COVID-19 Update - 08 September 2020

Interview with Alvira Kumar on behalf of the Plantara Team - A Winner in Lancaster University's Engineers in Business Competition

Plantara was one of 15 groups competing for the Engineers in Business prize, having participated in Lancaster University’s ‘ENGR205 Business Development Project’ Module. Plantara won a £1,000 Engineers in Business prize for developing Thorn, a sensor-based detector for optimising soil management and plant growth. We ask Plantara's team leader, Alvira Kumar about her team's expereince of participating in the Busienss Development Project. 

What elements of the competition did you find most challenging?

With a new idea in the concept stages, it is hard to accurately estimate finances when the product is in the research and development stages so I would say the virtual financial management proved challenging. Due to the time frame of the ENG205 module, good time management also had to be upheld. 

What were the three key things that your team learned from taking part in the competition?

First, the importance and advantages of having engineers in business and how being able to integrate the technical knowledge and fundamental workings of a product has a domino effect on the whole operation. I personally learned that a career in business is something I am strongly considering. Even though we learned to use business specific tools, such as a business model canvas, the skills we learned are translational and applicable even in a more technical role.  

Second, given the time frame and randomly assigned groups, we learned a lot about project management and teamwork. It was important to delegate the workload and generate, discuss and finalise ideas somehow both quickly and thoroughly. 

And finally, we learnt a lot about communication and the art of convincing someone that your idea will be successful; whether it is trying to convey an idea to another teammate or the final pitch to a panel of experts.  

Would you recommend it to other students/why?

Definitely. It's a brilliant opportunity to think with creativity and ingenuity and have the potential to take it beyond theory and actualise your idea. Having a competitive element to a course is always good – it drove us to go above and beyond, push ourselves further, and play devil’s advocate with our own idea in order to continually improve. It was also a nice opportunity to work with a large, cross-disciplinary team, many of whom I had not had the chance to know but I am so glad I know now. There were lots of ideas and support and it is interesting which direction people’s interests and passions can take you; our initial ideas spanned from gardening to kayaking to the property market. We were encouraged to go beyond developing an app and encouraged to incorporate Industry 4.0 technology and even received an insightful talk from Mo Isap on the topic. 

What were the benefits of taking part?

Apart from the translational skills described above, I think what engineers love best is solving real world problems, using the theoretical knowledge to actually make a difference, solve a problem, make life easier for someone is a great feeling. On the same side of that coin, establishing a business and generating profit from an idea is also a big accomplishment. I think being an engineer in business can allow you to solve problems creatively but with one foot firmly planted in feasibility and sustainability.

How do you think the skills you learned in the competition will help you in the future? 

Pitching is not something I find myself doing often but the art of a good pitch, I think also lies with the art of persuasion and being able to communicate complex or detailed ideas clearly, concisely and fully evidenced. It is a skill that can be utilised in many situations. 

Pitching and marketing are perhaps some of the more ‘flashy’ business skills we learn but I think it is also important not to underestimate the power of research. Putting the time and effort into having the evidence needed in the pitch and the knowledge to answer questions on the spot makes you sound credible and makes you sound more trustworthy to an investor – and that is probably because you are. 

As a result of winning we also got to try our hand at some networking, which is out of my comfort zone, but meeting people and quickly engaging with them is a great skill to have. 

Finally, throughout the task my team was focused and dedicated on the goals we had set, tasks delegated well, we had a thorough decision-making method and everyone fulfilled their responsibilities really well – it was a pleasure to work with them and the kind of team work skills that we learned can be carried forward into whatever we go on to do. 

Has the experience inspired you and your team to take Thorn further?

Yes, we intend to explore looking into IP, partners and developing a prototype. The ‘Work in Progress’ team (Lancaster’s Enterprise and Start Up Support Service) on campus have been very helpful. We have to think analytically to assess the present state of our idea and the next steps to take to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be. We also plan on entering the next stage the competition, the EIBC Grand Final, which is also a good platform to promote and develop our business. 

Are you thinking about taking any further business courses to increase your knowledge of how to bring an idea to market or how to run a business?

After the talk from the Sainsbury’s Management Fellow Mike Astell, and seeing all the support, scholarships and advantages, I think that after I gain some more experience of being in industry, I would like to complete an MBA.

We wish the Plantara Team good luck in the EIBC Champion of Champions grand final!

Engineers in Business provides prize funds for university enterprise competitions. To apply for funding visit this page.