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Young minds come together across disciplines
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2022-03-24 2022-03-16 16 March 2022
6 min read
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At the first Students & Company Sprint at NOI, companies and students from the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano joined forces to develop new solutions for the circular economy of the future.

 

We can all relate to the fact that an engineer approaches a problem differently than a designer, and IT experts might have a completely different perspective than their colleagues in the communications department. But what if you could take advantage of such differences and tackle a problem by putting together interdisciplinary teams? What if these teams had the opportunity to exchange ideas and benefit from each other’s different perspectives?

This is exactly what happened at the first Students & Company Sprint hosted at NOI from 21 to 25 February 2022. For one week, students from different departments at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano worked together with the companies Markas, VOG Products and Vivius to develop innovative solutions that addressed the challenges of a circular economy. It was a win-win situation for all involved: the companies received fresh input, and the students were able to gain insight into company processes and could put their knowledge into practice. The event was funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) and aimed to promote networking between students and the professional world.

Tough questions and turning gears

The circular economy was at the heart of the three questions the companies presented at the Students & Company Sprint. How can we make use of apple pomace in sustainable packaging? What should the sustainable university canteen of the future look like? How can building contractors and their customers be made more aware of circular and sustainable construction? The interdisciplinary teams of students were assigned a mentor from the respective companies. Together they had to develop two solutions for each challenge and present them in a professional pitch at the end of the sprint. There were five adrenalin-filled, head-scratching days of thinking aloud, discussing, and tinkering. The ideas were presented at the end of the week, and the three most sustainable projects were awarded prizes. The winners were “Pack Apple”, a production process for packaging made from apple pomace, “Vivius Virtual”, an app for the construction industry and “Canteen of the Future”, an intelligent canteen solution.

The sprint process – the creative side of business

An Innovation Sprint is a creative process that compresses what would otherwise take months in a company into a few days. During a sprint, interdisciplinary teams develop an approach to a solution together, try it out, learn from their mistakes, improve, and try again until they find a solution. This constant cycle of innovation focuses on sharing ideas and fosters creativity and inspiration, allowing views and approaches to solutions from different areas of expertise to complement each other. The students at the Students & Company Sprint at NOI came from different programmes of the five faculties of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano: Computer Science, Design and Arts, Economics, Education, Science and Technology.

The companies’ feedback

The feedback from the companies that took part in the sprint was very positive. According to Stefan Pircher, CEO of Vivius, “The next big challenge in the construction industry is the circular economy of materials. Especially in a very technical sector like ours, it was important to work with students who think outside the box and have a new perspective that differs from that of the construction industry.” Valentina Alber, Team Leader at Markas, was

amazed at how successful the teamwork of the students from very different disciplines was, “Everyone contributed their part, and this exchange of ideas among each other ultimately brought more value to the table.” For Daniele Zatelli, R&D Manager at VOG Products, the added value came mainly from an innovative perspective of the company’s challenges, “Perspective is always decisive for interpreting a problem. The number six can be read as a six or a nine, depending on where the observer is standing. That is why their fresh perspective is so valuable for companies.”

The students’ experience

The students found the real-life insight into the company’s operations equally valuable. They reported enthusiastically about their experience, such as Enrique Ayres, from the Industrial Mechanical Engineering master’s programme, “I learned a lot about how companies approach things, which will also help me later when looking for a job or down the road in my professional career. It was fascinating to see how a fully functional solution could be found in just a few days. In the Vivius Virtual team, we developed an app that specifically shows contractors and clients the carbon footprint of each decision they make when building a house.”

Giulia Pizzato, from the Entrepreneurship and Innovation master’s programme, was already familiar with some of the brainstorming methods used in the Students & Company Sprint from her studies. She was able to put her knowledge into practice for the first time during the competition, “I highly recommend the Innovation Sprint. It was five intense, adrenalin-filled days, dealing with a real challenge from the business world. We had to find a solution for processing apple pomace into sustainable packaging. It was amazing how much we managed to do together in such a short time.”

Lisa Bachmann, from the Eco-Social Design master’s programme, worked on Marka’s “Canteen of the Future” challenge. She says, “It was inspiring to see how the different areas of know-how intertwined creativity, technology, innovation and economic strategy. For the Canteen of the Future, we looked at how to make better use of space and how to introduce new technologies and systems to offer a wider menu and reduce food waste. For Markas, our input was invaluable because, as students, we are also the end user. We know what sort of things matter most to us.” The first Students & Company Sprint at NOI provided valuable input to all the participants and proved to be an excellent platform to connect South Tyrolean companies with young talents from the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano.

During the Innovation Sprint, the students immersed themselves in an atmosphere of innovation by making the most of our spaces at NOI: from yoga in the seminar room to presenting their prototypes in the hall. “It was fascinating and at the same time inspiring to see the curiosity and dynamics that this kind of cooperation can unleash. And not only among the students but also among the experts and the companies,” says Chiara Zanin, Project Manager at NOI Techpark.

“Working on complex projects based on real-life, proposed by companies with more sophisticated, sometimes unavailable and even inconsistent data and information, is very important to better prepare our students for their professional careers after graduation,” says Prof. Guido Orzes, Project Manager at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. Furthermore, he emphasises, “Challenge-based learning is used in various teaching sessions at our university. What was new – and equally challenging – about the Student & Company Sprint was that we co-created the event for students from across the university, working in collaboration with NOI Techpark.”

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