What can entrepreneurs learn from particle physics researchers?

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe’s organization for nuclear research and one of the biggest scientific infrastructures in the world, has been looking for answers to the most complex questions on physics research for years. The creation of antihydrogen atoms and confirming the existence of the Higgs boson are some of the most famous achievements by their researchers.

This kind of research, looking for answers nobody has obtained before, requires a lot of creativity and innovation, something the teams at CERN are experts at. But, is it possible to apply this creative mindset and innovation tools to solving some of the most pressing issues for humanity, like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic?

The answer is yes, thanks to tens of students from Esade, IED Barcelona and UPC, including 19 different nationalities, that every year visit CERN in Geneva to participate in Challenge-Based Innovation (CBI), a programme organised by @IdeaSquare and the Innovation Department at CERN to encourage multidisciplinary teams of students to work together with researchers and teachers from different entities on new solutions for the future of humanity.

The idea of the project is to encourage students to innovate and learn from the researchers at CERN, promoting in them a creative mindset and the confidence to “tackle real societal challenges”, as stated by Kyriaki Papageorgiou, CBI 2020 academic leader and research director at Esade Fusion Point, while learning entrepreneurial skills.

Entrepreneurs at CERN
The project encourages students to innovate and learn from the researchers at CERN (Photo: Esade)

These skills—working in a multidisciplinary team, developing critical thinking and getting hands-on experience to make their ideas real through prototyping and testing—are essential for today’s students. Living the experiences first-hand lets them learn while developing projects that might evolve into innovation initiatives, start-ups or simply exceptional learning journeys.

“It was obvious that in the 2020 edition we should address the palpable challenges set or accelerated by Covid, which are many and variable!”, explains Papageorgiou. “In an effort to enhance the students’ innovation efforts, considering the overall precarious or unusual environment caused by Covid within which the course would take place, we thought it would be better (and also interesting!) to choose challenges that our students could relate to at a personal level”.

The 2020 CBI offered the students four challenges related to daily-life experiences: the ways in which we currently work, how we learn, how we navigate through our cities, and the plethora of information (or infodemic) at our disposal about the pandemic.

As the challenges offered to the students were lived and personal, the results of the 7th edition are more tangible and closer to the market than previously. The business, design and technological aspects of the projects and their potential impact were praised by the audience during the final presentations, which showcased projects aiming to replace large metro or tram carriages with self-driving pods and creating a semi-autonomous, micro-mobility solution for people over the age of 65, both in the area of urban mobility.

CERN Atlas project
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Students that focused on the jobs of the future developed a system for assessing motivation during company presentations, classes and video conferences and an app designed to help employees bond with their company and help hybrid teams working from home remain motivated, while teams working on education and learning issues proposed a program that adds video to calls to facilitate communication with autistic persons and an intelligent classroom assistant created in response to the need for an effective new system to encourage project-based self-learning.

Finally, CBI teams aiming to tackle fake news and misinformation presented a plug-in to confirm the content of social media posts on the basis of user interaction, and a videogame for children aged 8 to 12 that aims to underline the importance of confirming information to avoid fake news.

“The challenge now is to encourage the students to realise the full potential of their efforts”, states Papageorgiou, recalling that some of the projects developed during previous editions of the CBI continued to develop after the end of the challenge, such as a project developing a rental bike guidance system, which proposes alternative routes based on the pollution in the city using pollution data models, still going on at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center.

Research at CERN has offered many answers for humanity and some innovations that have changed our world, such as the World Wide Web protocols, which gave birth to the Internet as we know it. All these have been the product of creativity and entrepreneurship, skills that must be transferred to the future generations in order to grant them the opportunity to make the world a better place.

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