Last month our Full-Time MBA students came together for the annual weeklong Imperial Innovation Challenge. A unique and collaborative learning experience, the Innovation Challenge gives students a practical opportunity to develop their soft skills, applying their business skills and creativity to a challenge impacting business and society.
Run by Professor Erkko Autio and Dr Charlie Donovan, the theme for this year was Sustainable Mobility: People and Goods in Transition. Put into randomly allocated teams for the week, the students worked together to come up with real, business-oriented solutions in the field of sustainable mobility that could significantly reduce the harm caused to people and the planet by land, air and ocean travel.
Ideas presented ranged from leveraging public transport infrastructure for commercial use to eco-friendly delivery services or subscription based electric bikes to combat pollution from motorcycles.
At the end of the week, these solutions were presented to a panel of Business School alumni judges: Luq Niazi – Global Managing Director for Chemicals & Petroleum Industries at IBM; Lauren Dickerson – Entrepreneur in Residence at Centrica, and Cofounder and Commercial Strategist at Lunagen Ltd; and Diego Bivero-Volpe – CEO and Founder of Volpe. Two prizes of £250, kindly sponsored by Luq for the next six years, would be up for grabs – one for the most commercial idea and one for the idea that could have the greatest impact.
A one-week challenge for social impact
Over the first two days, Erkko and Charlie introduced the class to the importance of business model innovation in addressing global challenges, how to use the business model canvas and also the importance of learning from failures. External guest speakers also shared their knowledge with the class, encouraging them to consider the social, environmental and economic impacts of transportation. Professor John Polak, Professor of Transport Demand in Imperial College London’s Faculty of Engineering, joined the class as well as external speakers from a range of companies including Transport for London, Cenex, Ecofin and Cisco, covering presentations on key technology and business trends that impact the issue of Sustainable Mobility.
External speaker Deirdre Cooper, Partner at Ecofin, presents to the class
Working in their teams, the class used their newfound knowledge to focus on ‘business model design’ on day three and ‘financing the venture’ on day four. By the end of day four, each team needed to have developed a 10-minute pitch of their final business model and be prepared for a 15 minute Q&A session from the alumni panel, which would follow their presentations.
When the final day came, you could tell the class were energised from the experience and eager to present their ideas to the panel. Ideas presented ranged from leveraging public transport infrastructure for commercial use to eco-friendly delivery services or subscription based electric bikes to combat pollution from motorcycles. Especially impressive was the genuine interest from the class for feedback during the judge’s Q&A. As the judges noted, being able to lean into criticism as opposed to defending ideas is a huge skill – after all, sometimes the greatest learnings come from failures.
After the final presentation, it was time to award the two winning teams with their prizes. With only four days to learn about the issues surrounding the mobility of people and goods and adjust to new group dynamics for the challenge, the judges emphasised how impressed they were with all teams.
Winning the prize for ‘Greatest Impact’ was River Cycle – Tina Chen, Sabrina Hearn, Ricardo Diaz Lombardo San Roman, Amardeep Jass, Lavishka Katwa, Ben Kirk and Andrew Debake. Whilst a number of teams were strongly considered for this prize, River Cycle were noted as a particular standout. The prize for ‘Most Commercial’ was scooped up by Geared Up – Sarah Moxon, James Hindle, Tom Cowley, Chhaya Gill, Oindree Sengupta, Yinhua Chen and Fiona Shaba. Their identification of customer would allow their idea to find a route to market very quickly.
The winning teams are pictured below with alumni judges Luq Niazi, Lauren Dickerson and Diego Bivero-Volpe, Professor Erkko Autio and Dr Charlie Donovan.
We caught up with both teams to find out more about their ideas and experience of the week.
Can you describe the ideas behind your project?
Geared Up (GU): Our idea is based around improving mobility for community health workers across developing countries. We chose to focus in Bangladesh where there are over 100,000 community health workers alone, and these are people who play a critical role in delivering much needed medical assistance.
River Cycle (RC): The idea behind River Cycle is to turn harmful plastic waste in rivers into bicycles. River Cycle, a social enterprise, aims to provide an economical way to remove plastics from waterways as well as sustainable mobility for local workers and students.
How did you come up with the idea?
