2017: Conrad Challenge


Report on the 2017 Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge
Kesia Kuran


The Innovation Summit is actually the final round of the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge. This Challenge invites teams of high school students to come up with feasible solutions to some of the problems facing the world. These may fall into one of four categories: Aerospace and Aviation, Energy and Environment, Health and Nutrition or Cybertechnology and Security. In the first round, teams create a short video introducing their product. This year, 600 students entered this round. From this, 145 teams were selected to advance to the semi finals where they produced a comprehensive business plan including market and financial analysis as well as a technical report. Based on the business plans, the best teams go through to the final round. We were finalists in the Energy and Environment category with our biofertilizer concept. Overall, there were 42 teams that qualified for the finals.

While the majority of finalist teams were from the USA, there were also teams from Australia, Japan, India, Canada, Thailand and Pakistan (and us from New Zealand, of course!). It was amazing that these teams travelled so far to share their inventions. I was blown away by the concepts that other teams presented. Many of them were award winners of other competitions. Some were well on the way to reaching market as they had already filed for patents and secured funding. I did not expect adults in the ‘real world’ to take these students and their inventions seriously. Clearly however, if your idea is sound and you can effectively share your vision for it, people will come forward to support you. Everyone at the Summit including judges, sponsors and partners was supportive of us students and our ideas and wanted only to help us improve our ideas and make them a reality. Seeing other teams’ successes has inspired me to think big.

The Innovation Summit called on teams to pitch their product to a panel of judges in front of a live audience in 6 minutes. I am not a confident public speaker so initially this brief intimidated me. Even though we practised our delivery countless times before the big day, I was nervous right up to the moment we got on stage. Although I stumbled a little in the opening seconds, I picked back up and continued with the presentation. Watching it back, I was both surprised and proud of myself as I had done so much better than I had expected. Receiving the judges’ positive feedback was the icing on the top.

Even though we did not end up winning an official award, the positive feedback boosted our confidence and was a validation of all the work we had done developing our concept over the past year. Furthermore, the experience of creating a business plan and pitching our product was an invaluable learning opportunity during which we developed an entrepreneurial skillset and mindset. I am sure these will be very useful in whatever career path we take. We are planning to stay in contact with one of the judges to see where we can go with our idea and how far we can take it from here. We have also been motivated to enter our concept into this year’s Velocity Innovation Challenge. If you would like to view our presentation and hear the judges’ feedback, please follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRkfDgeM_-I (approx 1 hour 59 minute mark).

The Summit was based at the Kennedy Space Center and aside from the competition, I also enjoyed exploring the Center. The bus tour of NASA we went on was especially memorable as it put the scale of the space program into perspective. The vehicle assembly building where the shuttles are put together was so huge that the door for human entry looked like a mouse hole. The transporter that takes the completed shuttles to the launch pad weighed around 9 million pounds and I found it somewhat amusing that it’s top speed was about 1.5 mph (keeping in mind the launch pad is about 1 mile away). I was also shocked to learn that the transporter had a fuel efficiency of something like 400 feet per gallon. Learning about past milestones of the space program was very inspiring and sparked my interest in being a part of future space research and exploration. Interacting with people in the space industry, including a trained astronaut, also contributed to this.

In fact, this astronaut, Victor Glover, was a highlight of the event. He was very charismatic and as he shared his story with us, he gave us some helpful tips to take home. He also made himself available to chat with us personally afterwards. I believe my teammate Shulan described meeting Victor using words closely meaning “life-changing”.

This event has reminded me of my passion for science and technology. It emphasised the need for innovative thinking in the field and throughout the Summit, many examples of such thinking were demonstrated. The Conrad Challenge also highlighted science entrepreneurship as a career pathway. For me, this was a new and unexpected direction to take with science. However, after learning that entrepreneurship helps bridge the gap between scientific theory and the general public, this approach made sense. The process of developing our biofertilizer idea into a marketable concept over the course of the competition was greatly enjoyable and very rewarding. In the future, this is definitely an option that I will consider.

I feel that I have returned home with a renewed sense of motivation to apply towards my studies and life in general and a broader understanding of the world of science.

Photo (from left): Shulan Qiu, Kesia Kurian, person dressed as astronaut, Beccy Ganley (coach)