A real-life ‘Dragon’s Den’ came to Cranfield University recently with the fourth Unilever-Cranfield Innovation Accelerator programme, which culminated in nine student teams pitching their solutions, focused on improving sustainability, to senior executives and academics.

Mentoring and coaching support to develop ideas

350 Cranfield students were set real-world challenges from Unilever’s ice-cream and savoury foods categories and tea business, ekaterra. In the first three weeks of the challenge the students formed teams from across University disciplines to develop ideas and problem-solve.

From 41 team submissions, nine were shortlisted and went on to spend six intense weeks developing their solutions and proposals with coaching support from Cranfield’s Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship, and the Centre for Competitive and Creative Design, SOM and Energy mentors, alongside individual mentoring from Unilever and ekaterra. 

Students addressed business challenges

The competition final saw each team given just seven minutes to pitch their ideas to an executive judging panel of experts from Unilever, ekaterra and Cranfield University. The judges were Unilever’s Global & EU Ice Cream Systems & Channels R&D Director, Roy Horne, ekaterra’s R&D Director Digital & Operations, Andreas Mayr and Cranfield’s Professor of Global Economy and Deputy Dean Economics and Banking, Joe Nellis.

“I found it amazingly refreshing to see so many out-of-the-box ideas addressing our business challenges this year,” said Andreas Mayr, R&D Director Digital & Operations at ekaterra. “We are proud of our strong and longstanding partnership between Cranfield University, Unilever and ekaterra in various fields of food, science and research. The Accelerator for us is an opportunity to nurture this relationship and keep on working on and identifying collaboration platforms to unlock new business opportunities. I found it amazingly refreshing to see so many out-of-the-box ideas addressing our business challenges this year.”

The winning team, “B.E.A.T” (Axelle Lagaillarde, Elvis Mwesigwa, Bethan Lloyd and Tarek Kobrosli)

A valuable challenge with team members from diverse backgrounds

The winning team, “B.E.A.T” (Axelle Lagaillarde, Elvis Mwesigwa, Bethan Lloyd and Tarek Kobrosli) won the first prize of £5,000 for their innovative idea to reduce the carbon footprint of ice cream sales in developing and emerging countries, whilst benefitting local communities. The students in the winning team were studying in several different areas, coming from the MSc Management and Corporate Sustainability, MSc Water and Sanitation of Water and the MSc Management and Entrepreneurship courses.

The team said: “Creating an initial proposal and following it through to build the business case has been a valuable, educational challenge with the opportunity to get deeply invested. We are proud of our social entrepreneurship scheme that supports communities through a circular economy model. As a team, it has been great to come together from different backgrounds, courses, and countries. We had a lot of fun becoming friends whilst working!”

The runners-up, ‘UNITED’ and ‘Evergreen Partners’, were awarded £1,000 each. Speaking about their experience, Team United said: “ Being able to work with a brand that fills up our cupboards was a great feeling by itself. Our team members came from five different nationalities and understanding perspectives from different backgrounds was a big learning experience. Unilever and Cranfield not only provided us with a platform to grow, but also moulded us in the process. Overall, it was an experience like no other.”

Developing the next generation of business leaders

Dr Stephanie Hussels, Director of the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship said: “The Unilever Accelerator has become a real highlight in the Cranfield calendar. It not only allows students from the technical and management schools to work together and apply their learning to real practical challenges but allows them to interact and receive mentoring from leading global players in the industry. The relationship between Cranfield, Unilever and ekaterra shows academia and industry's power to train and develop the next generation.”

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.