Canada’s First Year at the Falling Walls Lab in Berlin

2014 was the first year that delegates from Canada participated in the Falling Walls Lab in Berlin, Germany on Saturday, November 8th. The Falling Walls Lab is a global competition in which participants must convey a barrier-breaking idea or innovation in a 3-minute time span. To be successful at conveying their idea in such a short period, presenters are forced to break out of their familiar discipline-specific jargon and deliver their thoughts with clarity and enthusiasm.

Part of the larger Falling Walls conference, the Lab was a unique cross-cultural experience with more than 30 nations represented. At the Berlin Academy of the Konrad-Adenauer-Siftung, as participants, media, and organizers mixed over morning coffee prior to the introductory remarks, there was a palpable sense of excitement in anticipation of the nearly 100 presentations that followed.

Two Canadian universities were represented at Canada’s first-ever participation in the competition. McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, had held it’s preliminary competition on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, with 17 participants that presented on a range of ideas from shyness to chemotherapy to ancient Egyptian astronomy. The winner was Erin Westman, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, whose idea focused on breaking the Wall of Chemotherapy Consequences.

Doug Welch, acting associate vice-president and dean of Graduate Studies at McMaster, said in a statement, “The Falling Walls Lab is a wonderful chance to share their curiosity, their commitment to a better world, that special spirit of discovery that drives our graduate and postdoctoral community to excel. This competition highlights the talent of our future entrepreneurs, industry leaders, policy makers, academics, healthcare deliverers – the people who will make a difference locally, nationally and globally.”

Westman’s research focuses on the use of bacteria to combat the often-debilitating side effects of chemotherapy drugs. Some bacteria naturally produce cancer-killing chemicals, so her idea is to try to ensure chemotherapy drugs remain active at tumour sites, but inactive in the gut, halting the diarrhea and abdominal discomfort that often accompany chemotherapy.

Three participants were also in attendance from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, where a preliminary competition had been held on Thursday September 25, 2014. There, presentations had been judged on their breakthrough factor, the relevance and impact of the idea, and the clarity and performance of the presentation. Three finalists were selected to compete in Berlin: engineering post-doc Zack Storms, chemical engineering student Diana Martinez Tobon, and diabetes researcher Nermeen Youssef.

Storms’ innovative idea, a collaborative research effort with professors Dominic Sauvageau and Anastasia Elias, was to design a food packaging material with a built-in biosensor capable of detecting bacterial contamination. “We have filed a provisional patent for our technology and we are working on developing a prototype over the next 12 months to demonstrate a proof of concept and to submit the full patent. Hopefully that will open the door to additional research funding so that we can improve on the prototype and develop a commercial product,” Storms told the University of Alberta News.

Martinez Tobon’s idea, also in collaboration with Sauvageau and Elias, focuses on breaking down plastic waste by improving the activity of biopolymer-degrading enzyme.

Youssef’s idea focused on break the wall of Type 1 Diabetes. It’s an idea that, if successful, may provide a tool for needle-free management of Type 1 diabetes. How? It involves manipulating the ability of the recipient’s own fat cells to secrete insulin when stimulated by light, so that users would simply be able to illuminate a hand-held blue-light-producing gadget to stimulate insulin release. She began her presentation with a provocative and effective question: “by show of hands, how many people in this room like to be poked with needles?” Not surprisingly, no hands were raised. If her idea comes to fruition, it may provide those with Type I diabetes a release from the endless regimen of insulin injections by needle, and as Youssef explained, it may be possible integrate this new method for insulin management with an app on a smartphone.

The day-long Falling Walls competition in Berlin was watched intensely by member of the press, fellow competitors, and a jury that included the Nobel Foundation’s Chairman of the Board, Dr. Carl-Henrik Heldin, A.T. Kearney’s Central Europe Managing Director, Dr. Martin Sonnenschein, and 17 other academics, business leaders, and journalists. Dr. Heldin, Jury Chair, summarized the experience, saying, “We had a very intense day, but a very interesting one.” As he explained, the nearly 100 competitors in Berlin had been drawn from more than 800 individuals that competed in regional competitions in 18 different locations.

