COVID-19 Update - 08 September 2020

Lancaster University Engineering Postgraduate Reaches the Final of the Engineers in Business Innovation Competition

On 26 October 2020 Alvira Kumar, an MEng in Mechatronic Engineering from the University of Lancaster, will compete against nine other university teams to win a prestigious Engineers in Business Competition (EIBC) Award, a share of £10,000 and business mentoring from a Sainsbury Management Fellow.

The EIBC supports and promotes the idea of a combined engineering and business education and provides prize funding to universities to help them encourage more engineers and technology students/graduates to get involved in innovation and entrepreneurship. In a world that is moving and developing so rapidly, these skills are vital to help tackle challenging global problems and to improve our lives. 

This year, Alvira was the winner of the Lancaster University’s innovation competition and won £1,000 from EIBC for creating Plantara, a business that is developing smart sensors to monitor garden conditions in order to help new gardeners. She then entered and won a place in the national EIBC Champion of Champions Final where she is competing for a Business Start-up Award and a further £3,000. The cash prize will go towards the ongoing development of Plantara.

Plantara: Helping gardeners monitor garden conditions with smart sensor technology

Alvira’s brainchild is a combination of carefully selected sensors that work together to monitor garden conditions, extending the ‘smart home’ concept into gardens everywhere. A companion app takes data from the sensors and cross-references it with a database to recommend various plants and ideas for gardeners to try. It’s designed to help new gardeners build up their confidence, providing guidance, tutorials, tips as well as access to a community of knowledgeable peers. Alvira explains:

 “My university house was a drab, grey concrete square with two concrete flower beds teeming with weeds. I had volunteered at the university’s EcoHub when I could, and I knew I wanted to completely transform the space. But I had no idea what to even plant and, what’s worse, I was on a student budget. A lot of time was spent observing the garden’s light, trying to guess what the soil was like and I ended up gambling with the plants I placed down and whenever problems came up I found myself searching through the internet to find a solution. I’m ashamed to admit, I have lost many a plant to overwatering or simple neglect. I’ve always put this down to being part of the plant owner’s learning curve and when I see signs of bad health, I comb through the internet again for a desperate cure. Plantara was created in memoriam of all my lost plants. All these things, my experiences of being a young gardener, came together in one bundle - all the things I wished I had; knowing my soil type, which plants could have worked best, tips for preventing pests or simply information that was reliable and most importantly well organised and easy to find.

“Gardening itself is good for both individual wellbeing and beneficial for the environment, improving aesthetics, biodiversity and habitats for wildlife. This technology could be further utilised for education or even agriculture monitoring systems.” 

The Awards Presentation Ceremony – 26 October 2020

The live online dragons’ den style competition will be compered by TV presenter and engineer, Kate Bellingham. Competing against nine other teams, Alvira will have just six minutes to convince the judges, through her presentation and Q&As, that she should be crowned Champion of Champions and take home a £3,000 Business Start-up Award. Amongst other criteria, the judges will be assessing just how much of an impact Plantara could have on target customers and how it will solve real problems and challenges experienced by gardeners around the world.

The prestigious judging panel comprises: 

●    Ana Avaliani, Associate Director, Enterprise, Royal Academy of Engineering

●    Gareth Trainer, Chair, Enterprise Educators UK

●    Henning von Spreckelsen, Director and Investor in Plastecowood

●    Steve Cleverley, CEO, Oxentia Ltd, Global Innovation Consultancy

As an engineering postgraduate who is now steeped in entrepreneurship, Alvira is passionate about business education for engineers and technologists. She said: 

“Engineers can create the coolest products using the latest technologies but it’s the business skills that take the idea to market; networking with the right people and marketing. It ensures an idea that could potentially help thousands of people doesn’t stay hidden in the lab. Some of the soft business skills such as effective market research, handling finances and pitching are all somewhat parallel to the process undertaken in an engineering project, where we research for literature reviews, manage project budgets and present our ideas. But often, engineers can get tangled up in the technical side of a product, and having business skills bridges that gap and pivots those skills with a different outlook. Placing an engineer with knowledge of exactly how the product works is invaluable in a business setting where informed decisions about finance and scalability need to be made.”