Saul Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge

Seeding the field of early education with new ideas, fresh thinking, and strategic approaches that have the potential for widespread and sustainable impact for children.

Why an innovation challenge now?

We are at a pivotal moment for early education: there is tremendous interest and excitement along with expansion in access in many cities and towns across the nation. Today, only two in ten children are exposed to a high-quality early education experience, despite decades of research demonstrating that it is high-quality experiences that drive sustainable outcomes for children and families. Now is the time for creative, collaborative solutions that will increase early education opportunities and positive outcomes for all children.


What is the Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge?

The Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge will provide funding to recognize promising new ideas that have the potential to transform early education. We are seeking ideas and approaches that promote positive outcomes at multiple levels of the early education system, including the home, classroom, program and networks, and/or policy.


Why is the Zaentz Initiative hosting this Challenge?

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative seeks to be a leading connector for innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of early education. We recognize that new ideas are needed in our field, and we want to use this Challenge to seed the field with fresh thinking and strategic approaches that drive sustainable, transformative change.

Congratulations to the 2019 Idea Track winners!
Congratulations to the 2019 Pilot Track winners!
Congratulations to the 2019 Scaling Track winners!

2019 Challenge Timeline

  • Online application launched
    Date: 05/22/19
  • Optional informational webinar (9AM)
    Date: 08/02/19
  • Online application deadline (11:59PM)
    Date: 08/30/19
  • Finalists announced
    Date: 09/25/19
  • Finalist pitches at HGSE
    Date: 10/15/19
Judging Criteria

Proposals are initially judged on their quality, relevance, and design. Once finalists are selected, they present their proposals to a panel of expert judges and a live audience during the final pitch event. Final pitches should include information about the problem, solution, and future of the proposal, and should keep in mind the values of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative: Aspiration, Equity, Scientific Integrity, Connectivity, and Communication.

Pitch Details

Finalists are invited to pitch their ideas live at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Each team has approximately three minutes to pitch their proposal to a panel of judges and an audience. A three-minute Q & A with the judges follows each pitch. Up to two members from each team may participate on stage.

We encourage anyone or any organization with an idea, prototype, product and/or service to apply. Applicants can include individuals or teams of up to five from more than one organization. We do not have any preference for the type of applicant or proposal.

Yes, the Challenge is open to both individuals and teams (made up of no more than five individuals). All applicants must be at least 18 years of age at the time of entry.

If your group includes people from multiple organizations, please list everyone in the application. If you are applying as part of a single entity or organization (e.g., a school district, corporation, state agency), please note that in the contact information and include only one point-person.

No! Applicants from all backgrounds and organizations are welcome to apply, and you do not need to be affiliated with HGSE or Harvard. The ideal Challenge applicant has some knowledge of and/or experience in early education and is eager to think beyond traditional systems and solutions.

  • The Idea Track is designed for applicants who have formulated an idea but have not yet built, tested, formally incorporated, or raised funding for their concept.
  • The Pilot Track is designed for applicants who have developed and released a prototype. This track is intended for individuals or teams who have raised less than $50,000 for their proposed solution at the time of entry, including all revenue, donations, and/or investments.
  • The Scaling Track is for applicants who have launched their product or service and are seeking funding to refine their product to scale it.

Yes! We encourage you to enter the Idea Track, which is intended for applicants who have completely new ideas that they haven’t put into action yet. So long as you have identified a clear problem in the field of early education, a set of users affected by this problem, and an idea that is supported by early childhood research/science, you are good to go!

Absolutely. However, you can only submit each unique proposal once. We will not consider the same proposal submitted to multiple tracks.

It is fine to submit an idea or approach developed and/or submitted elsewhere. However, we require that you include citations for any research or other sources used in your submission. If you reference someone else’s thinking, be sure to give that person credit! Plagiarism will result in immediate disqualification.

No, we welcome submissions that are non-profit, for-profit, or even undetermined (for those just beginning with new ideas). You should include details about funding under “The Future” section of your online application, where it asks how you plan to grow and sustain your venture.

No, ownership of any intellectual property submitted as part of the Challenge will remain with the original owners (applicants). However, the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative may use any submitted materials for future academic research. Contestants should not disclose any information that is proprietary or confidential, and neither the Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge team nor its associated institutions will sign confidentiality agreements. Additionally, Challenge organizers cannot guarantee confidentiality of any materials submitted to the Challenge.

