Challenge-Based Innovation: They rose to the challenge!

As part of the IdeaSquare project, the Challenge-Based Innovation (CBI) programme is based on a very pragmatic question: can the tools and results produced by basic research (like that being carried out at CERN) be used to solve societal problems? If so, how? To answer this question, 45 students from very different professional and cultural backgrounds formed six teams, each with a specific societal challenge to solve (see here).

Over a six-month period – from September 2014 to February 2015 – the six teams worked on the challenge in order to come up with an original idea and, eventually, a prototype. The projects presented at the February gala were thus the result of a very long process, from the understanding of the societal need to the development of a relevant and innovative product.

Team Maxwell (all the teams were named after famous physicists), for example, tackled confusion and disorientation in the elderly, which is one of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Using the example of an old lady on her way to the pharmacy who suddenly forgets why she is there, Team Maxwell suggested a new device called EMMA – External Memory Monitoring and Assist.

EMMA, a discreet smartwatch, is equipped with biometric sensors able to detect moments of confusion by monitoring the pulse, skin temperature and conductivity, and body movements. The watch then displays a clear and simple message reminding her what she was doing: “I am going to the pharmacy” in this case.

Using the same device – a smartwatch – Team Schrödinger focused on another medical issue: Asperger’s syndrome. The biometric sensors register numerous parameters (i.e. heart rate, the speed and volume of conversation) during the day, which can later be examined by the person with Asperger's. This will help users to identify the moments of the day (thanks to the clock and GPS data) where they were stressed or had an uncharacteristic social response (according to the volume of the voice, for example), and allow them to take action to improve their situation.

The four other teams – Ampère, Planck, Heisenberg and Faraday – developed, respectively, an inflatable skirt that protects elderly women suffering from osteoporosis when they fall; sensors helping facility managers to monitor and control the parameters inside buildings; a watch to help blind people “see”; and an intelligent food plate that provides information on the freshness of the fruits and vegetables in your fridge.

“Team Faraday just got accepted to an exhibition in Cumulus Milan during the Universal Expo, and I've even heard that one or two of the teams might be planning startup companies,” says Joona Kurikka, a PhD student from Aalto University in Finland, who coordinated the course together with Tuuli Utriainen. “From our side, although we are not coordinating any structured follow-up programmes, we will try to help students who come up with interesting and viable plans.”

Concerning the future of the CBI programme, it looks highly probable that another round will be organised in a few months… so stay tuned!

Watch the teams’ presentations at the CBI "gala", which took place at CERN on 26 February: