Rebecca Middleton and FoNS-MAD studentsIn 2014, Imperial’s Faculty of Natural Sciences was looking for new ideas to improve the education experience. Faculty staff spotted that there were several innovation competitions running at Imperial but that, in general, natural science undergraduates were not taking part. 

To fill that gap the Faculty of Natural Sciences Make-A-Difference or FoNS-MAD competition was conceived by Professor Ramon Vilar. Soon after, Rebecca Middleton joined as Education Manager for the Faculty and, with Professor Vilar, she has been managing the competition ever since.

“We wanted to encourage students to think of themselves as innovators and entrepreneurs,” she explains. “Alongside that there are lots of opportunities within the competition for them to enhance their CVs and develop extra skills.”

FoNS-MAD provides an opportunity for students to work across disciplinary boundaries and challenges them to think about what they can do to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Mrs Middleton continues: “During the first stage of the competition students have to form teams, so we run workshops where we bring students from different disciplines together to explore teambuilding, problem-solving and forming ideas. This stage is open to all undergraduate students across the College and the workshops are very hands-on and practical. Students work in teams to solve challenges and have a lot of fun in the process.”

Students are also introduced to the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which include issues of hunger, access to safe water and affordable clean energy: “We ask them to think of a specific problem associated with one of those goals. So, if you’re looking at global warming, for example, what is a specific issue facing society that has to do with global warming? What steps might you realistically take to contribute to solving that problem?”

Student comment

“As undergraduate students, it has been a fantastic opportunity to be given this level of autonomy and scope to pursue our own ideas. It has allowed us to take this project in the direction we want, explore different possibilities, and change our minds when something isn’t working.”

To get through to the next stage of FoNS-MAD, teams must come up with an outline proposal, defining the problem and how they would research and refine their idea. 

The majority of entrants make it to this next stage where they are given an introduction to the concept of intellectual property and, this year, Mrs Middleton says she plans to run a business ethics workshop and a session on ‘team maintenance’.

The teams build towards presenting their idea to a judging panel. “We offer training in presentation skills and report-writing. We do mock presentations where the teams rehearse in front of the organising committee and we give them detailed feedback. These are skills that they might not be developing through their degree.”

Based on their presentations, up to four teams make it through to the final stage of the competition. Those who do, win a unique opportunity: a funded lab placement over the summer. The students are placed in a lab or work space and given a bursary and consumables fund to experiment and evolve their idea. 

“These are undergraduate students. They could be studying maths and might not have set foot in a lab. Even those who are undertaking lab work for their course might be used to working to a ‘recipe’. Here, they’re working on their own ideas and it’s completely up to them what they do.”

At the end of the lab placement, the teams must compete again to decide who is the overall competition winner. However, runners-up as well as winning teams have gone on to find success with their ideas.

Students from the 2018 competitionIn 2017, the winning team Matoha developed a tool that could help identify different types of plastics, for example for sorting in a recycling centre. Although still students at Imperial, the team are developing their idea into a business. “They already have interest from some big recycling companies and they’ve travelled to Indonesia for fieldwork, literally picking up plastic from the beaches and going into local schools,” Mrs Middleton explains.

The runners up from the same year, a team called ThinAir, have also continued with their venture. This group have formed a business around their idea for a membrane which can capture water particles from the air and could be used to alleviate drought in parts of the world where water is scarce.

In 2018, the winning team CleanSea developed a technology that could filter hazardous microplastics from wastewater before they enter the ocean.

Dr Ruth Allan, Business Performance Consultant at HT Consultants Ltd, was one of the competition judges. She says: “This competition embodies what it means to create the right space for invention and innovation. More universities and organisations should be doing this."