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Get ready for the next generation of innovators

February 3, 2020

Judging innovation. How hard can it be?

When I was invited to participate in the Red Bull Basement University Challenge, I thought I knew what I was in for.

Every day I meet entrepreneurs and companies at our Cisco Toronto Innovation Centre to discuss how we might collaborate to solve customer problems — whether it’s by helping them develop and get to market faster, or to scale their solutions.

My team and I are well used to evaluating innovation approaches, looking for uniqueness, strength of value proposition, market fit, and talent potential.

So I felt confident that we’d be able to judge and guide the students participating in this Challenge as they created their own technology ventures. It would be just another day at the office, right?

As a matter of fact, I had a few surprises in store for me.

These young students blew me away with their commitment and creativity. In fact, they set a great example for how to innovate that all of us in the industry can learn from.

Start with the right problem to solve

Innovation is all about solving problems. Some of those problems might be well-known; we may even believe that they’ve already been adequately solved. Others we don’t even know that we have until some visionary points them out and shows us a better way.

Some students chose to tackle challenges very specific to their school campus. For instance, the team from Chile identified that their campus lacked enough food outlets, meaning students waited ages for their lunch.

The solution? A virtual marketplace for students to bring their own food and sell it to other students via an app. The team drew on the power of the gig economy to solve the challenge: instantly, creatively and without the institution needing to make any investment in more infrastructure. Best of all, the student body gets way more variety and can take responsibility for self-governance.

Some challenges will be familiar to most students: like how to share notes effectively within and across classes. One team created a platform for note sharing. But the magic ingredient is a rating mechanism that ranks contributors by the quality of their notes. This kind of gamification drives quality up and strips out friction for those trying to find course materials.

And those were just two of the smart, elegant proposals in front of me and my fellow judges. Not such an easy task after all.

Simple ideas, endless possibilities

The team from Austria won the competition with a venture was called Audvice. Like many of the best innovations, Audvice started from a very simple idea: what if we created a new content vehicle? The team defined a six-minute audio format, like a mini podcast, and worked it through into defined use cases — like lesson summaries. But it’s easy to imagine how this bite-size audio format and platform could have hundreds of other applications beyond just education. Just like tweets and vines before, you can see how the platform’s users themselves could define many new use cases.

No idea is ever finished

What struck me as I was judging these Red Bull teams was the passion each student brought to the competition. They all really cared about the problems they were trying to solve, and they used every piece of feedback from mentoring sessions and presentation pitches to improve their ideas. On the day of judging the improvement from their first pitch was remarkable. It’s a lesson to all of us that no matter how good our first idea, if we have the right attitude, there’s always potential for growth.

Innovation matters more than ever

Organising a global program like this is a huge feat and a true team effort. We came together with the team from Red Bull and all the other organisations who participated, not only face to face in Toronto, but over the course of months through the power of Webex. Everyone gave their best to support the students so they could collaborate and unleash their full potential.

I came away from the experience feeling energised, with renewed confidence in the power of innovation. Innovation isn’t just a buzzword and events like these are not PR stunts: they’re a vital way to solve all kinds of problems in our businesses and societies. The creativity, commitment and fresh perspective that these students brought to their challenges should be an inspiration to us all.

If you’d like to learn more about the Challenge, how to run your own innovation event within your business, or want to learn more about what we do at our innovation centres around the world, get in touch.

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