Bringing Engineering’s Grand Challenges to Life

06 December 2016

“I hear and I forget, I read and I remember, I do and I understand.” – Confucius (551 – 479 BCE)

Confucius’s words remain true, even after 25 centuries. Moving technology forward requires generating a continuous flow of new ideas, then converting those ideas into practical plans. Studying someone else’s answers to problems from the past will not solve their complex modern equivalents. At best, it clarifies the process – perform an analysis, formulate solutions and evaluate those solutions for both effectiveness and practicality. The next generation of engineers must internalize those steps to face whatever awaits them in the real world. They will need to exercise flexibility of thought and practical implementation -- skills often woefully neglected in conventional engineering education. How do we prepare engineers to navigate that uncertain environment?

The Global Grand Challenges Summit Competition

To emphasize the importance of the Grand Challenges to the next generation of engineers, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE), along with the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the Royal Academy of Engineering (U.K.) have created the Global Grand Challenges Summit competition, where teams of up to six undergraduates and two mentors create business models and compete for the opportunity to develop them into real startup companies. The models must address at least one of the challenges, and the solutions must fall into at least one of four “buckets” – sustainability, health, security and life enrichment.

In July 2017, five teams each from the U.S., U.K., and China will compete for top honors, which include peer recognition and cash awards. Students from each team will present the business model that they created to an adjudicating panel of innovators and entrepreneurs. The presentation will document the team’s customer discovery to determine potential market interest. It will address the expected effort necessary to set up the business and how much funding it will take, describe the typical business curve and project how long before the business becomes profitable.

A team presentation at the 2nd Grand Challenges Summit, Beijing, China, 2015.  Source:  NAEA team presentation at the 2nd Grand Challenges Summit, Beijing, China, 2015. Source: NAE

The teams play for high stakes. One team that came in second at the last competition in 2015 in Beijing recently received an equity investment of $5 million to develop their idea of an integrated vital-signs monitor for individual patients in hospitals. The monitor would collect data – such as patient temperature, pulse, oxygen level, and blood pressure – from an array of sensors and present them in a single display using technology inexpensive enough to deploy in emerging markets as well as in the developed world. The engineer responsible for this innovation comes from India and based his inspiration on his grandfather’s experience in an Indian hospital.

Adjudication of the initial entries concluded in mid-November. To date, 12 U.S. teams have qualified. The proposals include integrating artificial intelligence into a virtual reality environment (such as for games), a water filtration system to provide potable water for homes and businesses in developing countries, a cheap method for measuring viral loads in populations with high HIV infection rates, a drug delivery system for strokes similar to the EpiPen® (epinephrine injection, USP) used against anaphylactic allergic reactions and a network of sensors that create a system for monitoring cracks in concrete nuclear waste containers. Other applications for his last item include monitoring dams for signs of possible failure. A preliminary competition in March 2017, will select the 5 U.S. team finalists from this group. The panel of judges will determine how meaningful the problem is that they are addressing, how well they understand their potential business model and how technically feasible their solution is.

In evaluating the proposals, the judges will determine a project’s profitability (and resulting sustainability) in the marketplace based on likely customers and costs. Dr. Andrea Belz, Vice Dean of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, contends that engineers do not adequately appreciate pricing strategy and the role of the marketplace in ensuring that a company can sell their products for more than they cost. “Engineers tend to have a strong bias toward the Field of Dreams strategy, ‘Build it and they will come,’ which doesn’t really work,” she said.

The Training

No one expects the teams to develop their ideas in a vacuum. Teams participate in an educational program of webinars conducted by Innovation Node – Los Angeles, headquartered at the University of Southern California and serving as a national node in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I–Corps™) program. This transformational NSF program, based on the successful Lean Startup methodology popular in today’s startup environment, develops business models through customer discovery. An engineering team investigates possible business paths by interviewing prospective customers and other players in the industrial ecosystem, then designs a technical solution and business model to meet customer needs in a sustainable fashion. The 12 U.S. teams currently in the competition will participate in approximately 8 such webinars before the elimination round in March.

Between identification of the finalists and the competition in July, the remaining teams in all three countries will be encouraged to participate in further training – an extension of the initial training on how to find customers and how to understand value propositions. According to Dr. Belz, “Business is like a game of chess. It takes a day to learn the rules and a lifetime to learn the game. In training the team finalists, we are very careful about providing time-of-day options so that students can participate at times convenient for them – not an easy task with China. That way, everyone gets access to the same educational program, and it gives us a chance to advance the state of engineering education world-wide.”

We will continue to follow this effort. Stay tuned.


Dr. Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean of USC Viterbi School of Engineering and US Student Day organizing committee lead

Dr. Andrea Belz, Vice Dean of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and Director of Innovation Node – Los Angeles

C. D. Mote, Jr., President, National Academy of Engineering, speech October 9, 2016.



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