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 Pilot Track winners!
Congratulations to the Idea Track winners!
Congratulations to the 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: 09/30/19
  • Finalist pitches at HGSE
    Date: 10/15/19
Judging Criteria

Proposals will initially be judged on their quality, relevance, and design. Once finalists are selected, they will present their proposals to a panel of expert judges and a live-audience during the final pitch ceremony. 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. Pitches for the 2019 Innovation Challenge will be held on Tuesday, October 15 at 4 p.m. Click here (hyperlink) to watch the event.

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 ffor 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.

2018 Winners & Finalists

Idea Track Winners

1st Place:
Seeds of Learning: The New Britain Infant/Toddler Early Childhood Business Incubator
An alternative business model for sustainable, affordable high-quality infant and toddler care for women in poverty.

Participants: Robin Lamott Sparks, Tracey Madden-Hennessey, Maegan Adams

2nd Place:
Pin Your Park: An Offtrail Lesson Planning Guide for Educators
An online tool designed to empower educators to bring children of every age to their local parks and green spaces.

Participant: Brandi Cartwright

3rd Place:
Building Single Points of Entry that Serve Families and Communities
Designing and building an integrated, online Single Point of Entry (SPE) system that provides families and caregivers with a portal to all child care options and related services in their location.

Participants: JD Chesloff, Archie Jones, Lisa Kuh, Jill Dixon, Philip Dixon

Pilot Track Winners

1st Place:
Bienvenida a ESCALERAS
A training model that improves the quality of child care in low-income, underserved communities by bringing family, friend and neighbor child care providers who are English-learners into the mainstream early care and education profession.

Participant: Pilar Torres

2nd Place:
Louisiana Early Childhood Leaders Fellowship
What would it look like if we trained child care directors as if children’s futures were depending on them? Because they are. Louisiana’s leadership academy will do just that, transforming children’s lives and providing a national model.

Participants: Emmy O'Dwyer, Erin Carroll, Jenna Conway, Monique Rouege, Paula Polito

3rd Place:
The Beautiful Stuff Project
Bringing quality play experiences to all early childhood classrooms with easy-to-use, low cost treasure boxes full of small collectible and reusable items.

Participant: Marina Seevak

Scaling Track Winners

1st Place:
Leading Men Fellowship Program
Recruiting young men of color to implement evidence-based literacy interventions to help more children become kindergarten-ready and address the systemic shortage of high-quality and diverse early childhood educators.

Participants: Ashley Johnson, Tom Dillon, Ricardo Neal

2nd Place:
Leveraging Text Messages to Support Early Childhood Development and Parental Resilience
Delivering caregivers bite-sized and developmentally-targeted text messages drawn from research-based curricula as well as curated content for children from prenatal to five years old.

Participants: Jared Wigdor, Jean MacSpadden, Ashleigh Kirk, Rebecca Levy

3rd Place:
STE(A)M Truck
A growing fleet of mobile innovation labs filled with tools and talent that helps eliminate inequities in learning opportunities that are often predicted by zip code.

Participants: Jason Martin, Melanie Tumlin

Idea Track Finalists

Iterative Development: Using Stakeholder Voice to Create a True-Impact Program
Small-group mother-child psychotherapy sessions that are individualized, adapting to the challenges faced by at-risk mothers.
Virtual MOMobile
Utilizing technology to reach and deliver virtual early education and home visiting services to children and families living in early learning deserts through an interactive app.

Pilot Track Finalists

Family, Friend, and Neighbor (FFN) National Technical Assistance / Community of Practice
Extending the advocacy and technical assistance activities of The Alliance for Family Friend and Neighbor Child Care to create a FFN National Community of Practice.
PLAY® Interactive Choice Board (P-ICB)
A high-resolution, interactive classroom touchscreen that involves an avatar teacher-host with text, pictures, and sample videos.

Scaling Track Finalists

Focus on Early Learning
A model for pre-K through second grade teaching and learning, aligned around five key instructional practices and curriculum components.
Access to Quality for All: Empowering Early Childhood and PK-12 Stakeholders
An interactive tool to explore the local availability of child care across the state of Texas.
Early Childhood Support Organization (ECSO) Initiative
A public-private partnership that provides resources and aligns financial incentives to support better outcomes for children from low-income communities.

2018 Innovation Challenge Finalist Pitches

The finalists were chosen from more than 200 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.

The 16 finalists in the inaugural Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge submitted to one of three different Challenge tracks: Idea, Pilot and Scaling.

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