Now Accepting Applications for Ignite Winter 2015

We are accepting proposals for Ignite Winter 2015 between October 1 and 11:59pm on October 31, 2014. These projects will run from January through April 2015.

Visit the “Eligibility and How to Apply” tab for the link to the proposal. But before applying, be sure to read and understand everything on these webpages.

Overview Slides and Webinar

Download these slides (PDF) | Read Our Updated FAQs

On Thursday Oct 9th, we held a webinar providing an overview of Ignite and included information on how to apply to the program.Here are the slides used during the webinar, and as noted, we have also updated our FAQs based upon the questions received.

We were planning on posting the full webinar, but somehow we weren’t able to download the GoToMeeting video recording. Not sure what happened exactly. But as mentioned in that webinar, all the information provided there is also found on this website.

Many thanks to all that joined and that asked questions. We look forward to reading your proposal!

Schedule an Office Hour with Us

Some teams have a rough idea or know that a problem exists but aren’t sure exactly what an Ignite proposal might look like. Or you may have a couple ideas and aren’t sure which one to submit (the answer is both by the way). Or even if you think you have a slamdunk proposal, we encourage you to reach out to us anyways.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. We’re happy to offer suggestions and help you flesh out any ideas. We’ve found over the last couple years that teams that talk to us beforehand end up submitting better-written proposals.

To schedule a brainstorming session with us, simply email idealab [at] hhs [dot] gov with the subject “I’d like to talk to someone about Ignite” (or something along those lines.) We – probably Kate or Serena – will get back to you asap to find a time that works.

We are available in 30 minute blocks during the hours of 1pm-4pm ET on Tuesdays and Thursdays of this month. During the final week of October, we are also available on Wednesday of that week.

Accelerating Internal Ideas

HHS Ignite is the Department’s internal accelerator for new ideas. Ignite provides an opportunity for small teams led by HHS employees to rapidly explore and test ideas that could dramatically improve how an Office, Agency, or the entire Department carries out its work.

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:

  • An idea to test towards a problem worth solving
  • A full-time employee of HHS to serve as the Project Lead to test this idea. The Project Lead and at least one other person must attend the full 3-Day Boot Camp.
  • At least 25% of your time to work the project. This is particularly true for the Project Lead. Other team members may be more or less at any given time depending on their role.

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) their idea through a series of small scale 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.

In March, accepted applications for the second class of HHS Ignite. We received 74 proposals and in the end selected 12 teams. These teams begin the three months of their work on June 9, 2014 with a 3-day Boot Camp in D.C. and end their Ignite experience on September 30, 2014 with a closing-day “Shark Tank” where they’ll present their Ignite findings and pitch for continued support to senior Department leadership.


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 now accepting applications

In FY2015, there are two rounds of HHS Ignite:

Winter 2015: We are accepting proposals for Ignite Winter 2015 between October 1 and 11:59pm on October 31, 2014. These projects will run from January through April 2015.

Summer 2015: We will begin accepting proposals for Ignite Summer 2015 in March. These projects will run from June through September, 2015.

How to Apply to Ignite Winter 2015

The following link will take you to a new webpage where you can submit your proposal for HHS Ignite Winter 2015. You can go there just to check out the questions (we’d recommend that actually).

Note that you cannot save the proposal along the way, so you may want to answer the questions somewhere else, flesh them out with your colleagues, and then copy and paste the answers in when you’re ready.

Want to preview the questions? Here’s what the proposal looks like:

  • Project Title: 50 characters
  • Executive Summary: 500 characters
  • Info on the Supervisor of the Project Lead (Name, Title, OpDiv, Office, Email, Phone Number)
  • Option to waive the $5,000 award. This is non-binding and doesn’t affect the selection process.
  • 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

The Scoring Criteria and Selection Process

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

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

Teams submitting the top proposals will be asked to present and discuss their project with members of the HHS Innovation Council and staff from the IDEA Lab. These persons will make recommendations to the Secretary who will make the final selection. Check out the “Key Dates” tab to see the timeline for all of this.

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 2, 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 Op/StaffDiv Heads
  6. May 11, 2015 – Selected Teams Notified
  7. June 8, 2015 – Projects Begin
  8. September 24, 2015 – Projects End


Stay up to date

Stay up-to-date on when we are accepting applications by

Contact Information

Read [dot] Holman @ hhs [dot] gov

More Information

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What do you mean that Ignite is only for the “testing” of new ideas?