GU: The problem identification and solution brainstorming was a challenging part of the week and on Wednesday we certainly felt overwhelmed. The challenge we had to overcome was narrowing down the problem to a key user. We were initially being far too broad when trying to move onto a solution.
Erkko and Charlie guided us in order to push us towards a niche group – that is when we started thinking about mobility challenges faced by women in developing countries. Eventually, those conversations led to Community Health Workers (CHWs) and their unique brand of mobility issues. One of our team members (Fiona) has knowledge and understanding of the role of CHWs and was able to identify them as a stakeholder group we were interested in.
RC: By the year 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean. We learned about a technology developed by students at Imperial that can collect plastic wastes from rivers before they end up in the ocean. The innovative technology, however, was missing a commercial model, preventing it from generating profit. We realised the potential of upcycling plastic waste into bicycles and building a sustainable business model that utilises this new technology.
What about the speakers? Did they inspire your project idea in any way?
RC: The Imperial College Business School faculty and external speakers influenced and inspired us throughout the Innovation Week journey from the start to the final pitch. Dr Charlie Donovan and Professor Erkko Autio both taught us how to understand the problem and work together to build a meaningful solution. The frameworks, such as business model canvas and triple bottom line, were very useful in formulating and defining our ideas. The consistent guidance from expert coaches helped us question our ideas against assumptions and fine-tune our business model.
GU: The quality of the speakers was impressive and included a diverse range of subjects, from hydrogen fuel cell cars to innovation in TFL. They helped our group to think big in terms of global mobility problems and also supported us in grasping the wide scope of mobility as a topic.
What was your favourite part of the Innovation Challenge?
GU: Once we realised as a team that we had a suitable idea on which to focus our research the morale and energy of the team picked up immensely – this was a really enjoyable day!
RC: Our favourite part of the Innovation Challenge was preparing and pitching our idea to the judges. After working on our idea for one week, we were very excited to present it to the judges and listen to their feedback. Of course, when we heard our team idea, River Cycle, announced as a winning idea we were so excited that our hard work had paid off.
Were you able to put any new skills/knowledge developed on the MBA so far in practice for the project?
GU: We used a number of business model concepts to refine the customer value proposition and figure out the stakeholders we would have to work with. Previous finance courses helped in building a P&L and valuation model for the business.
Re-phrasing ‘no but’ to ‘yes, and’ is a way of keeping energy levels high, particularly during the idea generation phase.
We also applied design thinking principals of not looking for a solution early on but being strict and identifying the problem, Erkko encouraged the use of the 5 W’s framework when identifying problems (What is it? Who does it affect? When and Where are they affected? and Why is it a problem?) – this worked really well during this project
Personas and storytelling are principals that we learnt about in the Design Thinking and Innovation and Entrepreneurship core module and they enable you to engage with your audience and help them understand the problem you are exploring.
RC: The Innovation Challenge encompassed a whole journey of solution development into a single week, which was demanding and exceedingly challenging. Our team was able to source learnings from various modules and workshops that we attended throughout our Full-Time MBA programme.
You were split into new teams for the challenge, how did you find this?
GU: Working in a new team was tough at times. Particularly as by the end of Wednesday, when we didn’t have a finalised idea, we could see that there were teams around us who had moved away from research and onto slide preparation.
The experience overall was very positive. All of us have already learnt a lot over the MBA with regards to group work. We enjoyed the process – the opportunity to engage with differing opinions, work styles and skills which allowed us to be truly innovative. We each entered this week with the aim of making it a worthwhile experience and this showed.
RC: Working in our new team was truly delightful. We all possess a diverse range of skills and backgrounds, which allowed successful brainstorming sessions and business case developments. Each member of the team contributed and supported each other throughout the week.
How will your group use the prize money?
GU: We hope to take this idea further and so a dinner is planned where we will discuss next steps to validate the idea. We have agreed that we would like to go to a sushi restaurant!
RC: We will celebrate the learning and success from the Innovation Challenge with a festive team dinner.
Join our September 2018 class and take part in the challenge next year
The Imperial Innovation Challenge is a highly anticipated part of our Full-Time MBA programme. Are you interested in joining our September 2018 class and expanding your knowledge through group projects like the Imperial Innovation Challenge?