TOP STARS – innovaTion challenge fOr PhD STudents And ReSearchers

The TOP STARS 2017 Winter School is part of the innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) education component of the EIT RawMaterials, primarily open to PhD students and young researchers. TOP STARS draws upon the experience of other schools and pilot projects proposed by the EIT Community to offer PhD students unique hands-on learning experience. With respect to traditional schools, TOP STARS combined focus-lectures of academics and practitioners with teamwork, field and usability tests, customer validation activities, field visits and socializing events. The focus was on providing the soft skill needed to transform the technical capacities of the students into business seeds to channel into an incubation phase.

During the Winter School 2017, students were confronted with and mentored by the participating stakeholders (SMEs and start-ups as well as academics) to consider the sustainability and relevance of their ideas. They worked hard to prepare a business idea to pitch in front of the companies. The course emphasized multidisciplinarity and drew attention to specific components related to the conceptualization of usability, technical and marketing planning, and business realization of an idea.

TOP STARS school for future T-shaped professionals

The project contributed to the formation of potential new innovators. Changing the mind of a student that has been formed for a few years in academia with scarce or no contact with companies is an important step. T-shaped professionals that are able to interact with professionals is the requirement from the companies and this is what we have obtained. This de-siloing activity should be introduced in the career of Master and PhD students, especially those closer to their end of studies, to favour the match between the job market and high education. The model of the school has been also proposed as a possible framework to an integrated summer school for the EIT labelled Master programs but can be easily adapted to the PhD programs as well as transferred to other EIT Innovation Communities.

Creating awareness and contributing to business-oriented thinking, can lead to faster innovation not just in the Raw Materials but also in other sectors with clear benefits for the whole society. TOP STARS project provides various tools for the EU students in the Raw Materials sector to excel. Currently, one of the participants of TOP STARS 2017 Winter School, Alessio Bucciarelli, is working in collaboration with the tutors from the school to translate his initial idea into a start-up company. His team Flash Fric presented a project to reduce the environmental impact of brake pads by removing copper and reducing the energy needed to prepare the final product and won “Frenotecnica Challenge Award”. This aspect leads to a decrease in the cost of a single pad as well as a 42% reduction in CO2 emissions.

TOP STARS school raised awareness and contributed to disseminate the EIT RawMaterials Innovation Community ideas to 54 students, ranging from Master students to young researchers, and two SMEs (Frenotecnica and La Galvanica Trentina). Three novel business ideas, out of ten developed, were given a pre-incubation grant by the University of Trento and the HIT (Hub Innovazione Trentino) Innovation Hub. One of these seeds is starting to move.

Besides the potential of attracting young talents, confirmed and enhanced in the 2018 edition of the initiative, what is unique about this school is the new methodology proposed to get the students closer to the companies. TOP STARS shows that a common language is a basis for teamwork and that diversity, often seen as a limitation, is the key to success. The initiative showed the companies a different tool to promote innovation and to find new talents. It is a way to promote fast learning and exploitation of all sides of the knowledge triangle through a learn-by-doing approach.

I have been working for ten days with people from all of Europe and from many other universities. All of us had different backgrounds, but it helped us to improve our proposal to the business model and also how to develop it in technical solution.
Natalia Kowalska, PhD, AGH University of Science and Technologies in Krakow
Everyone gave their ideas, everyone was eager to listen to each other, having different backgrounds added a lot to finish all the projects with great success.
Dimitrios Sparis, PhD, National Technical University of Athens
It was a very interesting experience for me as a teacher and as an engineer to see young researchers develop their skills in such a creative, constructive, multicultural and multidisciplinary way.
Katerina Adam, Lecturer and Senior Environmental Consultant, National Technical University of Athens
I met great people, I met great professors, I have established absolutely great contacts with fellow academics. To take part in this Winter School exposes you to a lot of things that are unimaginable in terms of research, innovation and commercialisation.
Onuh Adole, Research Assistant, Brunel University London
The school was a perfect mix between a technical part and an entrepreneurial part. The technical courses were specifically designed to address the problem in a wide way, and then in the business class I learned how to make a business plan, how the markets work and how to move from an idea to something real from the industrial point of view. Immediately I started to create contacts with students from all over the world, we worked together, and we shared plenty of time in a constructive environment. The people that I met, are still in touch with me, we became more than colleagues we became friends.
Alessio Bucciarelli, PhD, University of Trento
For about two weeks, we worked in teams to identify a technical solution and develop it into a business proposal. The winter school introduces us to entrepreneurial thinking and behaviour, business and innovation processes, high-tech ventures marketing, and business model generation techniques.
Kyriaki Tsichla, PhD, National Technical University of Athens
TOP STARS school is multidisciplinary, for the varied of the dealt topics; multicultural, for the people with different background, cultures and ages; multi-experienced, for the variety of organised activities; multi-roles, for the different roles to cover in the project, from the leader to the spokesperson. The lectures cover not only circular economy and raw materials (from different perspectives) but also business and economics and presentation skills.
Martina Orefice, PhD, KU Leuven

Connecting business, research and education to introduce innovative education approach that enables skills and talent development

Thanks to the support of EIT RawMaterials, the students were fully sponsored to attend the school. This levels the expectations and encourages the confrontation between the students that feel like interacting with peers. Indirect support came also from another education project supported by EIT RawMaterials. The Risk & Race board game, developed by VITO as a part of the education project funded by EIT RawMaterials, was employed in the team-building phase not just to favour the aggregation of the teams, but also to teach them concepts of the circular economy and business, as well as to strengthen their thinking in term of the whole value chain.

Furthermore, TOP STARS is an example of full integration of the knowledge triangle. The Universities involved (University of Trento, KU Leuven and National Technical University of Athens) closely collaborated with Hub Innovazione Trentino (research, innovation and business partner) and with the local SMEs (Frenotecnica and La Galvanica Trentina) to provide background, environment, know-how and mentoring for this hands-on exercise. The students understand the need to view an idea from different perspectives: from the technical one to guarantee a true innovation, from the business one to guarantee the possibility of making money out of it, from the market one to guarantee that the product finds the customers and vice versa, and from the research one, to improve the product and keep the position in the market.

Members of the TOP STARS education project consortium:

  • Università degli Studi di Trento, Italy (Lead Partner)
  • Hub Innovazione Trentino S.c.a.r.l. (HIT), Italy
  • Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium
  • Marangoni S.p.A., Italy
  • National Technical University of Athens, Greece