Academia reaches out into wider world: Problem-solving is a key part of innovation. Some of the most creative solutions are sparked in real contexts
Karlin Lillington. Irish Times [Dublin] 17 Oct 2013: 4.

A university should be part of its broader community.

That conviction has led Prof Suzi Jarvis, head of UCD’s Innovation Academy, to launch a new Rural Entrepreneurship Programme aimed at helping those outside Ireland’s cities develop initiatives that can bring employment and sustainability to their locale.

“Agriculture is still commodity-based in Ireland. The value there is going to someone else,” says Jarvis.

In the UK, she notes, 31 per cent of farm enterprises have diversified into new areas, whereas only 2 per cent have in Ireland. And Ireland remains predominantly rural, with over 70 per cent of the population living in rural areas, compared to an EU average of 22 per cent, or just 7 per cent for Switzerland.

Given that this is the case, an obvious area for entrepreneurial outreach is rural Ireland – at least as important as developing international entrepreneurship programmes at a university, says Jarvis.

The new programme will be run by successful rural entrepreneurs, including Roscommon entrepreneur Brendan Allen of Castlemine farm and Galway’s Ronan Byrne of the Friendly Farmer.

A leap from physics – Jarvis’s background – to rural entrepreneurship might seem quite a journey, but Jarvis sees it all as part of a multidisciplinary approach critical to entrepreneurial thinking.

Her expertise in building atomic force microscopes, which have an application in the biological sciences, led to her own research team crossing the boundaries of engineering, biology and medial science.

Such multidisciplinary interests led to her interest in the original proposal for the Innovation Academy, a programme within the academic Innovation Alliance between TCD, UCD and Queens announced in 2009. Each university has its own academy. Initially intended as a PhD programme for entrepreneurship, UCD’s branch of the Academy, located on the UCD campus in Belfield, has gradually expanded to include programmes for industry professionals, post-doctoral students, undergraduates and unemployed people involved with the national HEA-funded Springboard programme.

From early on in her role, Jarvis – who came to Ireland initially as a Science Foundation Ireland researcher – wondered “what should innovation and entrepreneurship look like in an academic setting”.

Study vs action

Her guiding motto has been that, “Study makes a scholar, action makes an entrepreneur.” She notes, “We steer clear of business skills, and have to highlight the difference between managerial and entrepreneurial thinking.”

To that end, she prefers to get Academy students away from PowerPoint presentations and out into the real world, tasked with accomplishing various one-day tasks as part of a group.

So is it like The Apprentice? She grimaces. Not quite that competitive and unpleasant, she says. The idea is to work productively and learn to think in fresh ways about a problem or an issue, ideally having some fun, too. And there’s no fear of getting axed at the end of the project.

“We try to get them outside their comfort zone,” Jarvis says.

One such project has teams scanning The Irish Times that morning for a topical issue, around which they must implement a business idea by the end of the day.

For example, one team found an article on stay-at-home dads and, by the end of the day, had phoned around sports centres and other places to see what facilities might be available during the day for dads to meet and chat. The result for the team’s presentation was a running website with lists of resources, called Blokes at Home.

She’s also sent the Academy’s PhD students off to primary schools to try to teach creativity to seven year olds.

The thought causes another peel of laughter. Most find their orderly, academic thinking gets turned upside down as the children demonstrate an innate and uninhibited ability to think and do. “The children end up teaching them,” she says with a smile – which is, more or less, the point.

Harvesting energy

Jarvis also has found it productive to mix PhD students with undergraduates in working teams. The PhDs tend to be more thoughtful, while “the undergraduates are very action-focused. They tend to act rather than spend time thinking. So you get action and energy, combined with more thoughtful planning and extensive networks.”

Students at the Academy do five, one-day challenges before being tasked with solving a real problem on a longer-term basis. These projects come from companies and organisations that have an actual problem needing resolution.

Often the partner companies – over a hundred so far – learn as much as the students. Jarvis cites one project in which a biotechnology company wanted to consider ways of preventing its biomedical device from being reused – something they knew was being done illicitly in some places to save costs but had risks for patients.

The company assumed the issue would involve working with UCD towards an engineering solution, but the Academy gave them a team of students without a science or engineering background. The team thought about the issue as a social and behavioural challenge, rather than engineering problem. It proved to be an eye-opener for the company as well as the students, “The company said it completely changed their view of how to work with a university,” Jarvis says, as it saw the value of a cross-disciplinary approach.

The UCD Academy has had 240 students to date through its PhD programme. It has also offered programmes to 40 Erasmus students, 180 Springboard students last year and 355 this year, and a variety of other attendees.

She has tried to bring entrepreneurial thinking to the way the Academy itself is run, too, trying various ideas, some taken from other institutions’ programmes on entrepreneurship and, increasingly, many home-grown, to see how they work.

“A lot of the best things come out of mistakes,” she says. “The programme we’re developing is alive. People who come back three years after taking it, might not even recognise it.”