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.
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.
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:
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.
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 300,000 students are currently eligible for the Big Ideas competition. To date, the Contest has provided $2.5 million in seed funding to social impact projects. It continues to grow each year, with the 2018-2019 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:
To date, over 8,000 students have participated, from 100 different majors, collaborating on over 3,000 proposals. Big Ideas has awarded $2.6 million in prizes across 500 winning teams. These teams have used this modest seed funding — and the targeted mentorship provided by a network of over 1,800+ judges, mentors and sponsors — to collectively secure over $650 million in additional investments.
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 1,800 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: