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2014 President's Challenge Awaits Budding Entrepreneurs

By Lilias Sun, Contributing Writer

This year’s President’s Challenge for entrepreneurship includes two new categories—efficient governing and economic development and sustainable employment—according to an announcement made by University President Drew G. Faust and Provost Alan M. Garber on Thursday.

Established in spring 2012, the President’s Challenge invites students and postdoctoral fellows at Harvard to develop innovative solutions to current issues and provides expert advice and networking opportunities for student entrepreneurs. It will recognize its third set of recipients this fall in project categories that also include education innovation, energy and the environment, and affordable health.

As in previous years, the winner and up to three runners-up will share a grand prize of $100,000 to develop their fledgling enterprises.

“The President’s Challenge [is intended] to encourage the formation of teams, to explore novel ideas, to get lots of advice, and ultimately, to be shepherded through the process of implementation,” said Harvard Business School professor William A. Sahlman, who will co-chair this year’s judging panel.

According to computer science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68, who will speak at a kick-off event on Oct. 16, the President’s Challenge brings students from different academic backgrounds together to think about not just commercial success but also success in solving the world’s problems.

“Students in computer science have a history of coming up with wonderful ideas and launching them into world-changing businesses,” said Lewis, who taught both Bill Gates and Mark E. Zuckerberg when they were at Harvard. “What the President’s Challenge has done is to divert some of [students’] energy and attention to think about social utility as well as business success.”

Past winners of the President’s Challenge, Vaxess Technologies and Team Nucleik, are now testing their ideas in the marketplace, backed by nearly $4 million and nearly $2 million in venture capital, respectively.

According to Vaxess co-founder Patrick Ho, the President’s Challenge helped his team develop their idea and provided them with a network of support.

“We met a lot of people, both from within the University and outside the University,” Ho recalled. “One of the mentors assigned to us was Jeffrey Walker, a philanthropist who ended up being an angel investor in our Series A financing.”

Additional opportunities that fund the transformation of student ideas into practice include the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge and the Deans’ Health and Life Sciences Challenge, both established in 2013 to support initiatives in the arts and sciences.

According to Gordon Jones, managing director of the Harvard Innovation Lab, 127 student groups submitted their projects to the President’s Challenge two years ago. Last year, the number of student teams who participated in the President’s Challenge or the Deans’ Challenges reached 250 and consisted of more than 600 Harvard students and 150 members of the nearby community.

“I continue to be amazed by the meaningful innovations that students come up with across the University,” Jones said.

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