Happening Thurs April 23: A Shark Tank & Demo Day

Through rapid-fire Shark Tank-style presentations, the HHS teams completing the Winter 2015 class of our HHS Ignite Accelerator will demo what they built and share what they learned over their 3 month journey exploring some of their Agencies’ most vexing problems. Join us in-person or catch the live-stream from 10:00-12:30pm ET this Thursday!

See April 23 Shark Tank & Demo Day event details.

04/01: The Ignite Summer 2015 Application Window is Now Closed

We accepted project proposals for the Summer 2015 Accelerator from HHS staff from March 1 through March 31st.

Thanks so much to everyone that applied! At first glance, it looks like we received 42 proposals. We’re diving into these now and will be in touch in the next couple weeks.

03/23: New Blog Post | One Week To Go: Why You Should Consider Applying to HHS Ignite

HHS Ignite is our innovation accelerator program. We take super smart HHS employees that want their office or agency to work better and give them tools, cash, and a good entrepreneurial kick in the pants to address a pain point for their organization… Continue Reading ->

03/18: Added "The Selection Process" tab

To better provide information on the steps and processes we take when selecting teams into the program, we gave it it’s own dedicated space. Please see the “The Selection Process” tab.

03/17: Posting the Slides from the Overview Webinars

02/26: Thinking of Applying to the HHS Ignite Summer 2015 Accelerator?

Between March 1 and March 31, 2015, we’ll be accepting project proposals for the Summer 2015 Accelerator which runs from June through September of this year.

For anyone interested in learning more: First, check out this webpage. Everything you need to know is here. But we are having a couple Overview Webinars to offer an introduction to the program and give a sense as to the selection process.

The contents of both webinars will be exactly the same and will merely be a repackaging of information that is already on this webpage. Though we’ll probably have some room for QnA in there. Hope you can join for either of these:

Overview Webinar: Ignite Summer 2015 Accelerator
Wednesday, March 4 | 2:30-3:30 ET | Register for the March 4th webinar

Overview Webinar: Ignite Summer 2015 Accelerator
Tuesday, March 10 | 2:30-3:30 ET | Register for the March 10th webinar

Please also note that we needed to alter slightly the specific start- and end-dates for this Summer Accelerator. See the “Key Dates” tab for those details.

12/08: Announcing The Winter 2015 Class of Project Teams!

In October, employees from across HHS had the opportunity to submit to our HHS Ignite Accelerator their ideas on how to make HHS a more modern and effective organization. In a previous blog post, we mentioned that we received 72 proposals which were reviewed and culled down to 28 finalists.

After an extensive review process, we are now excited to announce that 13 project teams have been selected into the Winter 2015 Class of Ignite!

We announced these project teams via the following blog post:

Congrats to the selected teams!

11/10: Here are the 28 Finalists for the Winter 2015 Class

Many thanks to all who submitted! On November 10th, we announced the 28 finalists to advance to the interview stage of selection. More information on the finalists and our selection methodology can be found in our blog post:

The 28 finalists have since pitched their idea to a small panel of IDEA Lab staff. We plan to announce the selected teams on Monday, December 8th.

11/01: Applications for Ignite Winter 2015 Are Now Closed

We accepted applications from Oct 1 until 11:59pm on Friday, October 31, 2014. These projects will run from January through April 2015.

Accelerating Internal Ideas

The HHS Ignite Accelerator is an internal program providing selected teams methodological coaching and technical guidance within a startup framework for the testing of new products, services, and processes that could dramatically improve the way an Office or Agency carries out its mission.

Ignite projects are exploratory in nature but subject to a rigorous methodology. Selected teams are introduced to design thinking, prototyping, and lean startup as methodologies for customer discover, problem identification, and solution testing. In the entrepreneurial spirit, Ignite projects are iterative, their impacts measurable, and their solutions scalable.

