Poverty. Social inequality. World hunger. Climate change. Disease. Religious intolerance. These are some of the Grand Challenges President Kaler called out in his 2014 State of the University speech. There are many UMN students who are interested in these topics, are taking courses on developing solutions or may already have a venture or business idea. The Grand Challenge Impact Studio is an initiative at the UMN to help you develop and solidify your idea, connect with a strong network of mentors and experts and to launch a pilot.
The Studio is a weekly facilitated session and is intended to be a compliment to any class or program you may be taking. It will provide a focused time with mentors, outside experts and other students working on similar challenges. This is co-curricular, no credit. They are scheduled Mondays 3:30-5:00 at IonE on the St. Paul campus. If that time doesn’t work for you, let us know times that may, we will try to schedule a few sessions at other times on the West or East Bank. It’s easy to get to IonE on the St. Paul campus via the connector, which stops right across the street. The Studio starts Monday, Sept 29 and continues through Dec 8. We will likely continue in the spring semester to help teams develop ideas for pilots and minimal viable products.
The Impact Studio is a collaboration of many individuals across campus and is being operated by the Acara program in the Institute on the Environment. Acara is the 2014 winner of the UMN C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives and has helped develop and launch such ventures as MyRain, a drip irrigation business for small plot farmers in India, Minneapolis-based Twin Fin Aquaponics and Minneapolis-based Eat For Equity. The Impact Studio will also work hand-in-hand with Boreas Leadership Program.
The Impact Studio will include a series of guest mentors. Mentors already committed include: Simone Ahuja, author of Jugaad Innovation, Brad Lordhing and Scott Nelson of LogicPD, a leading design firm in the area of Internet of Things, Tony Loyd, former executive of John Deere and Medtronic, Leo Sharkey, General Manager, Siemens Water Technologies and others. All have a long track record of innovation in Grand Challenge areas.
Students must apply to be accepted into the GC Studio. The application is here. Applications are due no later than Sept 22, we will accept on a rolling basis so don’t wait, as we have limited space. You may sign up as an individual or as part of a team. There is no fee associated with the Studio, nor will students receive credit. This is a new initiative we are testing this fall and will have limited enrollment. It’s a great opportunity and you can help shape the GC Studio concept.
There are many great programs now around the university for entrepreneurship, design thinking and others. The GC Impact Studio is not meant to duplicate any of those. It is meant to provide an additional support to develop students interested in impact on Grand Challenges.
What’s a Grand Challenge?
The ongoing UMN-wide strategy team is developing a working definition of what is meant by a Grand Challenge for operational purposes. In the meantime, the following serves for our purposes:
- The situation is emergent,
- as a result, there is a constant flow of information to negotiate,
- this means actors are constantly changing their behavior
Emergent in this case means the properties of the situation arise from the interactions of many parts, which in practical terms means you can’t predict it in advance.
The UMN Grand Challenge – Curriculum Sub-committee, which met over the 2014 summer, has a draft report on recommended action. That is not yet approved for release but the following section summarizes much of the objective of the proposed GC Impact Studio: “At both the undergraduate and post-baccalaureate levels, the goal of the Grand Challenges Curriculum is to help students develop a foundational set of knowledge, skills, and values. The focus is on competencies that prepare students to recognize grand challenges, assess possible points of intervention, and take action. These foundational competencies can be applied across a range of potential grand-challenge topics.”
Pilot: Following the process many team members teach in their respective programs, we are using lean startup methods, in this case proposing a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) to test basic assumptions. We propose to pilot the GC Impact Studio for students from various programs around the UMN.
What are the assumptions and hypotheses we want to validate with this MVP?
- We hypothesize that a co-curricular studio environment can deliver and develop GC skills in students.
- We hypothesize the Impact Studio can accelerate student led ventures focused on Grand Challenges.
- We assume students will attend (what is the right mix of location, time, etc.):
- We test the right program mix (skill building, mentoring, team interactions)
- There are multiple options for working with students: for-credit classes, extra-curricular, student organization, grad/undergrad, post-graduation. This is a focus on co-curricular.
- Mixing impact ventures, traditional for-profit, non-profit, policy ventures together will work in one studio.
What happens in the studio?
The studio will provide students a place to:
- Work with mentors from inside and outside the university, who have expertise valuable to startup teams
- Work with other students working on similar challenges
- Connect with a network
- Spend focused time on your plan
- Learn skills (presenting, design thinking, funding strategies, etc.)
There will be external and internal UMN mentors in each session. The sessions will follow a general design thinking process of empathy<->design<->ideate<->prototype<->test, over the course of the semester. Again the purpose is to compliment what you are getting in class. It’s more one-on-one time.
The Acara team has delivered more than 10 one-week workshops/classes and 10 semester long courses (which have 3 hour class sessions). During this time, we have developed and used a number of workshop/skill-based sessions, interspersed with one-on-one mentoring. Many of these will form the basis for the sessions. We are not predefining the sessions at this point, except for the first two sessions which will be focused on design thinking.
