Executive Summary

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Mission & Goals

  • Big Ideas@Berkeley is a year-long, annual innovation contest aimed at providing funding, support, and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of UC undergraduate and graduate students who have “big ideas.”
  • Big Ideas is both an education model and a research platform. It trains students to develop their ideas, transforms the way they think about their role in society, and provides them with funding and support to launch social ventures.
  • Unlike business plan competitions or many other innovation contests held on university campuses, Big Ideas aims to support students from all disciplines who are at the very beginning stages of developing an idea.  Business plan competitions are designed to encourage and vet entrepreneurs. The Big Ideas Contest is designed to encourage and create a platform for global social changemakers.  Winning student teams can be entrepreneurial, but ultimately it’s not about making money, it’s about creating social change.

Program Management

  • The core management of the Big Ideas program includes a program director (75% staff position), two part-time graduate students, and one part-time undergraduate.

Funding & Support

  • The Big Ideas ecosystem is made possible by generous support of a few key donors.
  • Topic-specific Contest categories (see Categories and Category Development below) are each sponsored by a campus partner, or external partner.  These category sponsors provide funding for the prize awards, support publicity efforts, and help recruit judges and mentors.
  • On a limited basis, Big Ideas enlists the support of “in-kind” (non-funding) sponsors who can offer critical advice, support, and exposure for a particular category.

Category Development

  • The 2012-13 Big Ideas Contest included nine separate categories. Global Poverty Alleviation, Information Technology for Society, and Improving Student Life are the longest running and most popular categories.
  • At the end of each Contest year, Big Ideas staff conduct a review to determine a) which categories to renew (or not), b) which categories should be modified, and c) where there may be opportunities for new categories.
  • When contemplating a new category, three key factors are considered.
    • Is the category consistent with the mission and scope of the Big Ideas Contest?
    • Will there be enough student interest to support the category?
    • Are there sponsorship and funding opportunities to support the category?
  • When drafting a new category, it is important that the category description be clear and concise enough that prospective applicants understand the category’s intent, but also sufficiently broad in order to attract potential applicants from a variety of disciplines.

Contest Structure

  • Big Ideas@Berkeley spans the course of an entire academic year and includes the following milestones:
    • August: Contest Begins
    • August to October: Information Sessions, Workshops, Networking Events
    • November: Pre-proposal Deadline (5 pages)
    • December: Finalists Announced
    • January to March: Mentorship Period
    • Mid-March: Full Proposal Deadline (15 pages)
    • April: Winners Announced
  • Proposals must be student-led initiatives and include at least one matriculated student from an eligible campus.  Projects that are extensions of faculty-led research are not eligible.
  • The Pre-proposal round places a greater emphasis on the originality and creativity of the idea.  In contrast, the Full Proposal shifts the emphasis to the viability and potential impact of the idea.
  • Big Ideas also hosts three additional events in the spring semester that provide exposure for the students and also promote and market the Big Ideas Contest:
    • People’s Choice Video Contest
    • Grand Prize Pitch Day
    • Big Ideas Awards Celebration

Contest Resources

  • Big Ideas@Berkeley has developed an evolving network of support services and opportunities for feedback to assist students at each phase of the Contest as they develop their ideas.  These resources currently include:
    • Information Sessions
    • Writing & Budgeting Workshops
    • Editing Blitzes
    • Graduate Student Advising
    • Networking & Team Building Opportunities
    • Judging Feedback


  • In the 2012-13 Contest year, 46 finalist teams were paired with mentors.  Big Ideas finalists cite the mentorship as the most important and impactful resource provided to applicants during the Contest.
  • Starting in mid-January, Big Ideas finalists are matched with mentors: Bay Area professionals from a diverse set of fields including business management/administration, engineering, agriculture, and health services.
  • Finalists and mentors work together approximately two hours per week for eight weeks to refine the teams’ project ideas, develop partnerships, and craft fifteen-page Full Proposals.
  • The most effective mentorship recruitment strategies utilize the faculty and professional networks of each category sponsor (including in-kind sponsors).  Additionally, it is important to identify and build relationships with effective mentors to increase the likelihood that they will participate in future years.


  • In the 2012-13 Contest year, Big Ideas received 160 Pre-proposal applications (representing 550 students from across 75 majors).  To manage the review process for this number of applications, 87 Pre-proposal judges were recruited.  From the applicant pool, 54 finalists were selected to develop and submit Full Proposal applications.  Big Ideas recruited 32 Full Proposal judges to review them.
  • Pre-proposal judges are expected to read and score a subset of between six and eight applications in their assigned category.  In contrast, Full Proposal judges are expected to read all of the Full Proposals submitted in their category (between three and ten, depending on the category).
  • In the Pre-proposal round, judges focus primarily on the creativity and originality of the idea, while in the Full Proposal round judges focus primarily on the project’s potential social impact and viability.
  • Much like mentors, the most effective judge recruitment strategies utilize the faculty and professional networks of each category sponsor (including in-kind sponsors).  Building relationships in order to retain effective and reliable judges is critical.

Online Contest Platform

  • Over the past three Contest cycles, Big Ideas@Berkeley has used three different on-line platforms.  These platforms all had their strengths and drawbacks, and as a result, none of these has emerged as a perfect option.  Based on past experience, Big Ideas@Berkeley staff are using the following metrics to re-evaluate additional platforms over Summer 2013:
    • Flexibility
    • User Interface
    • Content Management
    • Appearance/Identity
    • Customer Service
    • Cost

Student Outreach

  • Big Ideas@Berkeley uses a variety of strategies to maximize outreach opportunities. These strategies include face-to-face efforts (e.g., tabling), indirect efforts (e.g., informing academic advisors of the Contest), and use of social media.  A summary of these strategies is provided in the Student Outreach section and additional resources can be found in the Tools appendix.

Prize Awards

  • Big Ideas prize money is an award for an innovative idea.  It is not a grant with requirements, benchmarks, and deliverables, but a monetary prize for articulating a creative, impactful idea.  (However, although teams are not required to implement their ideas, nearly all of them do so.)
  • Winning teams typically receive an award ranging from $1000 to $10,000. The average prize award across categories typically amounts to $5000.  The exact amount is determined primarily on the final overall scores and, to a smaller extent, on the amount of money requested by each team.

Evaluation and Feedback

  • Big Ideas@Berkeley conducts both formal and informal evaluations that rigorously evaluate the Contest’s programmatic goals and identify areas for improvement.  This process includes both formal surveys of mentors, judges, and (most importantly) applicants.
  • More recently, Big Ideas@Berkeley initiated an informal evaluation process that includes reaching out to past winners and conducting personal interviews to assess their progress and future plans.  This has been an extremely effective tool for collecting project updates and developing a greater sense of connection to and commitment from past winners.