YES workshop | From PhD to Innovator

DAAD alumni stand at a round table and discuss
© Michael Jordan

Proper promotion of innovative ideas

There is a translation at the core of every science communication. How do I translate my topic to make it publicly tangible? The same mechanism applies to entrepreneurship: only those who can push their business idea to investors in a deft and comprehensible manner can expect to be awarded the funding to enable their start-up. There were recently 20 early career researchers – DAAD scholarship holders, and DAAD alumni and alumnae – who participated in an exclusive two-day workshop in Bonn, where coaches from the ‘Young Entrepreneurs in Science’ project (YES) run by the Falling Walls Foundation taught them strategies and tools to enable them to become successful young entrepreneurs. The participants learned how to transform their own ideas into a specific product, the steps that need to be considered during a potential business start-up and of course how they can condense their vision into a two-minute presentation to share with their target group. 

A partnership between the DAAD and the Falling Walls Foundation has existed for a number of years, but these workshops entitled From PhD to Innovator are comparatively new. ‘We invited the young entrepreneurs in science for the first time in 2022, since we wanted to expand our career promotion services’, explains Heidi Wedel, head of the DAAD Alumni Department. ‘Even last year there was already massive interest in the YES workshop: we had some 130 applications within two days, which meant that we simply couldn’t accept everyone. But this didn’t discourage our scholarship holders and alumni from trying again this time. We therefore once more received significantly more than 100 applications.’ The DAAD was ultimately able to invite 20 interested individuals, some of whom are still receiving funding, although others are alumni who are expediting their career in Germany. The participants also come from a number of nations strewn around the globe: ‘All continents apart from Australia are represented’, Wedel relates. ‘There is also a wide variety of disciplines taking part, engineers, computer scientists as well as a lawyer, a business administrator and a sports scientist. Such diversity is admirable and will also fuel the exchange of information. It helps with completing the workshop tasks and enhances individual networks.’ 

‘We’re being given a new cognitive tool’

The workshop participants also stress these benefits. ‘I find it awesome that we cover such a broad spectrum of nationalities and disciplines’, says Ilia Sannikov from Russia. ‘And we’re simultaneously being given new ideas, a new cognitive tool in relation to ourselves and our academic activity.’ Sannikov is involved in the management of sports events that are both the means and result of sport development, in other words they are just as much an integral part of training as they are its objective. ‘I could envisage starting a business where I advise athletes who often aren’t aware of the legal, political or economic pitfalls’, he says. ‘The problem I face is that I’d have to differentiate myself from all the other service providers in this sector. The workshop taught me how I can more clearly formulate my research approach and ultimately also my skills.’ 

The workshop is in certain respects a lesson in self-knowledge for many participants. ‘It’s often the case in academia that you may be conducting research that involves new findings, yet at the same time you believe yourself incapable of achieving anything within society as a mere individual’, says Pakistani Awais Malik. ‘We’ve learned here in two days how design thinking can be used to transform our research results into a tangible product. I think it’s a shame that this manner of thinking is not imparted at universities and higher education institutions.’ And Tracy Sánchez from Costa Rica sees it in a similar light: ‘We are in principle being given a new cognitive tool and are training another muscle’, says the neuroscientist. ‘I can’t say at the moment whether I might at some point in the future become an entrepreneur, but I have in any case learned a new method of talking about my work. That alone is extremely valuable.’ Kenyan Rose Donnet Odhiambo can also affirm this. ‘As a lawyer, I have to introduce my proposals within the legislative process; and the better I can vindicate my approaches, the greater the chances that they’ll also be implemented.’ 

‘Every form of feedback is a gift’

The true immensity of the challenge in substantiating abstract ideas manifests itself in the so-called pitches. These are situations where the participants present their prototypes. They had previously been divided into groups to define social issues relating to mobility and waste management, and accordingly to devise a compatible product. Their visually appealing, clearly definitive and well presented solutions resulted in great success. A simple colour scheme for packaging, whereby the German system of waste separation could be immediately understood by refugees without German language skills, was discussed at length. ‘Just remember that every form of feedback is a gift’, coach Leonie Bahl had previously said to them. This applies here too: ‘I think it’s a good idea, but would avoid making the connection to refugees – because other people are equally confused’, said one participant. Important advice. Another group had already integrated in-house feedback they’d received from colleagues into their project and had adapted their next steps accordingly. ‘It’s important that you don’t try to defend your product against criticism, but rather to consider whether you can improve it’, Bahl explains. 

Even YES and the DAAD as organisations request feedback at the end of the workshop, and they mainly reap high praise. Some participants wouldn’t have objected in the least if the workshop had been extended for a day or two to enable them to go into things in greater depth or to receive individual feedback. ‘We’ll assimilate all these points and see which of them we can implement’, promises the YES team. Future scholarship holders and alumni may potentially benefit from that in the future – because those participating would like this partnership between the DAAD and the Falling Walls Foundation to continue. 

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