Learning points from InnoVenture competition

InnoVenture is a flagship technopreneurship learning platform by the National University of Singapore that aims to nurture a community that redefines innovation and venture creation in universities.  More than just a technopreneurship challenge, it is a platform for people to collaboratively tackle real problems and create scalable impact on society.

Over the course of the past two semesters, site visits, interviews, and hours of consultation and work were spent on tackling the problem statement. It was a unique learning experience, and quite a rapid transition from the regular classroom setting that I had grown accustomed to. While my team might not have taken any awards at the finals, the process itself was well worth its due.

I’ll have to be honest however, the final pitch presented by my team at the InnoVenture 2013-2014 finals wasn’t the best piece of work we could have done. The solution we had to offer was nowhere near the world changing innovation that we had sought to develop at the start of the competition. It was at best incremental improvement upon the existing structures, simply directly addressing the issues and wants brought up by the various people we interviewed. A lack of necessary skills in the execution phase of developing our prototype resulted in more problems. Nonetheless I would like to share four insights I gained during the entire course of the competition.

1)    Don’t let the need for familiarity restrict you

I was fresh as a freshman could be entering NUS, having taken an effective three year gap since I had last engaged in an academic environment. Clueless would have been an understatement to describe what little I actually knew about engineering or the relevant skill sets needed to undertake such a task. Nonetheless, I aspired to be involved in the field of design within engineering, looking to eventually be an entrepreneur with a startup or an intrapreneur (an entrepreneur working within a large company) developing new products. The idea of engaging in such a competition with what little I knew was extremely daunting, but maybe out of sheer arrogance or faith in my own ability I went ahead solo.

The initial brief on the details of the competition was accompanied by a networking session, where I would meet my teammates. Initially I was looking to participate in the competition with a group of seniors from the residential college. However, I changed my mind and decided to be more adventurous and look for people who came alone to the event, rationalizing that such people would be more passionate about the competition. Over the free pizza provided by the organizing committee I met Mathias, Vainius and Chen Yin, people who I had never met before with the exception of having played floorball with Mathias before this.

On reflection, I learnt that my initial sentiments were shared by the other group members – that is, thinking it could be a bad idea to work with three other people that we had never worked with before and knew nothing about. However the group dynamic proved to be positive; my instincts had been right about the passion of these people. As the course of the competition and workshops went by I learnt that my teammates were exceptional individuals in their own fields, with one being president of the entrepreneurship club in NUS, another hailing from Cambridge and being an engineering genius and the third specializing in product development in his home university with very strong presentation skills.

I am pretty sure if I had simply chosen to play it safe I would not have the chance to meet and learn from these awesome people.

2)    Let go of your ideas

The ideation phase of the competition was particularly challenging. The constraints of the competition gave us limited exposure with the relevant personnel they had brought to provide insight into the various issues. Time was the key and ideating based off the information we collected proved to be quite a challenge. Brainstorming together as a group, we came up with various solutions to the problem statement, one of which would be attempting to implement a system that would mimic the licking of a cat to clean the façade of the HDB while utilizing wind and rain to power the system.

As quickly as we had come up with our ideas, we tore them down just as quickly as we ran them through our matrix of customer needs. It was a little sad to reject ideas that we thought would be excellent implementations as we narrowed down our possible selection of solutions to a few. Nevertheless, I felt that this willingness to let go of our preconceived assumptions and ideas were key to our groups success in the first round of selection in the competition. Doing so allowed us to best suit our solution to the customer’s needs, making it stay true to the ground up approach that was the essence of design-thinking. If we had stuck with our original ideas and conceptions we would have been proposing a product that we and not the target customer wanted.

3)    The Simpsons have done it before

For those who are familiar with the South Park cartoon, one rather applicable episode as a learning anecdote would be the one where Butters tries to come up with new and inventive solutions to ‘rule the world’ only to discover that his plan has been done before on the Simpsons. This was our main challenge moving on to the second part of the competition, trying to develop a strong value proposition with a unique selling point to our proposed concept. Once again we hopped around various ideas as we applied the various suggestions and possible modifications we obtained through our feedback and connections with the relevant stakeholders.

As easy as it is to develop incrementally progressive solutions to a problem, their inherently intuitive nature would often result in the method being easily replicated and perhaps even reiterated in a more efficient manner. The challenge would be to find a unique solution that provided value that none of the other competitors in the market could provide. However as we deviated further away from the conventional approach to solving the problem at hand, the skills required to make the final product happen started to increase drastically.

4)    Take responsibility for your own learning

I have to admit that I could not contribute to the team as much as the other members with my skillset and knowledge. I was told by Vainius, “You are no longer a year 1 engineering student, now you know everything”. I realized then that I had been using my inexperience as an excuse for my lack of knowledge. To wait for the school to impart the knowledge required to tackle the problem on hand was definitely the wrong approach to go about this process. In the field of innovation the required skillsets are always going to be changing and as such the onus should be on the individual to pick up the necessary skills. My biggest regret would be my lack of pro-activeness in seeking out the knowledge required and learning the relevant skills so as to complete the project.

Similarly, the seniors I met during the competition all reflected a similar sentiment, that we had to actively use the resources provided by the school to learn as much as possible during this period of education rather than simply wait and hope for our modules to impart the necessary knowledge to us.

Final thoughts

Here’s the video that we filmed as our prototype:

It definitely couldn’t match up to the actual prototypes built by some of the other teams, such as the full scale model built by the team of final year students who combined the funding from the competition with their final year project to produce quite an amazing machine. Nonetheless I would still be happy to say that I went through this competition as it has been a unique learning experience.