What teams get with Ignite:

  • 3 months of support to test your idea, kick-started by a 3-day Boot Camp in DC
  • A network of innovators, mentors, and technical advisors
  • On-the-job exposure to new methodologies and tools used by successful startup companies
  • A suite of tools (technologies) typically not available to HHS staff
  • $5,000 to go towards the project idea

What Ignite requires:

  • The Project Lead and at least one other person must attend the full 3-Day Boot Camp in-person in Washington, DC. We will cover the travel costs of two individuals for each team not already in the DC area.
  • Weekly and Monthly Check-in over the phone.
  • A full-time employee of HHS to serve as the Project Lead. Team members can be essentially anyone else: other government employees (from other agencies, departments, state/local, etc); and also non-government people that you have (legal) arrangements with (contractors, non-profits, Foundations, for-profits, etc)
  • 25-50% of your time over the duration of the program. This is particularly true for the Project Lead. Other team members may be more or less at any given time depending on their role. The exact percentage of time put to the effort depends on the size and scope of the project you decide to take on.

Core Principles of Ignite

Ignite supports the exploration and testing of ideas that promise to modernize government and improve the Department’s ability to carry out its mission. The goal of each Ignite team, during the course of the three months, is to validate (or invalidate) the business value of their idea through a series of small but useful tests. The outcome of each Ignite project is usually no more than a low-res prototype or a minimally viable product (MVP) that has gone through some sort of beta-testing with actual end-users, though some projects may go further.

Types of Ignite Projects

Examples of some types of projects that could be supported by Ignite include:

  1. Simplifying an existing processes
  2. Modernizing a product or service being delivered
  3. Testing out new tools and technologies
  4. Improving internal policies and procedures
  5. Making something
  6. Experimenting with a new management style or organizational structure
  7. Trying something completely new

Phases of an Ignite Project

Though project ideas are required, teams often adjust their project directions and goals, sometimes significantly, during their time in Ignite in reaction to feedback they’re receiving and their growing understand of the issues at hand. At the end of Ignite, teams present their project results and their desired next steps to HHS leadership at a “Shark Tank”.

During Ignite, project teams tend to take their effort through five broad stages:

  1. The 3-Day Boot Camp. The selected teams kick-start their efforts with three days of workshops and trainings on specific methods of customer discovery, problem solving, and product testing. These include principles pulled from Design Thinking, Human-Centered Design, Lean Startup, and elsewhere. The goal of these three days is to gain exposure and practice on these methods and immediately begin applying them to their effort.
  2. Talking to customers / end-users. Every product or service is designed to serve one or more types of people. In phase I, Ignite teams go talk to a number – say 10 – of these end-users (we also call them ‘customers’) to better understand their needs. Teams are coached on how to best conduct a customer interview.)
  3. Making something small. Findings from the customer interviews helps determine what is being built or designed. Depending on the project type, this may be a prototype, the installation and set-up of a software, the creation of particular user-interfaces, etc. It’s particularly important to note that these are rough drafts / early versions of the solution, only enough to be able go to the next stage.
  4. Customer-driven iterations. In this stage, the low-res solution is put in front of end-users (the customers, ideally the same ones as before) for their feedback. Tiny iterations are made based on each feedback. This cyclical approach is repeated until the team is confident that their product is meeting a market need.
  5. Wrap-up and Pitch. Findings are collected, conclusions are drawn, and the desired next steps determined. This gets wrapped up into a short (4 minute) pitch that can be given to Senior Department and Agency Leadership. We help you get get in front of the right people at the right time. One of those ways is through our “Shark Tank & Demo Day” which caps the Ignite experience here in D.C.

Partnering with the University of Maryland

The HHS IDEA Lab has partnered with the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland and DC I-Corps to carry out the Boot Camp of HHS Ignite. The Academy, a “signature initiative to infuse the University with a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship”, brings technical advising and a proven program structure for iterating toward solution. In addition to having access to the top experts within HHS and the federal government, teams accepted into HHS Ignite will be able to leverage UMD and DC I-Corps staff, resources, and mentorship provided by their network of innovators in the private sector and academia.

