Back in 2009, when very few people were thinking about impact investing and the term social enterprise was only starting to emerge on the academic scene, Hult Prize founder Ahmad Ashkar identified a gap in the marketplace. Whereas NGOs had become widespread, there was no efficient sustainable market-driven business enterprise looking to tackle the world’s toughest challenges. He created the Hult Prize platform as a direct response to this gap, which we ultimately have come to view as a massive opportunity.
“Most people were thinking they’d make money and then do good, we challenged students to make money by doing good”
The Hult Prize’s objective became providing the right incentives and platform for top tier business and other students to make a difference in the world, immediately, by launching for profit businesses that tackle humanity’s greatest challenges. Most people at the time (and many still today) were thinking they’d make money and then do good, we challenged students to make money by doing good — and it largely worked.
Today, nearly a decade later, millions have been inspired, over one hundred thousand have competed, and hundreds of companies have been formed, raising millions each year from impact investors around the globe. Through its annual competition, the Hult Prize has now become the largest pipeline generator in the world, receiving nearly 30,000 applicants per year from hundreds of global Universities in over 130 countries. In 2016, 14 of the entrepreneurs who were honored in the ‘Forbes top 30 Entrepreneurs changing the world’ list became entrepreneurs directly as a result of the Hult Prize accelerator.
The pioneering challenge-led innovation framework originally developed by Ahmad Ashkar came two years before Michael Porter’s pivotal shared value initiative and was re-designed and refined over the last 7 years at significant expense. Recently, Harvard Business School took notice, and decided to teach a new Hult Prize case in class fall of 2016, while researchers at the University are working on a report called the ‘Hult Prize Effect’. Through its academic partner, the Hult International Business School, the Hult Prize is also exploring the idea of designing an entire accredited degree-granting program around the same breakthrough reverse engineered challenge framework.
“Successful platforms like the Hult Prize require large benefactors over many years with ample bandwidth for trial and error”
This framework is not just restricted to startup challenges though; the model has been effectively deployed within Companies, Universities, and governments by the Hult Prize team. We advise countries, for example (Mexico, Lebanon, India, etc.), seeking to leverage the reverse engineered challenge model to activate entrepreneurs, create jobs, spur innovation, solve their most pressing problems, and engage millions of their youth.
While many organizations have tried to develop similar models, they often fail because of limited resources and financial support — in general, successful platforms like the Hult Prize require large benefactors over many years with ample bandwidth for trial and error to develop the IP. We learned the key characteristics and ingredients of designing and executing successful challenges through an iterative and organic seven-year market-centered innovation process; and we’re still learning. This is a major, intentional, almost decade-long breakthrough that encompasses the ‘what’ and ‘how’ but also the community element — a loyal, passionate, and dedicated cohort of millions. We crowd source over 2.4m hours per year on any given challenge including judges, speakers, competitors, mentors, coaches, etc. The coupling of an on-demand community with an award-winning framework is a major breakthrough that is very difficult to replicate.
INNOVATION IS NOT A SIDE-PROJECT
Challenges, competitions, and awards are popping up everywhere these days. Universities (MIT, Harvard, etc.), Companies (Google, EY, etc.), NGOs (USAID, World Bank, etc.), and others are awarding anywhere between $1k-$150k to early stage startups, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and students who come up with good ideas/ businesses. Approaches and budgets vary widely, and all hope to generate breakthroughs, though most fail.
A majority of the organizations we speak to, inside and outside the United States, simply have no idea how to run a successful challenge that leads to measurable and real outcomes. They waste millions of dollars and countless hours designing and managing failed competitions. They set overly ambitious goals, provide insufficient support to competing teams, miscalculate prize money requirements, misallocate funds, and hire the wrong staff.
We receive regular inquiries, invitations to ‘retreats’, requests for proprietary documents, and other asks that leave us perplexed given our private sector backgrounds. We’ve worked incredibly hard over the last seven years and spent millions getting this right. To help answer the most common questions, here are a few tips on how to launch a successful challenge that generates real solutions and game-changing companies:
- Clearly and beautifully present the problem you’re seeking to solve (in detail)
- Match incentives with desired outcomes ($25k to change the world just doesn’t work)
- Choose a broadcast partner wisely (for maximum exposure)
- Don’t offer a prize without being willing to build/ incubate the solutions
- Hire a partner who has done this before (you’ll save time and money)
- Leverage the crowd (tap into an existing user base)