The standard way that government operates: People think they have a good idea and then they go get a multi-million dollar contract to implement that idea. This is certainly an over-simplification, but it’s meant to prove a point: We think that ideas should be tested and validated. We believe that implementation of an idea is just as important — if not more important — than the idea itself.

So Ignite is about testing the idea and also testing the implementation of an idea. Selected teams go through phases of prototyping and may build towards what is called a Minimally Viable Product (MVP).

What kind of ideas are you looking for?

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

  •     Simplifying an existing processes
  •     Modernizing a product or service being delivered
  •     Testing out new tools and technologies
  •     Improving internal policies and procedures
  •     Making something
  •     Experimenting with a new management style or organizational structure
  •     Trying something completely new

We’ve had a number of people mention that they think Ignite is about technology. It’s not! In fact, we believe that most problems are not technology oriented and thus most Ignite projects are not technology oriented. Tech becomes a red herring where really the processes and larger systems are the issue. Technology can be useful for sure, but it’s rarely the “solution”.

With that said, parts of the government are behind in adopting modern technologies. So, as the third bullet above would suggest, projects that want to test the use of certainly technologies are certainly encouraged.

Is it best to submit a smaller project for consideration, or a larger long, term project?

Well both… Ignite projects themselves, particularly given the time and funding parameters, tend to be small efforts. However, these small and focused efforts are often a part of larger, long-term efforts. Indeed, the scalability and potential impact of the proposed project is an element taken into consideration when selecting the teams each round.

Can the project already be in development but seeking additional support from programs like HHS Ignite?

Yes, a project could already be underway but still at an early stage of development.

What does working in Ignite really look like?

Ignite is a rigorous program and selected teams should expect to spend a significant portion of their total time to their effort. Following the 3-day boot camp in DC which kick-starts the projects, each team has a series of check-ins with IDEA Lab staff and defined stage-gates to ensure adherence to a prescribed methodology and project plan.

Ignite strives to be an outcomes-driven program. What that means its that while we appreciate talking about an idea, what we really want to see is progress in the form of many small scale tests and interactions with end-users / customers. These can be direct interviews, testing a prototype, beta-testing to an MVP, and other forms of interactions.

The goal of these tests is to determine quickly whether the idea is worth pursing further. Many teams learn from these early tests and end up changing their project significantly along the way. This is great! Better to do a number of small things where we learn now, rather than one big thing that ends up not working for some reason.

What does working with IDEA Lab staff really look like during Ignite?

Selected teams work very closely with IDEA Lab staff during their 3 months on their project. Specifically, they work most closely with Read Holman and Will Yang who provide the regular interactions, instructions, guidance, nudges, and sometimes harsh but important words to help you and your project grow.

Depending upon the needs of a project team, we can connect you with others either within the IDEA Lab, including our Entrepreneurs- and Innovators-in-Residence, or among our wider network. We can help you navigate the worlds of red tape and compliance (security, privacy, etc), and ensure greater exposure to the methods and tools most applicable to your needs (lean startup, crowdsourcing, etc), and the subject matter experts in your area of interest.

Some teams apply for the funds, and that’s fine. But it’s worth mentioning that overwhelmingly, previous teams have told us that the air-cover of being in Ignite and the coaching and trainings during the program are what they found most valuable.

You say you provide teams with “tools and technologies”? What kinds?

For example, we have a secure cloud environment for hosting of web applications. (Note: This is for testing and development during Ignite, not necessary for production after Ignite.)

We also can help teams get access to tools that are sometimes frowned upon. For example, google docs, data viz tools, screen sharing applications, really just about anything you can find on the internet. Their use is only for the support of an Ignite project and assumes certain parameters are in place. We work closely with teams to help them determine the right tools for the job and help them understand the risks associated with their use.

Does Ignite provide technical support (like a developer) to help me complete my project?

Unfortunately no. The IDEA Lab provides guidance and advising, but we don’t contribute staff resources to the project team. Teams are expected to have the skillsets needed to accomplish what they say they want to accomplish.

How does the funding work?

