Big Ideas Funding & Category Development

One of the major tenets of the Big Ideas program2012-2013 Categories is that successful innovations attack complex problems from a wide-range of viewpoints. To this end, Big Ideas seeks to foster interdisciplinary collaborations not just within the student body, but also across the campus. Big Ideas thus serves as a commons for the entire UC Berkeley campus, breaking down the departmental silos that too often exist on university campuses by bringing together individual units (e.g., centers, departments, programs) and making them stakeholders in the Contest and its processes. When opportunities for categories and sponsorships arise, this is the critical lens through which they are assessed.

The Big Ideas ecosystem is made possible through the generous support of key donors. Although donor funding provides much of the operational support for the Contest, each category within the Contest is sponsored by a particular center, department, or external partner. These category sponsors provide funding for the prize awards, as well as support in helping to broadly promote the Contest.

On a limited basis, Big Ideas has also offered “in-kind” category sponsorship opportunities to centers or departments in exchange for their advice and support with outreach to students, recruitment of mentors and judges, and other types of non-financial support. These types of key partnerships can raise the profile of the Contest and generate additional student interest. It also significantly reduces the administrative burden on the Contest staff to publicize categories and recruit judges and mentors for those categories.

Category Development
The Big Ideas Contest aims to encourage participation from as many students as possible from eligible campuses, and is designed to encourage interdisciplinary participation. As a result, Big Ideas has developed a set of categories that, together, stretch across multiple disciplines, and individually, are broad enough to accommodate projects of many different types.

In the 2012-13 Contest year, Big Ideas@Berkeley consisted of nine categories that spanned broad areas, including Information Technology for Society, Clean & Sustainable Energy Alternatives,  Maternal & Child Health, Promoting Human Rights, and Creative Expression for Social Justice. Thanks in part to these broad category areas, students who compete in the Contest hail from a variety of different majors and departments on campus.

In 2012, 160 student teams submitted proposals to the Contest which represented 550 students overall. Together, these applicants represented over 75 different majors.

The way Big Ideas@Berkeley categories developed over time is analogous to the structure of a U.S. shopping mall. In every U.S. shopping mall there are anchor stores that are large, established, and highly visible stores that help draw consumer traffic to a mall. In addition, there are established but smaller primary stores. Finally, there are secondary stores that tend to be smaller and less permanent. Global Poverty Alleviation, IT for Society, and Improving Student Life have long served as the anchor categories for the Big Ideas@Berkeley Contest. They are most established, longest running, and best-known categories, and thus draw students to the Contest. Creative Expression for Social Justice, Clean & Sustainable Energy Alternatives, and the Scaling Up categories are established but smaller primary categories. Each year, Big Ideas@Berkeley also offers secondary categories that are new and topical, such as the Maternal & Child Health, Promoting Human Rights, and Financial Literacy categories of the 2012-13 Big Ideas@Berkeley Contest.

At the end of each Contest year, Big Ideas staff conducts a review to a) determine which categories to renew (or not), b) decide which categories should be modified, and c) evaluate opportunities for new categories. Each existing category is assessed based on the following criteria:

  • Level of student interest (i.e., total number of proposals received)
  • Level of multidisciplinary interest and interdisciplinary collaboration (i.e., total number of disciplines/majors represented and interdisciplinary collaboration within teams)
  • Overall strength and potential impact of proposals that received funding
  • Feedback from student applicants
  • Ongoing partnership and funding (donor) opportunities

Using the above criteria, the anchor categories, which tend to be higher profile categories with strong partnerships, are typically renewed each year. In some cases, the category titles and descriptions are revised and broadened to encourage a higher number of proposals from a wider range of disciplines (see the Energy Efficient Technologies example in the Tips section). In cases where few proposals are received and/or no sponsorship opportunities exist, a category may be dropped.

When developing new categories, three key factors are considered. First, the new category should fit within the mission and scope of the Big Ideas Contest (refer to sections on Mission & Goals and History). Secondly, the category should draw upon a specific and new area of emphasis or expertise apparent within the collective student body. Finally, there should be potential sponsorship and funding opportunities to support the category, either on-campus or externally.

The two examples provided below illustrate how different strategies are utilized to fund and support Contest categories:

Example 1:
The Global Poverty Alleviation category (sponsored by the Blum Center) and IT for Society category (sponsored by Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) have thrived due to the high number of centers, departments, faculty, and students interested in or focused on information technology and international development. This has ensured a stable stream of student interest and financial support for these categories, reducing the need for Big Ideas@Berkeley staff to seek out in-kind sponsorship to assist with publicizing the category and recruiting judges and mentors.

Example 2:
Over the past year, Big Ideas@Berkeley has collaborated closely with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of its “Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN).” The goal of this network is to harness the intellectual power of great American and international academic institutions and catalyze the development and application of new science, technology, and engineering approaches and tools to solve some of the world’s most challenging development problems.

Building off this new partnership with USAID, the Blum Center and Big Ideas@Berkeley discussed the possibility of developing new categories that a) would be of interest both to USAID and university students and b) could encourage innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. This led to the creation of the 2012-13 Big Ideas Promoting Human Rights category. After funding and support was offered by USAID, Big Ideas approached the Human Rights Center (HRC) at UC Berkeley to act as an in-kind sponsor. As a result of their sponsorship, HRC provided assistance drafting the category description, promoting the Contest, and recruiting judges and mentors. The financial support of USAID coupled with the in-kind sponsorship of HRC ensured the success of this category.


• Develop clearly defined yet sufficiently broad categories. The central challenge when framing a new category is to make sure it is clear and concise enough that prospective applicants understand the category’s intent while also making if sufficiently broad enough to attract potential applicants from a variety of disciplines.

For example, in 2011, Big Ideas developed the Energy Efficient Technologies category, which sought “innovative ideas in energy efficiency and a pathway to assure widespread use.” The title and narrow description resulted in a small number of exclusively technology-oriented proposals, almost all from engineering students. In 2013, the category was reframed as the Clean & Sustainable Energy Alternatives category and emphasized proposals could focus on developing a renewable energy technology as well as other ideas such as land/watershed management, climate change adaptation, and others. Specific examples of a range of topics that fit into this category were included along with the description. The broadened definition and examples generated interest from a variety of departments and tripled the number of proposals received.

• Balance funding and growth opportunities with the Contest’s mission and goals. There is no shortage of good ideas or potential categories. One challenge in running an ideas contest is to remain consistent with the mission and goals of the contest, while also remaining “advantageously opportunist” towards new ideas and sponsorship opportunities. The first year that the Blum Center managed the Big Ideas Contest, the Contest consisted of sixteen categories. Many categories overlapped, some were too narrow to draw sufficient student interest, and others were extensions of class research projects. This led to confusion among prospective applicants and was difficult to manage from an administrative standpoint. When considering a new category, or bending to accommodate the desires of (potential) funders, it is important to keep in mind the Contest’s mission along with the criteria for evaluating categories outlined above.


2013-2014 Category Descriptions