The 2018 InnoEnergy PhD School Conference – connecting the innovators of tomorrow!

What happens when you gather PhD candidates from all over Europe, connect them with quality mentors and industry experts – and spend an intensive couple of days in Budapest submerged into the innovation process? Pure creative magic.

Opening the event (held the 3-5th of October), EIT Education Officer Marian Belko stressed how the PhD programme is a key priority since its candidates are the drivers of innovation who will help address Europe’s challenges in the energy field. The programme’s mission is to go beyond academia and create a huge network of young leaders. To help each and every one of them to realise their boundless innovative potential. And this begins here, at events such as this one.

Fresh by design

This year’s conference was a big success on many levels, mostly since the content was created by PhD School alumni Ivan Andrić and graduate Madis Talmar. They took a moment to answer some question about the event, and it was clear that these two have a comfortable ease that comes from years of great collaboration together. Ivan shares, “It seemed natural to want to give back to the programme in this way. We understand the perspective of the candidates having been there ourselves, so we know what would be fun and engaging for them.” Madis adds, “Each part of the event was carefully chosen to highlight some of the things InnoEnergy programmes have to offer them on top of the technical knowledge, as well as some deeper topics that we felt were important. The CommUnity, dealing with stress, sharing their victories and struggles, collaborating with their peers, how to pitch to an actual business angel, and solving real-life industry challenges – all of these things are a value-add on top of the co-creation experience.”

Hands-on approach

Participants had a chance to get very creative in a Lego Serious Play session, using play as a methodology to solve the challenges put before them by industry experts from Deltares  (dealing with aquathermics and how the water system can heat and cool Europe) and Iberdrola (finding smart solutions for the residential sector of an actual developing city). Also, the Better Future Factory offered an industrial design session to tackle plastic waste by understanding the user first to find the right solution, and then using the tools/materials that a local workshop would have access to. Ivan says, “The content was meant to put them in this creative environment, without it being too technical, so that they can innovate outside of their comfort zone.” And innovate they did! The chance to stimulate not only their minds but have this tactile experience was fun and eye-opening, as they co-created solutions with real-world applications.

Connection to industry

One of the most important aspects of the event (and the programme!) is the connection to industry. As Madis put it, “Using real-life challenges is much more engaging than using a simulated problem. When it’s real, the participants get this added element of emotional connection. These are problems that affect real people, and it’s motivating and rewarding to work on something that could potentially result in an actual solution.” The industry partners and experts on hand also enjoyed the experience. Timo Kroon and Ronaldo Roosjen from Deltares explain, “It’s fun to watch them take the large challenges that we deal with and then break them down to their essence by using Legos. It allows us to see things from a totally different perspective. And being in the water industry, we can’t ignore the transition in the energy sector and the activities within the energy industry (since water is used for energy). We need to bring them together. This is why we’ve done this event, to bring our industry and our challenges to these PhDs from all different technical backgrounds and competencies – and being on the forefront of innovation, so we can get this dialogue started.” Ana González from Iberdrola said, “It’s very beneficial to work with InnoEnergy so we can get in contact with these future innovators and attract talent. It’s fun to watch and also fruitful to have so many different points of view and watch them collaborate. You never know what useful thing will come out of these sessions.”

Connection to peers

Aside from the stimulating teambuilding activities, candidates were able to connect and share through a collective poster session. They were asked to bring a poster to the event that showcases their work from a scientific and future commercial point of view. Madis emphasises that “It’s so important that they share their research projects with each other. This is how you find potential collaborations – because we can do so much more when we work together. This is how Ivan and I met and began working together.” And there’s nothing like a little friendly competition… so on the last day they had their opportunity to shine at the notorious InnoEnergy pitching contest – with a venture capitalist as one of the judges!

Commencement ceremony

A very special evening was planned for the PhD graduates, with candidates and supportive PhD school faculty present for the honorary ceremony. Isabella Schuster, the InnoEnergy Education Director, confirmed that this is the best moment in their jobs, which you could see by all the proud faces. As each graduate received their EIT label certificate, they shared what their time in the programme has meant to them. They spoke of how the balancing act to manage both their regular PhD studies and the InnoEnergy courses was challenging, but well worth it. It was clear how pleased they are with their accomplishment so far – and how they know that the knowledge, skills and contacts gained from the programme are going to be invaluable as these entrepreneurs go on to shape the future of the energy industry. In the spirit of the beautiful ceremony setting, overlooking the night skyline of Budapest, graduate Khadija Benis described the programme perfectly, “It has been like a goulash. You think you know what to expect, but then you find all these wonderful and surprising bits inside.” The applause and laughter showed that her spontaneous metaphor had really captured the experience!