The $5,000 Ignite funds are delegated via an intra-departmental delegation of authority (IDDA) from the Office of the Secretary to the Operating or Staff Division. We then work with each Staff/OpDiv to ensure the funds get further delegated down to your. These are General Management 1-year funds.

By default, the funds are sent to the Office of the project lead. If selected, you’ll need to tell us if for some reason this isn’t the case for your effort.

Selected teams can spend the funds through any mechanism currently at their disposal. Contract vehicles, credit card purchases, inter-Agency agreements, etc.

What if I don’t need the $5k in the first place?

Teams have the option of waiving their access to these funds. This is perfectly fine. Previous teams have indicated that the funds are not the reason they applied anyways. Still we recognize that a little seed funding might be needed to help validate an effort.

Are there former Ignite participants who I can talk with?

There are! The names of those involved with a project – Project Leads, supervisors, and team members – appear on each of their project pages (see the bottom of this page). They’re all great people and you should feel free to reach out to any of them.

How many proposals were submitted in the last round of HHS Ignite, and of those submitted, how many were selected?

In the two rounds we’ve had thus far, 74 proposals have been submitted, and 24 have been selected.

How many team members can I have?

A team can be as small as 1 (just the Project Lead) and as big as 5 (including the Project Lead). The other person on the proposal form is the supervisor of the project lead, but this person does not necessarily go against the overall count.

Team formation is just as — if not more than — important than the idea itself. So when putting together a team, be sure to consider the skill sets and perspectives needed to run a successful project. Pretend you’re a startup: What kind of people do you want to hire?

What if I need a 6th person on my team?

Not to be too harsh, but chances are you don’t.

During the course of Ignite, you might end up working with many people and want them all to be ‘on the team’. But in terms of official team members, fewer is likely better. While we appreciate the desire to be inclusive, it’s important to clearly define what ‘involvement’ looks like for your team and maintain a tight core unit. For example, if they’re not spending at least 15% of their total time on Ignite, they’re probably more of a collaborator than a team member. Collaborators (and stakeholders, and others) are very important, but they fall into a category separate from team member.

With all that said if you convince us along the way that 6 people are needed, great! Just put their info in a different part of the proposal.

Are contractors eligible to apply?

The Project Lead must be a full time employee (FTE) of HHS. However, their teammates do not have to be FTEs, and indeed they may be contractors. Teams may be up to 5 individuals total.

Can I submit more than one proposal?

Yes. Though of course, an employee can’t be the Project Lead on more than one selected proposal.

Whose approval do I need in advance to submit my proposal?

We require only the approval of the supervisor of the project lead.

Do you notify Agency heads or others of my project idea?

All Staff/OpDiv heads are notified if — and only if — a proposal involving their staff get selected into Ignite. This occurs prior to the team even knows that they’ve been selected. This gives the leadership an opportunity to ask questions, seek clarifications, and provide any additional information they think we might need in order to make the best selection of teams.

What if my idea threatens someone else’s job?

Some ideas submitted are fairly disruptive in nature. And by definition, disruptive innovations go against the status quo, they run against existing processes behind which are staff and contractors that get paid to do their jobs.

But this is exactly why the IDEA Lab exists: To provide a safe place for experimentation outside of the normal operating environment. The American tax-payers are looking for a more modern and effective government so we encourage disruptive ideas. If it’s a good idea, and during Ignite you demonstrate viability of that idea, then it will sell itself.

Are Ignite projects internally or externally facing efforts?

They can be both: Projects may be internally or externally facing.

Will Ignite help me spin off my own company if successful?

This is a great question! Love the spirit behind this. The short answer is… yeah sure why not. Ignite strives to improve the way the Department carries out its mission. So the notion of spinning out a startup is a little weird through this lens, but we can see it happening. If it makes sense, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

What happens to the Ignite projects when they’re done?

During Ignite, we work with all the teams to help them run a meaningful test of their idea. This is to flesh out the idea itself and to help build evidence supporting it.

At the end of Ignite, we play the role of convener and help teams — at least the ones that are ready — to get in front of the right people to present their project idea. We’ll put the team there, but it’s up to the team to make the sell.

In aggregate, about a third of all teams have received the funding they wanted to take their effort to the next level; about a third received the ok from their leadership to continue working on their idea though without funds; and about a third ended up not really moving forward.