University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Starting in the fall semester, students enroll in CE5571 Design for Sustainable Development (4 credits; Fridays 9am-noon). Students have applied to the course, from around campus (grad & undergrad; multiple colleges). In the class, we group them into teams, and pair them with a team in India, so one team consists of ~5 UMN students plus ~5 students from an Indian university. During the class, we discuss these topics:

  • What are main problems facing India and other low-income countries.
  • What are general approaches & business models that have been tried (e.g., micro-loans), and how does one test whether those approaches work.
  • Design thinking: listening to people articulate their needs, ideate solutions, prototype and test.
  • Voice of the Customer. Lean Startup. Business Model Canvas
  • Finding a social value proposition and a financial value proposition.

The goal of the class, and the final deliverable product, is identifying a problem or need articulated by a community in India, and a financially self-sustaining solution (the solution should also include a business model) to that need. Ideally, students can provide convincing field evidence regarding their problem and their solution, and they identify a set of assumptions that they could test to validate and improve their ideas. From a Lean Startup vernacular, this would be a minimal viable product.

At the end of the class, we have a competition. Teams receive feedback from the judges. Then, February 8th or so, we have the Acara Challenge, which is open to other teams too, not just teams from the class. There is prize money, and winners can apply for funding and for an invitation to the Summer Institute (SI) in Bangalore in June. In the 8-day Summer Institute, we have some US teams and some Indian-only teams (the winners of the National Student Competition, run by IIHS (India Institute of Human Settlements) in Bangalore). Here, we work on business model canvas, lean startup, and their core social+financial value proposition. We also connect students with on the ground domain experts (legal, finance, etc.) and other social entrepreneurs.

We also have a path for students that may have an idea or already existing venture (a surprising number of students have started a business or non-profit). The J-term CE5572 is a one week course in Minnesota, that operates much like the SI described above. The students may have ventures locally or internationally. These plans may also be eligible to enter the Acara Challenge if they are mature enough.

For this research project, you could start with students on day 1 of the class. By the end of the Acara Challenge, more than half will have dropped out —- they took the class, hopefully it was a good experience, but now they are ready to go about with their life — and the remainder will be interested in traveling to the SI in Bangalore. In the past, we have had ~20% of the class go to India. (That number is dictated in part by the availability of funding.)

Some of the books and papers used/referenced include:

  • Poor Economics
  • Business Model Generation
  • Lean Startup
  • IDEO and d.lab (Standford) design thinking books and workshops.
  • Many references to various existing social ventures
  • IRIS social impact metrics.
  • Monitor Report: Emerging Markets, Emerging Models
Acara is a social entrepreneurship program of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management.


2014 Acara Spring Institute

April 12, 2014: Spring Institute - Do the Match

April 26, 2014: Spring Institute - Tell me a Story