Deans’ Challenges

Focusing on four areas of meaningful societal impact.

The Deans’ Challenges ask students to create innovative solutions in four areas that mean so much to society and students today: Cultural Entrepreneurship, Food System, Health and Life Sciences, and Innovation in Sports.

From platforms that help artists tell their stories, to wearable technologies that monitor hydration levels, to new pain-killing drug candidates that are not addictive, the Deans’ Challenge applications present myriad solutions to societal issues. Drawing from their expertise and experience as entrepreneurs, industry experts, faculty, and investors, the judges for each contest review dozens of applications to determine finalists.

“The four Deans’ Challenges tackle different arenas of innovation in which our students show growing interest; they serve as great complements to the President’s Challenge,” said Dean Nitin Nohria. “The robust participation in all the challenges from around Harvard reflects not only deepening cross-disciplinary engagement within the University, but also our community’s collective desire to create lasting impact in the world.”

For each challenge, the i-lab hosts a number of workshops and networking events to help students learn about the topics, dive deeper into understanding entrepreneurship, structure their ideas, meet like-minded students, and find potential team members.

Application Process

First Round Programming

Prior to the First Round Proposal deadline, the i-lab will host a series of workshops to build your understanding of opportunities that exist in the space. These events will also include opportunities to network with other students and build collaborative teams.

In addition to the dedicated Challenge Workshops, students are strongly encouraged to attend the i-lab’s regular workshop series, which will complement the more nuanced topical workshops presented via the Deans’ Challenge. Please review Our Events to review all programming topics.

Proposal Details

The online application will open following the first Deans’ Challenge Workshops. You will find the link to the online application here on the Deans’ Challenge website main page.

You will be required to fill out information on your team and your idea, and to upload a proposal of no more than 5 pages in length, including visuals and slides (4 slides per page maximum) in PDF format.

The online application will open on January 1, 2016.
Proposals submitted after 11:59PM will not be accepted.

The proposal should, at minimum, consist of:

  • A description of the idea and challenge area, and why you believe it represents an opportunity for impact, as well as a detailed sense of any progress you have made pursuing the venture to date (partners, customers, team, etc.). Please Note: The Deans’  Challenges are open to ventures at any stage prior to substantive funding.  Ventures still in idea-stage are strongly encouraged to apply.
  • Team members’ bios and roles (short). Your full resumes may be requested at a later date.
  • A description of the product, programs and/or services you intend to provide, and a detailed accounting of the specific resources you will need to accomplish this, the identified sources of those resources (e.g., web developers, prototypes, etc.), and the cost of those resources. Also indicate what resources you may already have raised or invested in the venture. During the second stage of the Deans’ Challenge, you may be asked to produce invoices or receipts to show how the original prize money was invested in pursuing your proposal.
  • Your specific hypotheses about the underlying causes of the problem you are attacking, the reasons why you hold those hypotheses, why you believe your proposed solution will work, what data will constitute a confirmation or disconfirmation of those hypotheses, and how you will collect and analyze that data.
  • A description of any capital invested, raised, spent to date.
  • What specific results the finalist prize money will enable in executing the proposal to provide solutions.

Finalist Selection

After all proposals have been submitted, 5 finalist teams will be chosen by the first round judging committee to proceed into a second stage of development. The finalist teams will be announced in March 2016. These finalist teams will each receive a monetary award to further develop their proposals. They will be assigned mentors and have access to specialized workshops, designated work space and other resources at the i-lab.

Final Proposal Submission and Grand Prize Announcement

Finalist teams must finish their final proposals and any accompanying prototypes or research and prepare them for submission and presentation by a date to be announced. Teams should be prepared to give both live and recorded presentations on their proposals. There will be a Demo Day before Commencement, date also to be announced.

The judging committee will consist of Harvard faculty and practitioners or experts in each area. This committee will evaluate all finalist teams and award a grand prize winner and up to four runners-up with a total of $55,000 to further develop their ideas after the Deans’ Challenge.

All funded teams must agree to:

  • Follow the terms of the usage of funding associated with the Deans’ Challenge;
  • Regular communication with a mentor from the Deans’ Challenge program;
  • Attend announced gatherings of Deans’ Challenge teams;
  • Present to the Judging Committee, whether pre-recorded, live on Demo Day, or both;
  • Present lessons learned from the Deans’ Challenge and process after Demo Day, and;
  • Participate in a “poster board” session that will be open to the community.

Please note: prize money is subject to taxes. Harvard University DOES NOT provide tax advising to students.

FAQs, Eligibility & Rules

I have a great idea, how can I find a team?

Programming including the Pitch, Mix, and Match event, as well as mixers, are places for students to meet prospective team members.

I’ve already entered this idea in another contest or challenge. Can I still enter the Deans’ Challenge?

You are welcome to enter your ideas anywhere in addition to the Deans’ Challenge, as long as your idea has not yet been funded and meets the defined criteria. We are not looking for exclusivity, but to develop the best ideas and bring solutions to fruition.

Some teams are entering ideas they’ve already begun to develop, and my team is starting from scratch. Do they have an advantage?

The terms of the Deans’ Challenge are developed to make the most equal playing field possible while not excluding pre-existing ideas. Proposals will not be judged on their current status, but for their potential impact and the strength of the project implementation plan. We are not, however, looking for ideas that have been previously funded.

What criteria will the Judging Committee use?

The Judging Committee will focus on the potential impact and sustainability of the idea and the strength of the project implementation plan. The attached Judging Rubric will be used by the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge judges, and lists the precise judging criteria.

For the Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge, does my idea have to be non-profit?

No. While many social business ventures are often non-profit, as long as the proposals fit the requirements for application, for-profit plans are welcomed for consideration.

I am a Harvard Alumnus, can I apply?

No. Teams must include at least one matriculated and degree-seeking undergraduate or graduate Harvard student or Harvard postdoctoral candidate who serves in a leadership role. However, HBS alumni may apply to the New Venture Competition which is designed to support HBS alumni in launching promising new businesses and social-impact ventures. Please visit their website for more details on rules & eligibility.

Does Harvard own the intellectual property (IP) associated with my proposal?

Your participation in the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge – including winning a prize or using i-lab facilities and resources to develop inventions, software, copyrighted works or unpatented materials as part of the Deans’ Challenge – will not, in and of itself, give Harvard any rights in those developments. If Harvard is otherwise entitled to rights in such a development under its Intellectual Property Policy – for example, because the development involves work done under a sponsored research agreement administered by Harvard or with other financial support from Harvard – the fact that you participated in the Deans’ Challenge or used i-lab facilities or resources to work on the development will not eliminate or diminish Harvard’s rights.

Note: Rules are subject to change at any time throughout the Deans’ Challenge. Participants are responsible for staying aware and updated on the rules.

Requirements for Eligibility

  • Teams participating in the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge MUST include at least one matriculated and degree-seeking undergraduate or graduate Harvard student or Harvard postdoctoral candidate who serves in a leadership role; teams may include non-Harvard University team members. While we encourage collaboration with the greater community of entrepreneurs, experts and executives from industry, we require that the Harvard student(s) be substantive member(s) of the founding team, and a committed leader of the venture.
  • The Deans’ Challenge is designed with an emphasis on new ideas, not funded ideas.
  • The Deans’ Challenge program has a number of entrepreneurs and faculty as mentors. Mentors will provide feedback, input and mentoring. Finalists must be willing to participate in this program.
  • Teams may only submit one (1) proposal/application.
  • Students must be on only one (1) team.
  • Use of the i-lab and its resources will be subject to the i-lab Terms of Use.