Innovation Blog

In New HBS Report: MassChallenge Judges Top Industry for Identifying High Potential Startups 


Over the past year, MassChallenge has been taking a hard look at our organization to ensure that our words carry over into definitive, anti-racist action. We see this as transformational process where we’re continuously assessing our organizational culture (including our programs), developing and implementing anti-racist (and other anti-bias) policies and taking actions across the organization and our programs, refining those policies and actions, and then analyzing and iterating on our organizational culture.

In the short term, we’ve partnered with researchers at Harvard Business School to better understand if and how bias impacts our startup application judging process. This was an opportunity for us to take a hard look at the structures and systems governing our judging process, revealing that judges can be biased against foreign startups. As a result of this analysis, we’ve implemented a number of bias interventions to ensure that this process works to actively recognize and root out bias while creating a more equitable experience for all applicants: key components include a mandatory implicit bias training video for all online judges, implicit bias training reminders for in-person judges, and live anti-bias training for our judges.

The researchers also found that MassChallenge’s judges are able to better identify high potential startups for our early-stage accelerators, compared to startup investors and other gatekeepers which, based on previous studies, are often unable to consistently detect the quality of startups. In fact, MassChallenge judges not only predict the potential of startups in their own region, but also across international locations.

We’re not surprised by these findings. Our secret sauce? A data-driven application process and an incredible group of judges that review and provide feedback on these applications. This dual approach helps reduce bias across the judging process, ensuring that our judges are focused on identifying and supporting quality ideas and businesses that are proximate to the challenges they seek to address.

We use a competition model to select startups for our early-stage accelerators. After submitting an application to the program of their choice, startups will participate in one or two rounds of judging. In the first round of judging, all applications are reviewed online by our international community of judges. If accepted into the second round of judging, the startups pitch to a panel of judges, who are experts in that startup’s specific industry; these judges score startups on a range of criteria, from traction to date to the startup’s potential to have a real impact on the world. Scores are aggregated so no single judge’s score is the defining vote and the top scoring startups are accepted into our cohorts.

Our judges – and what they bring to the table – are an essential piece of this process. MassChallenge judges are accomplished individuals who are at the top of their respective industries or are successful entrepreneurs themselves. Each year, more than 1,500 business leaders participate in MassChallenge around the world. Our judges’ diverse experiences and deep expertise makes it possible for MassChallenge to identify and support high quality, high potential startups across industries and sectors – from emerging biotechs and next generation consumer products to truly transformative ideas in the social impact space.

We’re proud that our application process ensures that the best ideas from anyone, anywhere get the recognition they deserve. But we know there is more we need to do.

At MassChallenge, we back entrepreneurs who are working to solve massive challenges, which is why we’re committed to ensuring that every single great idea gets the vital resources, intentional partnerships, and community it needs to grow. For an update on our efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion, you can read my latest post.

Interested in becoming a MassChallenge judge or mentor? Learn more and apply here.  


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