A Brief History of HHS Ignite

Whether launching awareness campaigns, developing internal processes, or implementing technology enhancements, most projects carried out within government are large and complex. Simple problem solving becomes difficult, and project implementation often ends up unnecessarily bigger and more complicated than originally conceived.

New methodologies brought from the private sector, particularly small startup companies, encourage customer-centric explorations of a problem and data-driven iterations to support decision making. These approaches go by various terms that all overlap: agile development, lean startup, co-designing, human-centered design, design thinking, and others. While each has slightly different meanings, they each recognize the importance of engaging the end-user, understanding the root problem, prototyping and testing, building information feedback loops, and never calling a product final.

Many parts of HHS were beginning to experiment with these new methodologies and finding early success. The HHS Innovation Council sought a way to formalize a pathway that promoted these methodologies while supporting HHS staff with innovative ideas for how the Department can better carry out its mission.

HHS Ignite was launched by the Secretary of HHS in March of 2013 as a “beta”. That “beta” year supported 13 teams, selected among a pool of 65 applicants. These 13 teams were given 6 months and up to $10,000 of support to test out their idea.

As a “beta”, the primary goal of the first year was to learn, to work with these 13 selected teams to better understand their needs prior to the full launch of HHS Ignite. Towards the end of the Ignite year, we captured some key lessons learned: Year 1 Observations and A Proposed Year 2 Structure (PDF)

A number of programmatic and philosophical shifts occurred based upon the experiences working with the “beta” class. Among the key findings were that teams found the mentorship and access to leadership as the most valuable asset of Ignite. Notably, the funds themselves were not. A few of the teams actually returned their funds, though for most of the teams the funds were deemed necessary for their particular project scopes.

At the end of that year, Deputy Secretary Bill Corr announced that Ignite would be moving forward and leaving its “beta” stage. However, the parameters of Ignite were modified for the next class: Teams would receive 3 months and up to $5,000 of support to test their idea. A partnership with UMD and the DC I-Corps would bring additional non-monetary support to the teams but more structured framework within which the teams were to operate.

Since that time we have had accepted two additional rounds of project tams into Ignite: We supported 11 teams in the Summer of 2014. Currently 13 teams are participating in the Winter 2015 Accelerator, their project findings to be presented on April 23rd.


All HHS employees are eligible to apply to get into the Incubator. Teams of up to 5 may include individuals from outside of HHS or from outside government. However, Project Leads must be a full-time employee (FTE) of the Department.

Teams should collectively hold the skillsets and expertise to act on their ideas starting on day 1.

We are not currently accepting proposals into the Ignite Accelerator. Most recently, we accepting proposals for Ignite Summer 2015 Accelerator between March 1 and March 31, 2015.

How to Apply to the Ignite Accelerator

  • We are not currently accepting project proposals.

If we were, you’d see a link here to the online submission form. Check the “Key Dates” tab for the next window of opportunity.

Want to see the questions we ask? Here you go:

  • Project Title: 50 characters
  • Executive Summary: 500 characters
  • Info on the Supervisor of the Project Lead (Name, Title, OpDiv, Office, Email, Phone Number)
  • Info on the Project Lead (Name, OpDiv, Office, Email, Phone Number)
  • Info on any additional team members (Name, OpDiv, Office, Email, Phone Number, Skill sets / role)
  • What is the problem you’re trying to solve? 2000 characters
  • What is your idea / proposed solution you’d like to address? 1000 characters
  • Who is your end-user / target customer? 75 characters
  • Is there any other information you want to share with us? 500 characters

Want to read through an example proposal? Take a look at our sample Ignite proposal (PDF).

