Summer school coach: ‘The group dynamic was extraordinary’

Climate-KIC summer school coach Katherine Foster taught a group of 36 students in Warwick, Berlin and London for five weeks in the summer of 2013.

During that time, she saw students grow in their business confidence, their knowledge of climate change and their practical ability to apply innovative solutions to real world problems.

“We had a really good group dynamic within the first three days,” she said. “It was quite extraordinary.”

Foster worked as a Canadian diplomat for ten years. She brought all this experience into the intense five week Climate-KIC summer school.

Entrepreneurship

One of the biggest forward leaps made by many of Foster’s students was realising that their groundbreaking ideas had to be supported by sound business practice. Several students in the group were highly educated in science and engineering and had very good ideas but were initially less familiar with creating business plans for turning their ideas into reality.

“Many of the students had a social entrepreneur approach and it was difficult for them to adapt their mindset and become business people,” said Foster. “They had to look at the placement of their product or service in the market and be very pragmatic about it. I think that’s the shift we saw.”

Student teams

The students had lectures from entrepreneurs and others working in the climate change and innovation fields. They were then separated off into teams to devise and research their own entrepreneurial idea before drawing up a business plan that included financing, payback periods and exit strategies. It was very new for some of them.

One student who had worked in NGOs and had excelled on several social entrepreneur projects really struggled at the start to change the emphasis in his thinking towards commerce.

Foster (right) at a site visit with her group
Foster (right) at a site visit with her group

“I had to sit down with him and say no, your project right now is about making profit,” Foster recalled. “It really caused a personal crisis but he came to terms with it. They had to be very pragmatic and to find a business plan as well as the funding to bring their idea to market.”

Innovations

The student that Foster had to sit down with went on to develop a professional-level business proposal that is now being taken forward beyond the summer school. 

Several of the business proposals that the students developed came from the lectures, demonstrations and workshops they attended as part of the summer school.

One demonstration at a photovoltaics laboratory not only taught the student how solar panels work, but also the technical constraints of solar panels such as size and shape, and how to find answers to questions about the feasibility of their solar panel ideas.

 

It was just supposed to be an exercise, but those utilities walked away with some very viable solutions

Lectures

Another helpful session was a lecture from the chairman of Climate-KIC’s Governing Board, Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

Foster explains: “During Schellnhuber’s lecture the students were blown away. He gave a more theoretical introduction to climate change and the global impact, then pinpointed seven key innovations that he feels are necessary to overcome climate change issues. I heard those seven issues discussed at length later by students in their business planning workshops.”

Positive outcomes from the summer school also stretched beyond educating the students. After a Berlin utility company demonstrated how they integrate climate change innovations there was a feedback session where the students could ask questions and were challenged to find solutions to problems that the company faces.

“It was just supposed to be an exercise,” said Foster, “but those utilities walked away with some very viable solutions.”

Brainstorming tasks

Students were regularly given brainstorming tasks and were repeatedly encouraged to consider ideas in the context of the real market environment. This was challenging for them because there are so many market considerations and so many competing innovations to take account of.

Foster felt they succeeded at these tasks because they were given thorough training, and because they used their different skill sets to work together: “We had some fantastic, high quality products in the end and I think that came from the diversity of backgrounds,” she said.

“You not only had interdisciplinary backgrounds that included students from the business side, design side, the engineering side et cetera, but you also had the internationality. Students came from all over Europe and had vast experience already, whether studying or working at home or volunteering overseas. I think those combined to make a really dynamic group that you just couldn’t get in any other classroom.”

 

Wherever they go they will have this broader, more direct relationship to climate change

Alumni events

Foster’s group is still very active on social media and takes part in alumni events. But as well as being part of a wider community, the summer school has given them first-hand experience of seeing a business plan through from start to finish and has opened their minds to the spirit of innovation, especially climate innovation.

“Wherever they go they will have this broader, more direct relationship to climate change,” said Foster, “They’ll be able to analyse everything they see through the lens of climate change adaptation and mitigation.”

Apply now for the 2014 summer school – the application deadline is 1 April.