What is the President’s Innovation Challenge (PIC)?

The President’s Innovation Challenge (PIC) is a call to action for Harvard students and alumni pursuing ventures that push the boundaries of their fields. We have five total tracks and three student tracks in the competition: Social Impact; Health & Life Sciences; and the Open Track for ventures that transcend categories.

For this upcoming 2021 President’s Innovation Challenge, we’re focused on “staying curious” about the future and designing for more human ventures, experiences, and interactions across the board. We’re encouraging people to stay curious because we see curiosity as the common element in the entrepreneurial experience. Curiosity helps us create an environment that is most conducive to helping our innovators solve the world's most pressing problems. While there’s a lot we don’t know about 2021, we do know that we will continue to be challenged by physical distance. As we keep our focus on innovation happening across Harvard, the question becomes, “How do we bring the physical and emotional connections that keep us human into the digital experience of a virtual event?”

Watch the 2021 President’s Innovation Challenge Launch Event that took place in December 2020.

What role does the PIC play at the i-lab?

The PIC is our marquee event of the year. It’s a time for the entire i-lab community to come together to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit and our culture of innovation. There’s $510K of prize money, which is really important, but it’s about much more than that. In early January, all participants gain support for their venture and this support continues throughout the entire process. Teams gain visibility throughout the spring as we highlight them on social media, showing their growth along the entrepreneurial journey (for example, in Women Founders Lead the Way at Harvard and Venture Voices). The 25 finalist teams gain even more exposure in a showcase attended by the global innovation and investment communities. The 2020 President’s Innovation Challenge Virtual Awards Ceremony was an immersive event that garnered over 4,000 viewers from 81 countries.

Throughout the PIC process, we work hard to create opportunities for all teams to connect with our community. This is so important because we know the power of what we call “intentional serendipity.” At the i-lab - even virtually - we are intentionally designing for people to have the right spontaneous interactions. We hear of so many instances where founders find each other through chance meetings, so it's important to create an environment for that to happen. We strive to create space and place for meaningful interactions and conversations that move ventures forward. We know that participating fully in a community of passionate entrepreneurs facing similar challenges can buoy founders through successes and frustrations, which has a meaningful impact well beyond the PIC.

How can people best follow along?

Just as we encourage founders to stay curious at all stages of the venture creation process, we want to invite and welcome everyone, including prospective students, to stay close to us as we move into winter. And to venture teams and others within the Harvard ecosystem, whether you’re applying to the PIC or just supporting your fellow innovators, please sign up for our i-lab newsletter and follow us on social media. Watching the PIC unfold over the next six months is one way we can unite under the One Harvard umbrella and grow stronger connections within the i-lab community and across the global innovation community. No matter where you are, there’s a way for you to get involved.

What’s new about the PIC this year?

The virtual environment has super-charged our need to experiment with new ways of thinking and working. We’re embarking on a whole new chapter as we prepare for 2021. The constraints of the pandemic have had negative impacts but have pushed us to pivot our work and get so much more creative. We’re bringing this same spirit of curiosity to design a new President’s Innovation Challenge experience.

Do you have a favorite venture from last year’s PIC?

Yes... but it changes every day! And it’s not just limited to teams in last year's PIC. In all seriousness, I’m amazed by the progress that these incredible students and alumni are making every day. It is a joy to watch them embrace challenges and pursue new opportunities. At the i-lab, we are grateful to play a small part in the difference they are making in the world already.