Executive Summary

Mission & Goals

  • Big Ideas is an academic year-long, annual innovation contest that provides funding, support, and recognition to interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students who develop creative solutions to pressing social problems. Contest goals are two-fold: 1) to support innovative projects with promising potential for social impact, and 2) foster a diverse pipeline of young innovators through targeted outreach, support, and educational opportunities.
  • Big Ideas encompasses 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 innovation contests held on other 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 impact.

Big Ideas@Berkeley History

  • Since 2006, Big Ideas has supported over 3,000 projects with more than 8,000 students competing, funded nearly 500 winning social ventures, distributed $2.5 million in funding, and established a network of over 1,800 industry professionals. Winners have gone on to secure an additional $650 million in funding.
  • To encourage greater participation from undergraduate students across a variety of academic disciplines, and to provide participants greater access to resources as they develop their ideas, the Contest pivoted from a one-stage to a two-round process that focuses on the growth of its contestants over the nine-month program.
  • These efforts have shown remarkable success in increasing diversity amongst its participants, expanding the competition from 62 entrants in 2006 (38% women, 24% undergraduates) to over 1000 entrants in 2018 (47% women, 65% undergraduates), and prompting participation from students in over 100 majors from 50 different countries.

Program Management

  • The Big Ideas Contest is managed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. The Contest has benefitted from the Blum Center’s positioning as an interdisciplinary research unit by enabling it to foster campus collaboration across departments without prioritizing certain academic foci over others.
  • In its current incarnation, as a contest with 12 participating universities and over 400 applications annually, the Big Ideas contest requires 3 full time positions (Program Director, Program Manager, Network Manager) and 3 part-time student positions (Communications Associate, Graphic Designer, Student Assistant)

Funding and Partnerships

  • Contest sponsorships cover operating expenses for the program. Social impact track sponsorships allow donors to directly fund promising social ventures in their particular area of interests, prominent examples including the Autodesk Foundation for the Hardware for Good track, and the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) for the Cities and Communities track. Partners also support the Contest with outreach and publicity needs, such as advertising the contest to students, judges, and mentors.

Social Impact Track Development

  • Tracks change from year to year. The way Big Ideas tracks have developed over time is analogous to the structure of a shopping mall. In every shopping mall there are anchor stores that are large, established, and highly visible chains that help draw consumer traffic to a mall. In addition, there are the established but smaller secondary stores. Finally, there are floating shops that tend to be smaller and less permanent. Similarly, three types of tracks—anchor, secondary, and floating—are recommended to create balance for the contest.
  • Each year, tracks are evaluated based on: 1) level of student interest; 2) extent to which it inspires interdisciplinary collaboration; 3) overall strength and potential impact of proposals that receive funding; 4) feedback from student applicants; 5) ongoing partnership and funding opportunities.
  • When drafting a new track, it is important that the track description be clear and concise enough that prospective applicants understand the track’s intent, but also sufficiently broad in order to engage potential applicants from a variety of disciplines.

Contest Structure & Requirements

  • The contest currently consists of two rounds over nine months. The first half requests a 3-page Pre-proposal application focused on creativity, and the second half requires a 8 page Full Proposal application focused on viability and a 90-second elevator pitch video. Throughout the course of the competition, numerous events and resources are available to participants to facilitate their skills development.
  • Each year, tracks are evaluated based on: 1) level of student interest; 2) extent to which it inspires interdisciplinary collaboration; 3) overall strength and potential impact of proposals that receive funding; 4) feedback from student applicants; 5) ongoing partnership and funding opportunities.
  • When drafting a new track, it is important that the track description be clear and concise enough that prospective applicants understand the track’s intent, but also sufficiently broad in order to engage potential applicants from a variety of disciplines.

Outreach & Marketing

  • The most effective outreach strategies are email campaigns, posters, and word of mouth. Classroom announcements, news articles, events and tabling, and social media are other good ways of spreading the word.

Resources for Student Innovators

  • Big Ideas resources provided to student participants are: information sessions, writing workshops, networking and team building events, advising office hours, practitioners in residence consulting opportunities, editing blitzes, mentorship, and judge feedback.


