Helping students design digital hacks for global challenges

Imagine helping to solve some of the world's most pressing issues – climate change, environmental damage, pollution – supported by some of the world's leading experts. And you are then allowed to develop your solution for the next seven months into the foundations of your own startup company while still in your early twenties.

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Imagine helping to solve some of the world's most pressing issues – climate change, environmental damage, pollution – supported by some of the world's leading experts. And you are then allowed to develop your solution for the next seven months into the foundations of your own startup company while still in your early twenties.

For many final-year university students, this will sound like a dream. But it's not about building castles in the air, it's the premise of TCS Sustainathon. Along with its partner network, TCS has been running these events across Europe and internationally since mid-2020.

Finding digital solutions for global issues

The TCS Sustainathon is a 'hackathon' that encourages students to create solutions to some of the world's biggest challenges, focusing on using digital technologies.

Each event brings together more than 30 teams of university students from a wide range of disciplines. For two weeks, they would work on one of the four key global challenges aligned with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals. Previously, these ranged from reducing carbon footprint to improving health and social service delivery.

The teams tackle their challenges with customers, non-profit organisations, academics, and government agencies from TCS' industry and academia Co-Innovation Network, COIN™. They also get to experience a series of masterclasses by COIN experts on topics ranging from product design to careers advice.

European partners in the Sustainathon programme so far include technology corporations such as Nokia, academic institutions such as Wageningen University, Nyenrode Business University, and GISMA Business School, and a series of agricultural and startup organisations.

Work takes place virtually and, if feasible, in person at TCS' Pace Port innovation hub.

At the end of the development phase, all teams present to a panel of academics, senior industry, and TCS executives, including global chief technology officer Ananth Krishnan. Three winning teams are selected and allowed to develop their proposed solution in the real world, supported by TCS staff, COIN members, and firms who could be future clients.

Over seven months, the projects get incubated as part of the TCS Pace innovation programme, which means TCS and its partners can help the winners to scale their ideas and turn them into – or move them closer to – a viable commercial solution.

Nilesh Patil, Director of TCS Pace in Europe, says, "It's a fantastic opportunity because, by the end of the incubation period, you might have your own startup company to run and grow straight out of university. We believe that TCS Sustainathon is unique in offering this kind of 'leg up' for budding entrepreneurs."

An opportunity to tackle everyday problems

Patil is the driving force behind the TCS Sustainathon events in Europe. For him, the motivation is finding solutions to what he calls the "most ignored but most obvious challenges". These are issues that people feel responsible for and incentivized to resolve. He cites water usage as one example:

"Every day, households use millions of litres of a precious resource. Not only that, but we pay twice over for using the water and for the wastewater. There is a natural incentive to reduce how much water we use. Another example is the packaging waste and carbon footprint generated by e-commerce."

Patil adds, "It's everyday problems like these which have led me to take on developing this initiative for TCS."

With the winners of the past eight events well along the path of their product development cycle, Patil is currently working in the early stages of TCS Sustainathon Europe 2022.

This time, the challenges will involve developing innovative approaches to the consequences of overconsumption and overexploitation. Themes include dealing with pharmaceutical waste, protecting the role of pollinators in nature, and addressing microplastic pollution.

While solutions have to be digital, this does not restrict who can apply for the programme. Students from any academic discipline are welcome, Patil points out. "We receive about as many applications from business students as those on STEM courses."

Crowdsourcing underpins innovation

"Crowdsourcing is very important to TCS. Real innovation doesn't happen in silos, and with COIN, we've established an innovation ecosystem that we can tap into when we face new customer challenges," explains Patil.

"For the Sustainathon teams, we open up this ecosystem to coach them and help them move their ideas forward. But at the same time, we all get inspired by and learn from fresh approaches our Sustainathon participants bring to the table. It's the proverbial 'win-win' for everyone."

This also applies to the competition's runners-up, says Patil: "All ideas are valid, but some may need more help to turn them into startup businesses. We invite the teams with the most promising approaches to future Sustainathons to continue their work."

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