Ready, Set, Innovate! Autodesk Tournament Tests Students’ Left and Right Brains

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“You’ve just described the Holy Grail for designers…but how will you crack it open?” Next!

 “Great idea. In fact, it’s so great we’re already doing it.” Next!

 “You’re really onto something. Now be like James Cameron—make us believe it’s the next Titanic.” Go!

It was like American Idol for elevator pitches as about 45 students in Haas’ Design, Innovation & Strategy Club (DISC) raced against the clock—and each other—to impress some of Autodesk’s most strategic thinkers at the club’s first innovation tournament March 9 in San Francisco. They sketched teddy bears, scribbled flow charts, and even flapped their arms and shrieked like hawks as they wrestled with the question: How can Autodesk use the cloud and the crowd to help far-flung teams work better together?

Teams of students, paired with “innovation sages” from leading design firms, had just 30 seconds for each pitch, but could return for multiple rounds. Each time, the judges prodded them to go further, pulling out the most promising nuggets and displaying their ratings on screens to stoke the fires of competition.

“We’re hard to impress. We think about this stuff all the time, we hear a lot of new ideas, and they’re under pressure to do it fast,” said judge Mark Davis, Autodesk’s senior director of user experience, midway through the tournament. “But things are popping up—new ideas, new ways of looking at things.”

The competition was part of the daylong event Life in 4D: Discover, Define, Design, Develop, held at Autodesk’s San Francisco Gallery and organized by DISC to give students inspiration and practice with the process of innovation.

The tournament format was developed by InnoCoop, a company formed by Haas visiting scholars from Finland’s University of Oulu, who credited Haas Adjunct Professor Henry Chesbrough’s work on open innovation and Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman for inspiration. “We were looking for a way to get people excited about being innovative in short sessions, and to turn it into a game,” said PhD student Petri Morko, who has run more than a dozen tournaments in Finland with fellow visiting PhD students Mikko Jarvilehto and Tomi Huttula.

Corinna Kester, MBA12, said her team used techniques from Beckman’s Problem Finding, Problem Solving course as they hashed out their concept, which won high praise from judges. “The ideas of converging and diverging played out as we went through the process,” she said. “We get this in the curriculum, but we also need to practice it on real-world problems to get better.”

This mashup of cultures, methods, and competition led to quite a few “a-ha” moments. Jill Schweitzer, MBA13, pitched a concept for a collaborative voice- and touch-controlled system for designers to discuss and manipulate their work, catching the attention of judge Karen Brewer, Autodesk’s vice president of marketing. “We thought it was a big idea, so congratulations,” Brewer said.

Schweitzer said the judges’ “what if” questions spurred her group on. “Pitching to the judges multiple times and within such a condensed timeframe was an interesting experience—we had to make quick changes and produce concise, illustrative explanations of our idea without much prep time,” she said. “The initial idea rapidly transformed into something far more robust and colorful than the original. Our team really enjoyed thinking big and further into the future.”

Ultimately, it was the team that took to heart the advice about James Cameron—given by Autodesk Director of Strategic Initiatives Jonathan Knowles—that won over the crowd and the judges.

Running out of time to create a visual aid, they decided to act out their concept for an application called Photohawk, which would crowdsource 3D models. Gabe Cohen, MBA 12, played the part of a designer who submitted the request to “hawk” Evan Atherton, an engineering student who flapped enthusiastically as he collected images from Cohen’s social network: full-time student Eileen Chang, MBA 12; evening-and-weekend student Deepti Gottipati, MBA 13, and coaches Cheryn Flanagan of Sequence and Adam Menter of Autodesk. 

For their performance, the group took home the tournament’s Oscar—actually Autodesk’s Oscar-winning special effects software. Perhaps more valuable was the praise from the hard-to-impress judges: Knowles even tweeted a photo of the winners along with the post, “I have a new positive perspective on MBAs after being a judge @BerkeleyHaas Innovation Tournament today.”

Undergrad Alum Wins Barcelona App Competition

Jade Trinh, BS 10, was part of a UC Berkeley team that won the first annual University Mobile Challenge at the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Feb. 15.

Trinh was part of the team of primarily Berkeley engineering students who headed to Barcelona after they had previously won a competition in a course on mobile applications taught in the UC Berkeley College of Engineering.

The Berkeley team beat out ten other teams in the year-long University Mobile Challenge with their “Noodle” app, a cloud-based college notes program. Each team was required to identify and develop an application, create a business plan and revenue model, and then present to a panel of sponsor company experts and VCs.

“We researched more of a revenue model and how to monetize our app,” says Trinh, “as opposed to just making it cool, or just a technological project.”

The competition was organized by the Berkeley Mobile International Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to creating strategic relationships among mobile companies, innovative universities, and entrepreneurial students. The collaborative was founded in 2010 at UC Berkeley in conjunction with the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.

—Ute Frey