Big Ideas has its roots on the UC Berkeley campus, but has expanded its eligibility to campuses beyond UC Berkeley. In its early years, at the request of a category sponsor, students from UC Davis, UC Merced, and UC Santa Cruz were eligible to apply for the IT for Society category. It wasn’t until the 2013-2014 cycle, at the request of the University of California Office of the President, that the contest expanded to all 10 campuses of the University of California System. Through a partnership with USAID, in 2014-2015 students at Makerere University in Uganda became eligible to compete in Big Ideas. Most recently, Big Ideas forged a partnership with Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now the contest is open to all students across these 12 campuses.
Expanding the Big Ideas contest to some of the top universities around the world has undoubtedly raised the size and stature of the competition, and improved the quality and diversity of submitted projects. Big Ideas has successfully leveraged its partnerships at each campus to promote the contest widely, leading to an increase in applications each year. By involving schools from across California and internationally, Big Ideas gives winning teams greater recognition and exposure to a larger audience. By involving schools such as Uganda’s Makerere University, the contest integrates perspectives from student populations that may not receive the same amount of acknowledgement for their projects, especially from US audiences. It also offers a unique platform for students at numerous other campuses, where opportunities and resources for entrepreneurs may be more limited, to become involved in student innovation endeavors, and gain access to experiential educational opportunities to solve real world problems. It also means that there are more networks to tap into for judges and mentors.
Broadening eligibility to additional campuses does not come without challenges. One of the strengths of the Big Ideas contest is its reputable brand and the high-touch resources it is able to offer students on the UC Berkeley campus. Despite strong partnerships established with eligible universities, and added efforts to provide resources remotely, this high-touch approach has been difficult to mirror on other campuses (on average, UC Berkeley finalists in the 2019-2020 contest utilized 4.2 Full Proposal support offerings, and non-UC Berkeley finalists used 3.1). The fact that the competition originated from and is based at UC Berkeley may also be a deterrent for students from other schools to participate.
As the contest has expanded to multiple universities, Big Ideas has made the shifts to accommodate broad multi-campus participation.
Beginning in 2015, the competition was rebranded as the Big Ideas Contest from Big Ideas@Berkeley. Dropping the “@Berkeley,” while still noting in materials that the Contest was founded and is administered at UC Berkeley, was done to signify the multi-university dimension of the competition, and to encourage more students from other UC Campuses and Makerere University to take advantage of this opportunity to receive funding, support and recognition for their creative ideas to improve society. Notably, in November 2015, the first contest year following this revision, the Big Ideas contest received a 37% increase in applications. Since November 2015, applications from other UC campuses have tripled (62 applications in 2015 to 190 applications in 2019) and applications from Makerere University have seen a similar increas (29 applications in 2015 to 102 applications in 2019.)
Initially, following Big ideas expansion to other campuses, eligibility to compete in the Big Ideas contest varies by category. Some categories, such as Food Systems, were open to all campuses, whereas other categories, such as Improving Student Life, are open to only UC Berkeley. Decisions on category eligibility were made jointly between the category sponsor(s) and Big Ideas staff. However, this category-unique eligibility created confusion for students. Furthermore required demanded additional time of Big Ideas staff to respond to questions, develop campus-specific outreach materials, and vet proposals for eligibility. Thus, in 2018 the Big Ideas Contest administrators made the decision to allow any student from any eligible campus to apply to any of the Big Ideas categories.
To effectively promote Big Ideas at other campuses, the contest relies heavily on its partners to assist with its outreach. At the beginning of each contest, Big Ideas shares with its partner campuses its system-specific promotion page, as well as an outreach strategy that includes posters, email templates, and sample social media messages to post. Additionally, Big Ideas will ask its partners to recommend additional centers and student networks it can advertise to.
At the UC campuses, Big Ideas’ key partners are the respective Blum Centers on each campus as well as key stakeholders with the UC System’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E) ecosystem which include the leading accelerators/incubators, entrepreneurship focused clubs and programs, makerspaces, and even other innovation contests. With support from the University of California Office of the President, which manages all 10 campuses of the UC system, Big Ideas has successfully engaged the vast majority of these programs and organizations in its outreach effort.
In 2017, in effort to establish a footprint on each UC Campus, Big Ideas piloted its student Innovation Ambassadors (IA) program. At each campus an IA was hired through a competitive application process to help build and engage the innovation network on their respective campus, interacting with students, professors, investors and industry representatives. The IAs were responsible for coordinating outreach, events, and advising. They received training and ongoing support from the Big Ideas professional staff based at UC Berkeley, and served from mid-September through mid-December, with an expected 10-12 hours per week commitment. The IAs were compensated for their role with a $2000 stipend.
In its first two years, the IA program proved to be very successful, not only in encouraging more UC system students to participate in Big Ideas, but also in helping the contest expand its networks and developing a comprehensive innovation ecosystem map on each campus. Applications from other UC system campuses nearly doubled from 2016 (the year before the IA program was implemted) to 2018. Most recently, with support from Acumen, a new sponsor of the Big Ideas Contest in 2019, the IA program was expanded to two students for the 2019-2020 Contest year. In the first year with two IA’s on each campus the number of applications from other UC system campuses (not including UC Berkeley increased by 63%, from 117 to a record 190 applications.
Through its outreach efforts, Big Ideas has continually strengthened two comprehensive lists of relevant academic bodies at its partner schools. One of these lists contains major departments and communication channels at all eligible schools, all of which receive a general Big Ideas informational email when the contest launches. The other list is sorted by category and contains departments, classes, centers, and student groups on each campus that might be particularly interested in applying to that specific category. This latter list receives a tailored email describing the eligibility and requirements of the specific category, and strongly encourages students to apply. Big Ideas has found that this tailored approach is especially effective in reaching prospective applicants.
Big Ideas ensures that all branding and marketing materials are consistent and clear, and students are always encouraged to speak with a Big Ideas advisor if they have any questions about their campuses’ eligibility (see the chapter on Outreach & Marketing for more tips on how to promote the contest successfully).
Making sure that students from other contests have equal access to high-quality resources provided by the is the most challenging part of expanding the competition to multiple campuses. As a result of the contest originating from and being based on the UC Berkeley campus, Berkeley students inevitably are more aware of the resources available to them through the contest. With opportunities such as networking events, hands-on workshops, attendance at innovation-related events based in the Bay Area, and participation in end of the year events, it is impossible to provide remotely located students the same access that UC Berkeley students have.
However, Big Ideas has made great efforts to make these resources available to all students. All events held on the UC Berkeley campus– Information Sessions, Writing Workshops, Final Round Kickoff Event, and Grand Prize Pitch Day are webcasted live to encourage participation from students at other campuses. Recordings of those events are also archived on the Big Ideas website. Students are also able to arrange one-on-one consulting opportunities, such as Advising Office Hours, Editing Blitz appointments, and meetings with Practitioners in Residence, over Skype or phone. Even pitch-related events are set up so that students can present through video conference. In the past three years, Big Ideas has also flown top-rated teams from other campuses to attend Grand Prize Pitch Day and vie for the chance to win additional funding by pitching before a panel of judges. Makerere University teams have participated in pitch events via video conferences and won additional prizes for their projects.
Big Ideas has learned to be flexible with its services. In order to accommodate rigid student schedules and huge time differences, Big Ideas staff will often extend its office hours to cater to the availability of the student. Each workshop or event is recorded and made available online after the fact for students to watch on their own time. These adjustments have been especially useful for the students located in Uganda, where the time difference can be very difficult to manage.