How is this different from what students may be able to get in other ways or from mentors provided to them? Part of that answer lies in the eligibility. These are not general purpose entrepreneurship focused sessions. Those already exist at the UMN at Carlson and are great. We want to bring in the range of social, environmental, international and Grand Challenge focused ventures. There may be some overlap with other programs but that’s fine. More help for students the better.
 Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009)
We recently returned from our annual Summer Institute course in India. We had 14 UMN students plus 9 other students from India and the US. In pre-departure meetings and during our first few days in India, students asked us questions about aspects of India that appeared illogical to them. Often our response boiled down to, “it’s India”. Over the last three weeks, students began to understand what that phrase meant; by the end of class, the class motto became “This is India.” Or as one of our van drivers said after one of many close calls in Bangalore traffic, “This is the India”.
For the students, and instructors, this class has been an impactful few weeks. There was no protective shell around the students in India. From day one, students were out in the street and in communities, learning first-hand about issues ranging from water (in)access in slums to solid waste challenges in one of India’s fastest growing cities to women’s livelihoods in rural villages. A number of students asked why we didn’t help prepare them for what they did. In a way, we did: There were many reading assignments and discussions prior to leaving Minnesota. But the readings and discussions didn’t sink in until we were on the ground in India, which is precisely why we do classes like this.
During the class, we had the opportunity to work with many of Bangalore’s leading change-making organizations, such as Saahas, SELCO, TIDE, and MyRain, among others. One of the inspiring groups we interfaced with was The Ugly Indian, an anonymous movement of Indians cleaning up cities throughout India. With The Ugly Indian, we spent a morning “spot-fixing” one of Bangalore’s iconic streets, turning a neglected, trash-ridden sidewalk into a pleasant and hygienic public space, while attracting the attention of national publications and the neighborhood at large. It was a chance to be part of a movement that matters and to have fun getting into action with some of Bangalore’s most motivated, and known but unknown, social entrepreneurs.
This was an amazing group of students. Every group or organization we visited commented on the maturity of the students and their insightful questions. The students enthusiastically embraced everything from eating street food to negotiating with auto rickshaw drivers over the right fare. These are not skills that can be taught in a classroom.
These weeks in India are some of the best weeks of the year for me. It’s energizing to be with such passionate and smart young people and see their desire, despite the challenges, to tackle tough problems with their Midwestern grit.
“This is India” please meet “This is Minnesota”.
The 2014 version of the annual Acara Challenge was held Feb 21, 2014 at the lovely McNamara Alumni Center on the East Bank campus. This has been a brutal winter in Minnesota, the coldest in more than 30 years and one of the coldest on record. Of course, Feb 21 was one of the worst weather days of the winter, with 8-10 inches of snow, on top of ice, and cold weather. But we are a hardy bunch in Minnesota and the event went off on schedule. The Challenge was a little different this year. There was an International and a Domestic division, and only teams from the Universityof Minnesota participated. However, the competition was open to any UMN student and we had 11 great teams presenting, seven in the International Division and four in the Domestic Division.
The results of the Challenge, along with the plans and presentations of the teams, are here and listed below. The teams are now enjoying Spring Break. The teams are continuing to work and make progress. Several are planning to go to India, Uganda and Haiti for continued work this summer, as are some of the local teams. Stay tuned for updates.
The January-term course, CE5572/PA5290/ARCH 5550, is for students who want to bring their existing idea for a for profit or nonprofit social venture to fruition or scale. The 2-credit course occurred January 13-17, 2014, on the St. Paul campus. It’s an intensive but fun one week. Students get a chance to focus on their project, without other distractions. There were 14 students this January and most of them will be presenting in the February 21, 2014 Acara Challenge. The idea summaries are below
Help Desk makes beautiful furniture using sustainably-sourced East African hard woods and the profits go to making classroom improvements in under-equipped Ugandan schools.
Sabujawalla addresses the waste issue in India by employing waste pickers to collect waste from households, sort it, and then sell plastics and organic material to scrap dealers and recycling plants.
Skivvies will sell underwear domestically; for every pair sold, a pair will be donated to a young girl in Haiti. This underwear will be one way to help girls discretely manage their periods and therefore allow girls to regularly attend school.
SunFarms will establish small centers in rural communities to purchase and dry fruits and vegetables close to where they are produced, thereby decreasing food spoilage and increase farmer profits in rural India.
Tech-share will teach rural Ugandan students how to use computers through a mobile computer laboratory with the help of computer engineering students and staff from Mbarara University in western Uganda.
Women for Water
Women for Water recruits women from low-income families in Bangalore, India to go to their friends, families, and neighbors to give educational presentations and promote and sell water treatment technologies.
CollegeCredit plans to deliver well-designed, youthful, engaging online financial literacy courses and proprietary tools through partnerships with colleges and universities. This puts information directly into students’ hands, encouraging them to make decisions while still in college that will improve their financial situations.
Yellow Mellow’s product will change the chemical environment of the toilet so that consumers can forego flushing often.
PowerToGo provides a mobile phone charging solution through a network of portable power sources to keep busy customers conveniently connected to our modern world.