  • Big Ideas advising hours are more often process-focused (i.e., focused on developing skills related to the process of designing innovative projects, such as critical reflection skills) than product-focused focused (i.e., focused on developing a successful Big Ideas project), with the ultimate goal of ensuring that students come away from the advising session with an understanding of how to critique and think in a deep, iterative way about their project ideas.
  • Practitioners in Residence sessions (consultation opportunities with industry and topic area experts), complement Big Ideas general advising by offering specific product, track, or skills-focused feedback.


  • Each year, Big Ideas recruits approximately 100-200 mentors to pair with teams. To recruit mentors, Big Ideas leverages partnerships, former judges and mentors, professional networks, and will occasionally conduct cold calls to reach out to new mentors.
  • Finalists and mentors work together approximately 1-2 hours per week for 6-8 weeks to refine teams’ project ideas, develop partnerships, and craft Full Proposals. Big Ideas finalists cite the mentorship as one of the most important and impactful resources provided to applicants during the Contest.


  • Each year, Big Ideas recruits approximately 250- 300 judges to help review proposals. Typically, one judge is recruited for every anticipated Pre-proposal and two for every Full Proposal to ensure that each proposal is read by a minimum of six different judges in each round.
  • Much like mentors, the most effective judge recruitment strategies utilize the faculty and professional networks of each social impact track sponsor (including in-kind sponsors). Building relationships in order to retain effective and reliable judges is critical.
  • Pre-proposal judges are expected to read and score a subset of between six and eight applications in their assigned track. In contrast, Full Proposal judges are expected to read between 4-6 full proposals.

Workshops and Trainings

    • Each year the Big Ideas Contest reflects on feedback from students, judges, and advisors to develop a robust program of entrepreneurial skill development workshops. During the 2018-2019 Contest, the skills deemed most critical to the success of the participating social innovators included: Competitive landscape analysis; Storytelling for social impact; Pitch development; Legal entity formation.

    • In partnership with The Lemelson Foundation, the Big Ideas team developed a workshop for the 2018-2019 competition to introduce students to the process of sustainable design. Among the main lessons learned from these workshop and affiliated activities were:
      1. Participants’ confidence in utilizing the method of sustainable design increased due to the workshop.
      2. The workshop impacted participants’ perception of the method of sustainable design on the design process cost (reducing it), ease of manufacturing (increasing it), marketability (increasing it), and quality (increasing it).
      3. Participants found it challenging to pitch investors on the importance of sustainable design, if it increases product or design cost. Therefore there is a need to simultaneously educate the investor community on the benefits of environmentally sustainable inventing

Online Contest Platform

  • Big Ideas recommends that the contest platform used is flexible, simple, easy to manage, cost-effective, and offers strong customer service. It should have three interfaces: a judging portal, an applicant portal, and an administrator portal.

Prize Awards

  • Big Ideas prize money is an award for the 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 $5,000 to $20,000. The average prize award across social impact tracks is approximately $6,500. The exact amount is determined primarily on the final overall scores.

Evaluation and Feedback

  • Each year, Big Ideas conducts impact assessments that measure 1) the size and diversity of the applicant pool, 2) the transformative nature of the program on applicants, and 3) the amount of progress achieved by Big Ideas winners to date. It surveys applicants, judges, mentors, and former winners to obtain this information. It also conducts a process evaluation to gain general feedback on the program’s offerings.

Cross-Campus Expansion

  • Multiple campus expansion has both benefits and drawbacks. Expanding the Big Ideas contest to some of the top universities in the world has undoubtedly raised the size and stature of the competition, improved the quality and diversity of submitted projects, and provided entrepreneurship training resources to more students. However, managers should consider challenges associated with branding, sponsorships and eligibility, outreach, and resource offerings when deciding to grow the contest to other universities.

Post-Contest Support

  • After they leave Big Ideas, alumni typically cite a gap in support services for their proposed innovations. To bridge this gap, Big Ideas has provided the Scaling Up Big Ideas competition.
  • Big Ideas has also established strong working partnerships with on and off-campus entrepreneurship support programs that seek to facilitate and scale social ventures (e.g. accelerators, incubators, other competitions, and crowdfunding initiatives) to provide Big Ideas alumni with concrete post-contest opportunities.
  • It also leverages the growing Big Ideas network of sponsors, partners, judges, and mentors to stay engaged and continue to support students’ projects after they leave the competition.