Tips and Tricks

Before submitting, you may want to consider the following:

  • Communicating in simple language is hard but essential. Consider copying and pasting your  proposal onto HemmingwayApp.com. It’ll tell you the reading level (aim for 8th grade or below), and the parts of your writing that are harder to read.
  • We care more about the problem being addressed than the project being proposed, so spend more time on that section.
  • We are looking for bold ideas that push boundaries. Websites and apps are typically (though not alwasy) pretty safe project ideas and thus tend to get scored lower.
  • Be sure to be able to quickly tie the problem to the mission of your office.
  • We are interested in modernizing core operations. If that’s the underlying pain point for your office, we encourage you to address that head on.
  • Projects that look at changing *how* something gets done can be really interesting.
  • Check out the past Ignite proposals that were selected (filter the search to Status Level: “Awarded”)
  • The goal of the online proposal is to simply get to the interview stage. At that time you’ll be able to share more details, charts, complexity, etc.

The Selection Process

We strive to be transparent at every step and we hope to set expectations so that all interested parties understand and trust the process. This page is meant to provide more details on that process and our thinking behind each stage of selection.

This is a generic page and so it doesn’t include dates particular to the current Round. See the “Key Dates” tab for those details.


Step 1: Submit Your Project Proposal Online

This is the most obvious: You can’t get in if you don’t apply!

See the “Eligibility and How to Apply” tab for the link to the submission form and other relevant information.


Step 2: Proposals are scored by our internal Reviewers.

Proposals submitted into Ignite are evaluated by a panel of Reviewers based on the following criteria:

  • The project’s importance to the Office, Agency and/or Department [20 points]
  • The potential impact of the proposed solution. [40 points]
  • The proposal’s understanding and explanation of the problem that needs to be solved. [20 points]
  • The proposal’s understanding of the customers that the project serves. [20 points]

All Reviewers are HHS employees. Most of them are previous participants in Ignite.

There’s quite a bit involved in determining exactly which proposals, from all of those submitted, get selected as “Finalists”. It involves panels, z-scores, and a desire for diversity of project types and OpDiv involvement. The determination process used for selecting the Winter 2015 finalists is written up in detail here.


Step 3: The Top Tier Proposals (our “Finalists”) Give Interviews

Ignite is about investing not just in the project idea but also in the team behind the project ideas. When you consider the fact that many projects ‘pivot’ even within just the first few days, this point becomes even more emphasized.

Thus we interview all finalists. These conversations, which include a short 5 minute presentation from each team, are typically 25 minutes in length and held with 3 members of the HHS IDEA Lab. They are in many ways a hiring process and they are inherently slightly subjective. Our goal is to get to know the team members (particularly the project lead) a bit and get a sense as to the team dynamics and the soft skills at play.

We also ask questions that point out the demands that come with being selected, such as what percent of your total time you think you’d be committing to the project, and whether or not you are able to make the full 3 days of the Boot Camp.


Step 3: We make our internal selection and run those by Agency Leadership

After internal deliberations, the teams recommended for selection are sent to the Leadership of each OpDiv and StaffDiv. Leadership is provided a few days to raise questions and flag any concerns they see from their perspective.


Step 4: We notify the Selected Teams

Prior to announcing them publicly, we notify the teams the teams of their selection. Typically there is about a month between when this notification occurs and the start of their particular Round. This is to provide time to get projects off their plate and do any other planning that may be needed.

Application Period

A full list of key dates are below.

Winter 2015 Key Dates

  • October 1, 2014: Begin Accepting Applications
  • October 31, 2014: Applications Due
  • November 10, 2014: Finalists Notified
  • November 17-19, 2014: Finalists’ Pitches
  • November 24, 2014: Notify Op/StaffDiv Heads
  • December 4, 2014: Selected Teams Notified
  • January 12, 2015: Projects Begin
  • April 23, 2015: Projects End

Summer 2015 Key Dates

  1. March 1, 2015: Begin Accepting Applications
  2. March 31, 2015: Applications Due
  3. April 13, 2015: Finalists Notified
  4. April 28-30, 2015: Finalists’ Pitches
  5. May 4, 2015: Notify OpDiv/StaffDiv Heads
  6. May 11, 2015: Selected Teams Notified
  7. June 1, 2015: Projects Begin
  8. June 8-10, 2015: Three-Day Boot Camp for Selected Teams
  9. September 17, 2015: Projects End

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