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Real problems that are worth solving

For the past three years I have invited volunteers from Voice north to do a focus group with my medical technology innovation students. I will do so again this academic year.

For the course, we pick a medical focus area for the innovations and for two years this was COPD and conditions of the lungs and breathing and then we moved on to musculoskeletal conditions. Through Voice North we invite people who have stories of unsolved problems related to the medical focus area to join us at the business school and tell their stories. They are invited to help the students come up with necessary innovations.

Our post grad students get some training in questioning techniques and how to spot problems. Of course, when someone is telling you what the problem is then largely it’s just your job to listen. So, the students work in teams and for an hour and a half our teams do listen, but also ask question to get more detail, and then listen again. This is cognitive questioning at its most transformative as it allows the innovation students to hear in-depth what the narrative is around the problems that the Voice North volunteers experience. Listening carefully while real people tell their stories means that our students develop deep empathy and that leads to a passion for solving the problems.

This is hard because each team will uncover twenty to fifty real problems in the focus group but, using secondary research each team will choose a single qualified need which they believe in, that many people suffer from and will make a significant difference to their lives.

Each student team develops an idea and will prototype a concept for which they propose a business. And the business plans are a struggle because venture creation is not necessarily what these biomedical engineers had in mind for their studies. However last year one of my students said: I feel responsible to those people to try and make their care better.

And that is the point. The Voice North focus groups help to inspire biomedical students to invent the products that can be taken to market and become available to help thousands of people who suffer, just like they do.

Lucille Valentine
Research Assistant Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Newcastle University Business School

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