In the Golden century, Antwerp experienced an economic boom. The city was expanding, new defence lines and port facilities were being established. Antwerp had become the most important trading and financial centre in Western Europe, attracting craftsman and merchants from all over the continent. The rise of the merchant activities gave a push to the emergence of a middle class. Fast forward several centuries, Antwerp is now dealing with reverse processes, urban flight and urban decay as the middle class is leaving the city. This year the city administration is addressing these challenges in the renewal of the structure plan. 'Antwerp of tomorrow' is a lively cooperating city, a place with a rich archaeological heritage and an outlook for innovation. The Antwerp municipality is constantly seeking for new ideas and projects making the city a more sustainable space, where economy and ecology reinforce each other.
This March, the crew of “Energy for Smart Cities” students (including yours truly) spent a week in Antwerp taking on challenges posed by Innoenergy partner-companies. The location of the session had a special meaning as many of the partners, including the municipality, were based within the city. Therefore, students could meet face to face with company representatives and get more insight on the challenges. Likewise, the city's long running history of entrepreneurship, urban development policy and energy renovation served as inspiration.
The first afternoon was reserved for a city quest. Teams could rent bikes and cruise the city far and wide. Alternatively, people could go on a walk and enjoy a nice promenade in the streets of Antwerp. Cozy pedestrian areas, endless café-filled cobbled lanes, remarkable pieces of street art, quaint architecture and ubiquitous renovation developments make every memory of this place a near-perfect tourist advertisement.
During the week everyone attended a series of workshops. These were intended to provide students with the tools to advance in promoting the solution to companies’ challenges, students were facing during the week. On Monday the workweek kicked off at a Business Model Innovation workshop given by Philippe Martens, an expert from Antwerp Management School. In the workshop Philippe presented a technique for brainstorming business models – the value proposition canvas. For inspiration, teams browsed through a deck of cards explaining every business model option that has already been tried and tested by industry benchmark companies. These tools provided a clearer vision over the diversity of possible revenue streams and funding models. Furthermore, the follow-up discussion within teams granted an opportunity to exchange ideas and sync their respective visions for the final product.
The next day passed under the flag of blockchain. If you don’t know how exciting the prospects of implementing blockchain are when learning about it for the first time, then you should definitely free up some time to put some research into it. Jean-Luc Verhelst, a published author and an advising member of the EU Blockchain Forum, gave a brilliant introduction to the workings of the distributed ledger technology and explained the key elements like hashing and timestamps. He also covered current use cases, giving special attention to cryptocurrency and smart contract functionality. For applications of Blockchain, the sky’s the limit, as the technology is young and versatile. There is plenty of room for creativity, options are limitless and yet in line for trial-and-error search. Naturally, after the lecture, the teams came up with many ways to integrate blockchain in their projects.
In the middle of the journey, on Wednesday, everyone learnt more about designing and prototyping apps. Main takeaway – don’t overdo the visuals, the prototype has to be quick and dirty. People are less likely to be critical of work that you have clearly put a lot effort into. Not to mention, the app prototype does not have to be digital, a paper sketch of the interface would do just fine. The key resource is time, and drawing on paper often happens to be more efficient. Robin De Croon, who supervised the event, specialises in visualising tools used in healthcare. He showcased the existing collaborative interface design tools and explained how prototype testing is organised. After the briefing was over, everyone got to make a paper prototype, drawing up all relevant screens and elements of the prototype in order to show all screens and states of a potential user journey.
Thursday arrived and so did the lecture on intellectual property. Daniel Closa from European Patent Office kindly consulted the students about patent procedures and the advantages patents may bring to one’s project. The topic is definitely very complex and nuanced, one lecture may not be sufficient for what the entire academic degrees have in scope. Daniel yet managed to give a good overview of different forms of intellectual property. The key insight is that despite long procedures, bureaucracy and extra costs, patents are the main way to defend against competitors replicas. Although trade secrets may seem the way to go, Daniel claimed that it can be tricky. In case of trial, trade secrets may have to be revealed on request of the investigator. He referred to the/aTesla self-driving car accident as an example.
The final day was set aside for a pitch competition. Diamond polish, rehearsal and then, five minutes of fame in front of audience and a jury. The professional jury consisted of people who gave workshops in the course of the Innovation Journey plus invited experts from KU Leuven, IMEC and partner companies. The event concluded with an awards ceremony and a free bar to underpin the hard work.
You might be wondering over the content of the teams’ challenges and the corresponding solutions. Here is a brief roundup of the three groups whose ideas won the podium according to the jury. The descriptions of the teams are gathered from author’s personal impression, there is no guarantee, they would be 100% accurate.
The VIL team, placed third, was looking at the solutions for an ideal logistic model for distribution of goods. Taking Antwerp for a point of reference, the team proposed to set up storage and distributions hubs in the periphery of the city to intercept incoming cargo traffic, utilise existing metro system and abandoned tunnels as well as construct new ones where feasible, and incorporate the network of food delivery couriers for last-mile parcel delivery.
Proud runner up – team Condugo. After consulting with several PhD students and people from the industry, they had to reformulate the initial idea shifting the market from large manufacturers to small businesses like chocolate shops. The innovation is monitoring the day-ahead electricity prices and demand patterns to advise optimal production hours and volume. Great effort in researching the market,a bright presentation and the jury’s appreciation of chocolate launched this team onto the second place.
The winner of the Innovation Journey was team BB. The idea was to create a marketplace for used construction materials. Keeping the products in circulation through smart reuse would strengthen a circular economy and minimise the environmental impact of new construction sites. The challenge was brought by a consultancy agency, Bureau Bouwtechniek. A clear business plan and superb market knowledge granted these guys the top spot!
As one of the jury members pointed out, they were looking for projects with a potential to make an impact. There needs to be a real problem that the project realistically can solve. To a big extent, the Innovation Journey, was designed to give first-year students of the program soft skills, techniques and tools to be future entrepreneurs and gamechangers. Yet to make such impact more plausible, our common goal should be to make group work more consistent, motivating and engaging for every team member.
The current format results in three single weeks of intense team work and follow-up work on filling in sections of a white paper document after every session. At the same time, the reports determine the grade of students only from KU Leuven, roughly 1/3 of all participants. Furthermore, after the project week is over, the distance can become an obstacle to a fruitful discussion, meaning not only the disability to have physical meetings, but also a discrepancy in university and exam schedules. Therefore, a lack of motivation and coordination between team members after bootcamp weeks is something that needs to be addressed in the subsequent editions of Innovation Journey. The bootcamps are great for team building and achieving results in a short time window. However, the concern is that the white paper, serving the main KPI of the group, are due to be written when the bootcamp is over, so everyone divides the sections and work individually. Thus, the final product may not be representative of every team member’s contribution. Furthermore, in the course of the journey, the core business idea evolves quite randomly, so the parts of the white paper done previously become outdated, reviewed and sometimes, written again from scratch. All of these factors may affect the success rate of the projects growing out of the programme, as well as general enthusiasm about a thing as exciting as entrepreneurship.
Next event coming up is a bootcamp week in Amsterdam in July. The big reveal. The week in Amsterdam sees the students apply the final touch to their business plan and prototypes. A jury of experts drawn from companies who provided the challenges will pick the most successful project. And we will be looking forward to find out what new exciting ideas will emerge and which teams will move on with their entrepreneurship journey and make an impact with their startup!