While McMaster University sent only its top competitor, it was a good thing that the University of Alberta decided to send it’s top three. Youssef, who took second place at her home university, also clinched second place in the final in Berlin. Though it was an intensely competitive environment, there was a strong sense of good will and cooperation, no doubt heightened by the excitement and poignancy of being in Berlin in the weekend of the 25th Anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I caught up with three of the Canadian participants after the conference, to reflect on their experiences.


Q & A with Canadian participants at the Falling Walls Lab:

What inspired you to participate?

Westman: “I was interested in practicing concise speaking skills, and do not qualify for 3-minute thesis competitions. It seemed like a great chance to reach a broad audience with my work.”

Martinez Tobon: “I wanted to break my own wall of improving at speaking in public and being able to explain what my research is about while learning at the same time about other researchers interesting ideas.”

Youssef: “The format of the presentation was very different from anything that I had ever done before and I thought it would be a nice challenge to try to condense our research into 3 minutes in lay terms. It was also a good chance to get to know what other ideas are out there, maybe collaborations may arise to create something bigger.”

What was it like to participate in the competition?

Westman: “The participants at the Lab were extremely friendly and supportive. We were all in the same situation of giving a high-intensity talk; with just 3 minutes, there’s hardly any time to even clear your throat! You have to be absolutely focused on conveying your message as clearly as possible. Other participants were extremely considerate in asking the briefest possible questions so as to preserve the speakers’ time. When we were watching the winners present on Sunday, we were all so proud and excited for them; we felt that we were all part of a team and the winners were in part representing all of us young innovators.”

Martinez Tobon: “I was very nervous but at the same time I felt that I was giving my best as every time I got to present my idea I could improve more and more. It was great to hear about the other participants’ ideas, both from people working on fields similar to mine and totally different as well; it was a great learning opportunity. The environment definitely felt friendly as people wanted to share their research and learn about other ideas, and at the same time we were all trying to give our best to get a spot in the top three.”

Youssef: “I was very excited to participate in the competition. I felt privileged to be included in such a group of very talented young people coming from various backgrounds. This variety made for very rich discussions during the event. In general, the atmosphere seemed relaxed. Everybody was open to talking about their ideas and to ask questions. I thought that the spirit of curiosity overshadowed the competitive nature of the event.”

What was it like to be in Berlin for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall?

Westman: “It was amazing. I was selected as a Balloon Patron and was able to meet and discuss (with my limited German) the importance of the event with the thousands of people that turned out for the event. I was intensely moved by all the Wall displays and feel that Berlin put on a magnificent event that inspires us all to work for a more peaceful future.”

Martinez Tobon: “It was a lifetime experience to be able to see in person the meaning and impact of this historic event that sets a precedent for so many walls that still have to be broken in our society.”

Youssef: “Was there going to be a better weekend to be in Berlin? I doubt it. It was very inspiring to be able to be part of such a great celebration and to listen to stories from people who have witnessed firsthand the change Berlin went through after the fall of the Wall.”

What did you learn about yourself by participating in the competition?

Westman: “I need to work on brief answers just as much as brief presentations!”

Martinez Tobon: “I learned that I was better than I thought when communicating my work. There is still big space for improvement but the best way is to actually take a chance and share what you are passionate about.”

Do you think your participation in the Falling Walls Lab will have any long-term impact on your career?

Westman: “I hope it will give me confidence and improved skill in presentation, which will be useful at job interviews and future conferences.”

Martinez Tobon: “Yes, as a learning experience to improve my communications skills and also by increasing my professional network through the contacts I made with other Lab participants.”

Favourite memory of being there:

Westman: “As we were letting the balloons go, one balloon near me wouldn’t release from its stand. No one was angry at the malfunction, but no one could bear for that balloon to remain lit as part of the ‘Wall.’ A man lifted a young woman up and she was able to grab the balloon and pull it out of its post, but it tore as it did so and therefore whirled erratically in the sky as it deflated. The whole crowd burst out laughing and cheering. We all needed that symbolic wall to be gone, completely.”

Martinez Tobon: “I felt very happy when I heard Nermeen got the second place in the Lab. Her work is very innovative and she did an excellent job. It was also amazing to be part of the Lichtgrenze initiative as a balloon patron and see how happy people were as the balloons got released.”

Youssef: “Apart from winning in the Lab, presenting at the conference to the game-changers of science and society of our time was a memory that I will always treasure.”

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