The Big Ideas Competition

The annual Big Ideas@Berkeley competition challenges students to identify and tackle real-world social and environmental problems. The competition was launched at UC Berkeley in 2006 and currently offers up to $300,000 per year in prizes to interdisciplinary teams of graduate and undergraduate students. Applicants receive invaluable support as they develop their ideas, including information sessions, writing and budgeting workshops, graduate student advising, networking opportunities and an 8 week mentorship period where students work with industry and civil society professionals.

Expansion Across HESN

With DIL support, The Big Ideas competition is expanding in scope and geographic reach.  Five categories are open to students across USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network, at UC Berkeley, The College of William and Mary, Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, and Texas A&M University.

Global Health

globalThe challenge for this category is to describe an action-oriented, inter-disciplinary project that would help alleviate a global health concern among low-resource communities. Proposals submitted to this category should a) demonstrate an evidence of a widespread health concern faced by low-income populations or low-resource communities, and b) develop a system, plan, or technology that addresses this problem that is both culturally appropriate within the target communities, and appropriate for low-resource settings.

Financial Inclusion

financialThe challenge for this category is to propose novel products, services, tools or mechanisms that either address unmet needs of the financially underserved, or help extend existing services to populations at the unbanked “last mile.”

Food Systems Innovation

The aim of this category is to encourage the development of innovative solutions or approaches that address challenges in food systems, or that will result in progress or changes to support food security, sustainability and/or justice and health in food systems, and/or equitable access to nutritious food. Proposals may be aimed at campus based program, local/domestic issues or international efforts.

Mobiles for Reading

The challenge for this category is to develop novel, mobile technology-based innovations or methods that can improve reading outcomes for children in developing countries. Innovative topics proposed may focus on the enhancement of and/or the development and creation of new tools/methods. Proposals may use existing mobile-based technologies or literacy assessment methods to improve and measure reading by adapting or applying those technologies and assessment methods in new and innovative ways.

For the scope of this competition, mobiles devices include cell phones, e-readers, tablet computers, audio/visual devices, and any other mobile (i.e. portable) technologies that can quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively improve or effectively measure children’s literacy skills. Below are three examples of innovative approaches organizations are currently piloting within All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development-funded projects to improve and assess early grade reading outcomes.

Scaling Up Big Ideas

scalingThe challenge for this category is for previous Big Ideas award winners to (1) demonstrate that they have generated excellent results in implementing their original winning project idea, and (2) describe plans to “scale up” their project. For the purposes of this category, “scaling up” is defined as outreaching to a new geographic area or underserved population, or adding additional services to an ongoing project serving the same geographic area described in your original winning proposal.

Big Ideas Toolkit

The Big Ideas Toolkit is an easy to use, adaptable framework for universities  and others to adopt and learn from the Big Ideas competition model. The Toolkit describes these proven contest management strategies, along with our lessons learned, best practices, and honest reflections on the process of managing a student-led innovation contest. It is intended as a living document rather than a finished publication. As the Contest grows, the Toolkit will be informed and updated based on new activities and feedback from students and our partners.

Tap into the creativity and ingenuity of  your local problem solvers to foster development innovation!


These student-initiated, student-led working groups share knowledge, investigate problems, and identify key opportunities within an area of global significance. The pinnacle goal of the IdeaLabs is to engage graduate and undergraduate students across disciplines, providing a hotbed for developing and testing innovative applications, technologies, or services that advance standards of human well-being. Learn more.