Big Ideas is an academic year-long, annual innovation contest aimed at providing funding, support, and recognition to interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students who have “big ideas.” It is a proven, replicable model for tapping the creativity and energy of students, particularly at large, public research universities, to address the challenges of the 21st century.
At its core, the goals of Big Ideas are two-fold: to support innovative projects with promising potential for social impact, and foster a diverse pipeline of young innovators through targeted outreach, support and educational opportunities. By investing in the innovators and entrepreneurs themselves, Big Ideas helps to grow a generation of interdisciplinary changemakers who value innovation, social impact, and risk-taking.
All of the components described in this Toolkit have been intentionally designed with these goals in mind. Big Ideas gives students a platform from which they can adapt theoretical coursework into hands-on, applied projects with real-world impact. The Contest challenges students to step outside their traditional academic boundaries, take a risk, and use their education, passion, and skills to solve important social, economic, and environmental challenges. It promotes autonomy, initiative, and teamwork early in students’ careers, thereby broadening their career perspectives and understanding of how they might use their education as a platform to improve society.
Unlike business plan competitions or many other innovation contests held on university campuses, Big Ideas aims to support students who are at the very beginning stages of developing an idea, typically before they are investor-ready or prepared to enter the marketplace. Most students who enter the Contest have never entered other innovation or business plan contests or run a pilot version of their project.
Often, prospective applicants develop their big ideas after enrolling in classes that sparked their interests, visiting another country and identifying an unaddressed challenge, and/or working with a population whose needs have not fully been serviced. Big Ideas aims to foster a pipeline of these early-stage innovators—especially those that are underrepresented in startup environments and/or lack access to key entrepreneurial resources—by providing a low risk platform and top quality support services in order to help them launch their ventures.
The contest is designed to be an academic year-long process that assists students in developing the skills necessary to launch successful projects (e.g., critical thinking and reflection, market analysis, and pitch development skills). In other words, the underlying logic of the Contest assumes that students apply with creative ideas designed to make social impact, and are provided with resources designed to assist them in making their project ideas feasible, scalable, and appropriate for the population they wish to serve.
Further, the Contest encourages and creates a platform for global social changemakers. Business plan or entrepreneurship competitions are designed to vet entrepreneurs, but the ultimate goal of Big Ideas is to support students as they create lasting, positive social change. As a result, winning projects may be entrepreneurial and create for-profit ventures, but they, more importantly, focus on social challenges. As a result, Big Ideas teams tackle issues such as improving smallholder farmer incomes, creating transparency around political platforms, providing dental care for the homeless, and bringing light to hospitals and clinics in rural Africa.