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Students pitch good ideas for the business community

60 companies with very different innovation challenges, 190 students with super-quick brains, and a group exam for the Applied Innovation in Engineering course. This was the recipe for a massive crop of ideas when upcoming engineering MSc’s from Aarhus University pitched their proposals for solutions to enthusiastic representatives from the business community.

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Happy students after a successful pitch with goodie bags sponsored by The Kitchen. In the photo: Martin Lilleholt Frederiksen, Nicklas Vraa and Anja Plörer. (Photo: Martin Gravgaard)
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How do you implement more efficient waste separation at rock festivals? Is it possible to build a heavily armoured military vehicle that is also very fast? Is whey a key ingredient in future nutrition for infants? And is it possible to design a mattress that prevents patients from getting bedsores?

These are just some of the issues that students from Aarhus University had been working on during the Applied Innovation in Engineering course up to the big pitch event at Savværket in Højbjerg on Tuesday 9 May.

No ideas left to gather dust

The companies present include Velux, Terma, Danfos, Grundfos, Arla Foods and Lego. They are eager to hear the students pitch their best solutions, and there is no way the ideas will be left to gather dust after the big event.

Annette Skyt, an innovation specialist at Terma, is one of the many company representatives, and she is impressed with the students' work.

"Their proposal is visionary, and they have their evidence in place. I definitely think they can inspire us in our future work, and I'm thinking about inviting them to meet our engineering team. Young people think differently because they’re not restricted by the conventional thinking, and this is extremely valuable," she says.

The students behind Terma’s casework have developed a design proposal for transportable radar and sensor equipment based on modules for cooling, heating, power supply, etc.

"It’s not as if there’s no difference between taking equipment to Arctic coasts or to the Sahara, and our point of departure was that we wanted to develop a flexible modular option that is easy to transport and adapt to the specific surroundings," says Martin Lilleholt Frederiksen, who is studying for an MScEng in computer engineering at Aarhus University.

His study partner, Nicklas Vraa, also talks about some of the many ideas they discarded during their idea-development process:

"There’s been a lot of ideas on the table. We even considered making an intelligent backpack for polar bears, which could transport devices in environments with low temperatures. However, that idea was quickly discarded when we started sorting out ideas according to how realistic they would be to implement."

Conventional thinking challenged

Jørgen Faurholt is a specialist in welfare technology at the City of Aarhus, and he walks around listening to the students' proposals while asking more detailed and critical questions about the technologies and solutions they are offering. What does it cost to manufacture? How durable is it? Have they conducted any user tests? And just as he challenges the students, the students challenge him, as he explains:

"I’m here to have my conventional thinking challenged and to get some inspiration," he says. However, he does not expect to come across anything totally brilliant.

"The students have had a very short time, so I don't think it's realistic."

He is particularly interested in a group of students with an idea for a kind of suction cup. The cup will help elderly people grip their hearing aids and fit them in their ear. This can be a difficult if your fine motor coordination is not what it was, or if your hands are shaking.

"The idea is good enough, but the students should probably have prioritised observing a couple of elderly people actually fitting their hearing aids as one of the first parts of their innovation process," says Jørgen Faurholt.

Sick chickens, edible beer mugs and potatoes in asphalt

At the other end of the room, a group of students are gathered around a visualization of a chicken farm. There is a robot with intelligent “ears” that can detect whether a chicken is sick using sound recognition.

"Sick chickens can spread disease, so we want to identify them quickly and remove them. This is currently done manually, so we’ve been working with an idea to build technology into the monitoring systems at farms and to automate isolating the sick birds," says Amalie Elfving, who is studying for an MScEng in biological and chemical engineering. 

Just next door is a group of students who have been working with a different type of robot. This robot is to move around among the audience at rock festivals and collect recyclable beer mugs.

"I think that Grøn Festival, who gave us the case, probably thought that we’d come up with a proposal for some sort of intelligent dustbin. But we’ve all got very different engineering skills, and therefore we worked with ideas for edible mugs and robots that can go around on the festival site and collect rubbish," says Eva Mattesen, who is also studying for an MScEng in chemical engineering and biotechnology.

These are just a few of the ideas filling Savværket in Højbjerg during the day. On a table is a bag of potato flour. The sign reads that 1,675 tonnes of potatoes go through the production facility at KMC in Brande very year. The cellulose fibres from this production are a residual product that is currently thrown away. But could it be useful? Perhaps.

And perhaps the answer is that the fibres can be used to mix in asphalt, so that in the future we can build roads much more sustainably. Who knows?

Because all innovation starts with a good idea, explains Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen, head of the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University:

"The purpose of the course and this event is to teach students to work across their engineering disciplines and to open up for ideas and wild thoughts."

Applied Innovation in Engineering is a cross-disciplinary course with five ECTS credits. All engineering students on their 9th semester work together to find specific innovation proposals that the companies are looking for.