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Harvard challenges students to think big

Solution to a global problem will get a $100,000 prize

President Drew Faust’s competition is Harvard’s first to focus solely on student work.

Harvard University’s president, Drew Faust, is posing a $100,000 challenge to students, asking them to find ways to solve big global problems.

Enterprising undergraduate and graduate Harvard students who are interested in social issues will be eligible for the President’s Challenge , a contest to create entrepreneurial solutions to global challenges, the university said yesterday.

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“This is an opportunity for students to pursue ideas that seem to be way out there, ideas that some people might dismiss as wacky,’’ said Harvard’s provost, Alan M. Garber. “It’s a time to be creative and to make big bets and to see what they come up with.’’

Harvard joins other universities and colleges in Massachusetts, and across the country, that run competitions to promote entrepreneurial enterprise.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been holding its $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, a business contest for students and MIT researchers, for 22 years. The University of Massachusetts Amherst has its Innovation Challenge for students and young alumni with ideas for start-ups. Other organizations, such as the nonprofit MassChallenge in Boston, operate programs designed to aid investment in early-stage businesses.

The President’s Challenge is Faust’s first effort to create a social entrepreneurship competition at Harvard focused solely on student work.

Garber said the idea for a contest to spark innovation by the Harvard student body - a community that has included founders of such companies as Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. - arose from the launching in November of Harvard’s innovation lab, a $20 million incubator for start-ups. The grand prize winner of the President’s Challenge will receive a share of the $100,000 purse, office space in the innovation lab, and access to its staff of experts.

The contest begins this month, after Harvard faculty members determine which five social causes it will ask contestants to address. Harvard will select 10 teams in April and offer those groups support and resources while they hone their proposals. A winner will be named in May.

A similar competition, the Social Venture Business Plan Competition, was launched last year at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. In December, a student group calling itself Team Light Up Africa was awarded a $10,000 prize for coming up with a plan to sell generators powered by bicycles or oxen.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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