Students from the Munich University of Technology (TUM) develop innovative ideas and business strategies.
”The Spring School sponsored by UnternehmerTUM at the Technical University of Munich offers selected students the opportunity to gain experience working in creative and interdisciplinary teams to generate business models and plans for tackling industrial problems from actual practice — and all this during their studies. The Spring School therefore offers us as an industrial company an excellent chance to have a creative and interdisciplinary team working out interesting ideas for a problem set by us, within the short period of only two weeks. In particular, the students’ detachment from the task set, and the highly mixed range of specialties in the teams, created an interesting perspective leading to very interesting ideas, some of which were quite unusual. ALTANA therefore supports the Spring School 2010 as both partner and sponsor. The project presented here, ‘Thermoplastic Elastomers as a Substitute for PVC,’ from the ACTEGA division was financed through the ALTANA R&D Fund, with the aim not only of an educational benefit for the students but also a concrete advantage for the company, due to this ‘open innovation’ approach.“
Dr. Georg F. L. Wießmeier, Chief Technology Officer ALTANA AG
This year’s Spring School sponsored by Unternehmer- TUM, the Center for Innovation and Business Creation at the Munich University of Technology (and a play on words translating roughly into “entrepreneurship” in English), was held from February 22 to March 5 and attracted 30 students from 17 nations. At the Spring School — an interdisciplinary seminar conducted in English in a creative atmosphere — students work in small groups to develop new business ideas and subsequently produce prototypes addressing specific problems. The problems are put forward by industrial companies collaborating with the TUM; this year the task was set by ALTANA — or to be more precise, by ACTEGA DS.
The Spring School participants — all students of chemistry, materials science or design — were asked to find new applications for thermoplastic elastomers (TPE), e.g. as a substitute for PVC. Working in interdisciplinary teams, the students generated innovative ideas and then developed them further into prototypes and a business plan. On the last day of the Spring School, six teams presented their business ideas and prototypes to Dr. Peter Jenkner (CTO ACTEGA), Wilfried Lassek (Managing Director ACTEGA DS) und Dr. Rüdiger Wittenberg (Head of R&D, ACTEGA DS).
The results were encouraging: two of the six business ideas put forward by the students hold the potential for direct implementation at ACTEGA DS. And two of the remaining four ideas offer the teams opportunities for displaying entrepreneurial initiative in realizing them.
In the future TPE could be used, for example, as a starting material for 3D printing or to manufacture grips for heavy bags; these grips would protect the shopper’s fingers and hands and serve as a substrate for advertising at the same time. The teams used TPE to develop an ergonomic coating for the drive wheels of wheel chairs and a teething ring for infants — an innovative product meeting several requirements by using various different materials. Another intriguing product idea was an elastic TPE belt with built-in LEDs to make jogging or riding a bicycle in the dark safer. An idea that met with particular enthusiasm was the “E-Bag”— an antibacterial TPE foil that expands to form a container that can be used, for example, to hold clean and microbiologically safe drinking water in regions hit by catastrophes.
At the start of the seminar, the material properties of thermoplastic elastomers were explained by Dr. Rüdiger Wittenberg. It was then up to the students to come up with innovative ideas, via brainstorming, for new applications outside the food and beverage industry while keeping the technical requirements and framework conditions in mind. Far more than 100 ideas were developed and collected in this way. The ideas also served as the basis for setting up the teams. En route to the production of prototypes, the students were exposed to elements taken from a typical marketing syllabus (e.g. customer benefits, analysis of the market and competitors, observations, interviews, marketing, etc.) that can be used in a direct way to generate new ideas for the company. Presentation techniques and “soft skills” were also taught.
Additional professional support was provided when needed by experienced employees of Unternehmer- TUM. After each phase of the group process, the teams had to present their results to the other groups and then accept feedback.
The knowledge and experience gained by the participants at the Spring School lowered the hurdles they will have to overcome when starting up their own companies — and thus laid the foundation for bringing innovative ideas to market maturity. When the Spring School started, only one of the participants had ever written a business plan. Only one week later, half the students were confident they could draw up a business plan for a business startup. By the end of the Spring School, this figure had risen to over 80 percent!
The second week centered on teamwork and prototyping. The participants were enthusiastic about the outstanding opportunities provided by Unternehmer- TUM in the form of workshops and expert personnel who were there to help. “The unique spirit of UnternehmerTUM inspired and strengthened collaboration among the motivated and competent colleagues on the team,” was a typical comment. The participants were confronted with the challenge of having to achieve (literally) presentable results under great time pressure, with only eight workdays allotted for the project. As one student stated at the end of the seminar, “It was nevertheless possible to achieve acceptable and even outstanding results within a short time through teamwork.”
The interdisciplinary approach used showed that “taking an outside view” of a topic within a predefined framework can lead to interesting, high-quality and — most importantly — realistic perspectives on the topic. The method used at the seminar may be a way to tackle previously unsolved problems, assuming that the problem- solving does not require primarily specialized expertise.
For ACTEGA DS the seminar was in any case a unique opportunity to have highly motivated young scientists develop business concepts — for the most part without any reservations — to solve a specific problem. Wilfried Lassek was clearly impressed by the method. After the seminar, he summed up: “Several of the approaches taken are extremely interesting and could actually be implemented in the future. The Spring School thus distinctly exceeded our expectations. Right now we are giving thought to how we can develop the results it generated.”
Dr. Peter K. Jenkner