Co-Lab is a co-working space at Carlson for UMN students.
After spending the last year in rural India building the MyRain business he co-founded, Steele Lorenz (BS ’10), and his partner Paula Uniacke, were ready for some comfort snack food. So when I asked him if he wanted anything from the US before I left, he gave me a list that included items like Little Debby cookies and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I learned on the trip over to India that Little Debbie cookies caused TSA more problems than anything else I have ever carried onto an airplane. They seem to be impenetrable to x-rays. But the job Steele has done starting MyRain the past year deserves a whole shipping container of cookies.
One year ago this week, I picked up Steele at the airport in Bangalore, his first time in India. He and his co-founder, Sri Latha Ganti (MS ’11), had been working on the MyRain plan for the past two years since the Acara Challenge, identifying partners, angel investors and a CFO and refining the business plan. In spring 2012, Steele decided he was ready to launch, quit his consulting job in Minnesota where he had been for two years since graduating with a business degree from Carlson, and moved to Madurai in the extreme south of India.
Before moving to Madurai, MyRain aimed to sell drip irrigation to farmers. Drip irrigation was being manufactured in India but still many farmers didn’t have access to it due to the rural supply chain gap for farm technologies. And even though the team had piloted the venture idea in Summer 2011, the plan was still full of untested assumptions. Upon moving to India and after early growing pains, MyRain has begun to realize their vision. Steele has established a strong sales team and a network of dealers and retailers. They are now selling drip irrigation and other innovative farm technologies, such as seeders, weeders, sprinklers, post-harvest processing devices and sugar cane thrashers, that can enhance farmers’ livelihoods while improving environmental conditions.
Steele’s tale of his first year is one that defines entrepreneurship. Many months of hard work, a crash course in doing business in India, and a great deal of frustration. For Steele, being in a developing country half-way around the world, not speaking the local language, and being far away from his US support network, made these challenges all the more acute. The hard work and perseverance have paid off, though, with a few big breaks. Steele’s first break came when, after a few unsuccessful hires, he found a great operations manager in Manikandan. Having a local manager on board, and one with sales and marketing experience working in a Western business environment, was a huge step and allowed MyRain to make great strides in defining its value statement and market approach. The second was in finding a good manufacturing partner in KSNM, again after some earlier unsuccessful attempts at partnering with other companies.
Since February MyRain’s progress and growth have been explosive! Here are a couple of highlights from 2013 so far:
- MyRain has delivered more than 2 tons of drip irrigation laterals this year and is paced to exceed 1 ton in sales per month by December 2013.
- Since the beginning of the 2013, MyRain has had strong sales growth – 20% to 30% increases per month, every month.
- To continue the pace of their rapid expansion and take advantage of strong demand in the fourth quarter of 2013, MyRain is looking to hire 2-3 new sales people this summer, which will double the size of the team in Madurai.
I saw enough ventures grow in my time working during the Indian globalization craze last decade to recognize the characteristics of the hyper-growth ones. MyRain has all those characteristics. The most important are a smart, passionate team, and a dynamic, tireless leader in Steele.
So what is the relevance of all this to Acara, IonE, the University of Minnesota, and the State of Minnesota? Why should we care about small-plot farmers in India? There are several ways to answer that:
- Acara’s impact as a UMN environmental entrepreneurship program comes not only through teaching students, but also through the passionate venture teams like MyRain that go on to make a positive global impact by launching real ventures. We can’t wait to see what they achieve in the next year!
- IonE is not just about research and outreach, but also about developing real solutions to problems like environmental change, which can have huge implications for small farmers. We must also use our skills and resources to help farmers in the US and globally manage and adapt to changing climate conditions. MyRain is working to ensure products and knowledge are available to farmers to enhance resource efficiency, improve crop yields, and therefore livelihoods.
- Kate Brauman, IonE Fellow, recently led a study evaluating how crop water productivity — the amount of crop produced per drop of water used — varies across the globe. India is highly water inefficient per unit of crop grown. Drip irrigation is one way to help improve efficiency of agricultural inputs and thus sustainability of farming practices. But with many more farms in the State of Tamil Nadu alone than in all of the US (over 8 million vs. 2.2 million) many farmers don’t have access to products. MyRain is working on improving the distribution system. Although Steele and his team can’t serve all those farmers, every big change starts from an idea and a passionate group of skilled individuals.
- It’s part of the university’s land grant mission of research, education and outreach to support agriculture. This mission has served MN farmers well, along with farmers around the world. The world is so interconnected now. MN interests are global, and events in other countries can impact us in many ways.
- In addition to MyRain’s product sales in India, they are also working as consultants with Minnesota businesses to examine market entry for innovative technologies in rural India. While MyRain’s current operations are in India, there are scale mechanisms that can happen at its MN office, along with jobs in the US that can come as MyRain grows.
So there are plenty of big picture reasons for doing this. Steele and Sri are both recent graduates of Minnesota. Our job here at the university is to develop new leaders for the world.
No, Steele has nothing to be ashamed of.