Finalists are responsible for travel expenses to attend the finalist pitches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

2019 Winners & Finalists

Idea Track Winners

1st Place:
Strong Families, Mighty South Ward Loyalty Program
An innovative loyalty program designed to motivate and reward Newark families for continual use of the high-quality two-generation resources in their community.

Participants: Jasmine Spencer, Ashanti Jones, Fady Ibrahim

2nd Place:
2Gen Includes Men: Supporting Baltimore City Children and Their Fathers Through the Power of Play
A two-generation program at Baltimore’s Port Discovery Children’s Museum that actively engages low-income fathers and their young children through regular and ongoing playful learning experiences, including monthly father-child parenting and play workshops, events, and activities.

Participant: Patricia Hoge

3rd Place:
Flourish in Frazer Forest
Bringing inclusive early learning experiences outdoors through a project-based forest learning curriculum.

Participants: Susie Riddick, Tonja Holder

3rd Place:
SmartShift: Early Learning Centralized Float Pool Application
A first-to-market digital staffing application designed to build short-term and part-time workforce capacity while also offering unusual suspects the chance to enter the early childhood education field.

Participants: Maureen Weber, Brittany Krier

Pilot Track Winners

1st Place:
The QuickCheck®
A simple tech tool that breaks down teacher professional learning curricula into manageable strategies, helping teachers build their skills and become fluent in effective classroom practices.

Participant: Sheetal Singh

2nd Place:
Building the Muscle: Arts Integration Professional Learning for Early Educators
Giving early childhood educators the tools and confidence to support children’s learning through the arts.

Participants: Abby Crawford, Crystal Cauley

3rd Place:
Telepractice Services for Communication Disorders at West Liberty University
Creating a telehealth suite within a university clinic setting to ensure children and families across rural West Virginia have access to high-quality speech, language and hearing services.

Participants: Stephanie Bradley, Tori Gilbert

Scaling Track Winners

1st Place:
An evidence-based tool that helps teachers engage diverse families and improve student outcomes through curriculum-aligned text messages delivered in families’ home languages and two-way parent-teacher messaging with automated translation. (California)

Participants: Vidya Sundaram, Elisabeth O’Bryon

2nd Place:
Shared Services for Providers
A “partnership, not product” approach designed to help child care providers efficiently manage their business and improve quality for the children and families in their care.

Participants: Judy Williams, Michael Taylor

3rd Place:
Connected for Success
Creating a unified statewide framework in Mississippi to improve care and access to services for both children and their families across the state’s mixed delivery system.

Participants: Micca Knox, Katerina Sergi

Idea Track Finalists

Early Learning Centralized Float Pool Application
A first-to-market digital staffing application designed to build short-term and part-time workforce capacity while also offering unusual suspects the chance to enter the early childhood education field. (Indiana)

Participants: Maureen Weber, Brittany Krier

ToyLend: A Library for Play
A community-based library of playthings that supports children’s healthy development through play. (New York)

Participant: Lauren Berman

Pilot Track Finalists

Creating a Deliberately Developmental School Culture
Using research-based tools, interactive retreats, and one-on-one coaching to help early education leaders build a deliberately developmental school culture that supports teacher growth and results in higher quality programs for children. (Massachusetts)

Participant: Susan MacDonald

A screen-less, play-based learning tool that uses voice technology in the form of a plush robot to help kids learn in a safe, natural, and engaging way. (Minnesota)

Participants: DeLonn Crosby, Scott Schanke

Scaling Track Finalists

Healthy Apple Program
Pairing early educators with peer mentors to coach them on best practices for nutrition and physical activity, empowering educators to promote and establish lifelong healthy habits for all children in their care. (California)

Participant: Mona Malan

We Care for Dane Kids
A set of four interdependent, innovative strategies to transform the child care system by increasing the supply of child care, maximizing funding to pay for care, and creating efficiencies of scale for child care programs through a shared services network. (Wisconsin)

Participants: Ruth Schmidt, Katherine Magnuson

2019 Innovation Challenge Finalist Pitches

The finalists were chosen from more than 160 ideas submitted by organizations and individuals from across the country. The majority of applicants identified as early educators and teachers, early education instructional personnel, policy and community organizing groups, edtech and entrepreneur groups, and university-affiliated groups and researchers.

On October 15, 2019, 15 finalists pitched their ideas in front of a panel of judges and a live audience.

Learn to Change the World

Future Challenges

Sign up to learn more about future Innovation Challenges.