Finalists from the 2013 challenge have set a high bar for those ready to participate in the 2014 President’s Challenge. In May, Scott Crouch ’13 (from left) and Florian Mayr ’13 demonstrated their project, Nucleik, for Gordon Jones, managing director of the i-lab, and President Drew Faust. Nucleik, now known as Mark43, has raised almost $2 million in funding.

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Let the challenges begin

5 min read

President and deans offer students opportunity to solve world problems

President Drew Faust and Provost Alan M. Garber today announced the third President’s Challenge for entrepreneurship, renewing an invitation to all Harvard students and postdoctoral fellows to develop innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social problems.

The President’s Challenge was established in 2012 to encourage students from across Harvard’s Schools to create entrepreneurial solutions to broad global issues and to support student teams by leveraging University-wide expertise and offerings at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab).

“Harvard has been and continues to be a seedbed for innovation,” Faust said in announcing this year’s challenge. “Here, it is possible to meet talented individuals who are tackling the world’s greatest problems and to contribute to the important work of improving the world. The challenge is a great way of encouraging and supporting students as they explore how to make a difference.”

The President’s Challenge includes two new categories: efficient governing, and economic development and sustainable employment. It also has three broad categories featured in previous challenges: education innovation, energy and the environment, and affordable health.

The announcement was coupled with the renewal of the Deans’ Challenges in Cultural Entrepreneurship and in Health and Life Sciences, which offer students from across the University additional avenues to tackle pressing issues in specific disciplines. All challenge topics were selected by the president, the provost, and the deans of the Schools.

“In our third year of the President’s Challenge and in the Deans’ Challenges, we have seen many ideas developed by the student teams grow and thrive as viable ventures,” said Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria. “The impact is real, both for the people these ventures touch and for the emerging student-entrepreneurs themselves, which is why we find it so important to continue to support the development of tomorrow’s change makers.”

In response to declining public and private funding for the arts, the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge was launched last year, offering students the opportunity to develop entrepreneurial ideas to support and sustain the arts, a discipline that has traditionally depended heavily on philanthropy.

The Deans’ Health and Life Sciences Challenge looks to students, postdoctoral fellows, and clinical fellows to apply their ingenuity and breadth of knowledge to develop ideas on how to improve the delivery of health care and patients’ quality of life. This year’s challenge will focus on innovative devices, materials, tools, and tests. The topics include stem cell and regenerative medicine, medical devices and biomedical materials, early detection and diagnostic tests, and addressing the world’s aging population.

Both Deans’ Challenges draw on University and external experts.

“We’ve seen students from across the University embrace these challenges in large numbers, but most impressive are the quality of the ideas and impact of their efforts,” said Garber, who co-chairs the judging committee on the President’s Challenge. “These challenges have proven to be successful launching pads for students interested in testing entrepreneurial waters while in school, and for growing their skills while developing solutions for problems of global significance.”

The challenges have spun off several new business ventures over the past three years. First-year President’s Challenge winner Vaxess is now a Cambridge-based company that is backed by almost $4 million in venture capital. Last spring, three Harvard undergraduates were awarded the President’s Challenge grand prize for Nucleik, a business based on the software management information system for law enforcement officers that team members developed while at Harvard. The new company, now known as Mark43, has secured a pilot in Los Angeles County and has raised almost $2 million in funding. Eleven more past challenge winners and runners-up continue to pursue their ideas in the marketplace, among them School Yourself, a current MassChallenge finalist.

“With the important support and validation from the President’s Challenge, we set out determined to grow Mark43 and create a platform that truly impacts every city in America,” said Scott Crouch ’13, co-founder of Mark43. “We’re about to deploy our platform with thousands of officers in the field this fall to help them fight crime.”

The i-lab is hosting this year’s President’s Challenge and the Deans’ Challenges. Each challenge will kick off this month, followed by content-focused workshops and networking events for all participants and other resources leading up to the Feb. 9 submission deadline. In the spring, the judging panels will name their selections of finalist teams, 10 in the President’s Challenge and six in each of the Deans’ Challenges.

The finalist teams will be awarded space at the i-lab, tailored programming, and expert mentorship, as well as $5,000 in seed money to advance their ideas. The challenge prizes will be awarded at year-end Demo Day events. The President’s Challenge winner and runners-up will share in $100,000; the Deans’ Challenges prize purses are $50,000 each. Winners will also be awarded workspace in the i-lab and will have access to expert resources there through August.

Gordon Jones, managing director of the i-lab, said: “The i-lab is designed to support Harvard’s students at every stage of their entrepreneurial journeys. These challenges spur exploration, learning, and solutions that produce tangible results, and [they] are an important opportunity for student entrepreneurs to grow skills and have impact. We’re excited to be hosting the challenges and providing resources to support innovation-minded students in their education while at Harvard.”