Student innovation success: The Dragons' Den goes virtual

Students returned to the Dragons' Den in April for the annual conclusion of the Innovation Thinking and Practice module.

The Innovation Thinking and Practice module supports the development of student employability skills through setting real-world innovation challenges in partnership with local, national and international organisations. Students work in small interdisciplinary teams to create, develop and ultimately pitch their ideas to academic and industry leaders. 

While in previous years, student teams have worked in a state-of-the-art collaborative teaching room, this year students collaborated virtually in a digital space using Zoom, breakout rooms, and the online collaboration tool Mural. The development of online collaboration skills is a skill-set increasingly valued by employers, and was recognised as a key learning outcome for the module this year. 

Partner organisations for the cohort included the UN Environment Programme, first direct bank, Asda, NHS Digital, Co-Op Food, Leeds City Council, Vet-AI,a University of Leeds Nexus partner, and textiles start-up iinouiio, a Future Fashion Factory partner.

The Dragons’ Den 

The projects culminated in a “Dragons’ Den” session, where each team pitched to a panel of senior leaders from academia and industry. The innovation pitches were delivered to an outstanding degree, and the success marked an impressive feat for students who were faced with the daunting task of presenting remotely, without the encouragement and guide of physical cues such as body language and reactions. 

The students articulated the problems they’d sought to address, communicated the value of their ideas and demonstrated their prototypes telling engaging human-centred (and in two cases dog-centred!) stories. The teams used various methods, including value propositions, role play, humour, and videos to bring out their wow factor.

The winning pitches 

The panel members voted for the teams they believed had the best combination of value, prototype and wow factor. 

One of the winning teams addressed a challenge combining pet care and technology. The “FED.” solution combines an innovative digitally connected physical device with a subscription-based app service to engage pet owners and support healthier lifestyles for their pets, highlighting the sheer size of the market opportunity.

The other winning team addressed a tricky challenge related to sustainability in the textiles industry. The team’s “Shoddy” platform engages craft communities, with the circular economy, reuse and recycling at its very core. “Shoddy” is a historical textiles term coined at a time when the reuse and recycling of materials was the norm rather than the exception.

Picture of an app on phone with text reading 'Shoddy Sustainability by you: The craft ideas app.'

Shoddy: The craft ideas app

FED solution- 4 million households have a problem we can now solve.

FED. Solution

Two winning teams each received £500 from University of Leeds’ Spark business start-up team to further develop their ideas, and every team was awarded a free idea viability assessment with Spark to further progress their ideas. Many teams also received requests to follow up with the industry experts who’d co-developed the challenge they addressed.

Industry partners 

The panel were greatly impressed with the student pitches. A leading pet care technology industry leader commented that the pitches demonstrated Incredible displays of teamwork and innovative thinking.” A Global NGO industry leader said: “All teams did exceptionally well. I was absolutely blown away by the standard of the pitches, and a retail industry leader added “the level of presentations, both in terms of the look and feel and also the content and delivery, have been fantastic.

The final session was closed by Peter Jimack, Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Education. Peter commented: 

The skills students learned during the module will be hugely valuable in their future careers. For example, digital skills, online collaboration and working in multi-discipline teams are becoming more and more important to graduate employers over time.

The module’s teaching team, Tony Morgan and Dr Lena Jaspersen, and the students would like to thank the industry and academic guests for providing fantastic input and support throughout the module.

Institute for Teaching Excellence Project

Lena and Tony are now undertaking a University of Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence research project linked to the module, focused on digitisation and employability skills. Lena commented:

As part of the project, we’re creating a new LinkedIn community to engage past, present and future students to gain further feedback and input. Student engagement is so critical for successful learning and pedagogical research.

Read about the winning pitches of last year’s Innovation, Thinking and Practice’s Dragon’s Den.