-risk environment to do so. Big Ideas encourages students to be proactive in their attempts to tackle pressing social challenges, and provides them with a suite of tools to support their efforts.

It responds to a demand from students for greater exposure to real world problem solving. In recent years, UC Berkeley has seen a huge rise in demand of project-based classes. The Contest responds to student requests for a more professionally-focused, applied, education and greater exposure to industry. Its nine-month application process instructs students to design a product or service, identify a market, develop a compelling proposal, seek funding sources, express ideas in written and verbal forms, establish networks, design an implementation plan, and formulate a budget. It is also a unique opportunity to practice interdisciplinary collaboration outside of academic silos, an accurate representation of how issues are resolved in the real world. Due to limited enrollment spaces in project-based classes, many students lack these hands-on opportunities. Big Ideas supplements traditional schooling by teaching students to combine the theoretical aspects of classes with the applied aspects of fieldwork.

It fosters an inclusionary environment and builds a diverse pipeline of entrepreneurs. The Big Ideas contest attracts a broad pool of student entrepreneurs representing a diverse mix of academic disciplines, ages, countries of origin, genders and ethnicities. The Blum Center has worked to widen this pool by expanding support resources, incorporating a wide breadth of contest categories and increasing outreach efforts to ensure that the contest draws diverse applicants from across the eligible campuses. These efforts have shown remarkable success, expanding the competition from 62 entrants in 2006 (38% women, 24% undergraduates) to 795 entrants in 2016 (47% women, 62% undergraduates), and prompting participation from students in over 100 majors from 50 different countries of origin.

By virtue of being based at UC Berkeley and expanding eligibility to schools across the globe, the Contest also ensures that its much-needed resources are available to students who traditionally lack access to entrepreneurial support services and capital. Considering that an estimated 41% of all undergraduates in the University of California system qualified for Pell Grants in 2014, Big Ideas provides an important additional opportunity for students from low-income families who are traditionally underrepresented in the startup environment. On the Berkeley campus alone, an average of 17% of incoming freshmen are first-generation students, 40% of undergraduates speak English as a second language, and 10% are international. By opening the contest to schools such as Makerere University in Uganda, the contest also extends its unique offerings to populations with limited access to student innovation support services. This diversity ensures that the innovative enterprises generated by participating students at public universities around the world represent a perspective that is often left out of traditional entrepreneurship training programs.

It encourages students to become global changemakers. Big Ideas teaches its participants that there is never a problem too large, or a stage too early to start a venture. Undergraduate students are rarely recognized as producing innovative, cutting-edge ideas. The contest is proof that one does not need a decade of professional experience or a PhD to develop a compelling solution to a social issue. Since the contest’s pivot in strategy, the majority of winning teams were led by undergraduate students, with plans to implement projects in 30 different countries.

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Big Ideas changes the way students perceive themselves as innovators, broadens and potentially transforms their career trajectories. Students take the lessons they learned through the contest into their professional careers. In the 2014-2015 contest cycle, the number of respondents disagreeing with the statement “I consider myself an innovator” declined by 75%. Furthermore, in the last contest year, 93% of finalists reported interest in working for a social venture at some point in their career, and startups were the top-ranked career preference compared to other sectors (business, government, non-profit etc.). This is representative of the Contest’s unique ability to transform students’ relationship with the entrepreneurial field and influence the way they think of their role in society

It establishes the university as a leader in student innovation. Competitions like Big Ideas significantly raise the profiles of host campuses, by showcasing the groundbreaking work being produced by students. This rich entrepreneurial landscape is reflected in the high numbers of successful enterprises generated on campus. In August 2014, private equity and venture capital research firm PitchBook published an analysis of the undergraduate institutions of more than 13,000 founders, and UC Berkeley ranked second. According to PitchBook’s data, 336 alumni with undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley founded 284 companies that raised $2.4 billion in investment between 2009 and 2014.

The contest also provides an array of channels for industry leaders and top organizations to become involved with the school, and a pool of ambitious and skilled students for potential employers to draw from. To date, Big Ideas has recruited more than 1,200 judges and mentors to participate in its program, and partnered with numerous organizations and campus entities to execute the contest. This builds the school’s reputation for fostering student innovation, which helps recruit more entrepreneurial prospective students, and experienced faculty and staff. It deepens connections with campuses’ graduated social innovators by developing networks where alumni can stay connected to the program and the university.

For more information about the history of Big Ideas and the importance of student-led innovation, see the following:

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