An innovative study program: Students get a chance to develop their own projects in practical coursework
Ideally, by the time students graduate from college, they should possess not only new knowledge and skills, but should also have acquired hands-on experience on how to apply this knowledge in practice, that is, in the workplace, and for those with a more entrepreneurial spirit – in their own business projects. Much has been said and written about the dynamic Croatian start-up scene, which can undoubtedly be an inspiration to them, but it is even better if they get a chance to “immerse” themselves in the entrepreneurial mindset while still in college.
Algebra University College, part of which is the longest-running start-up incubator, the Algebra LAB, is following precisely in these footsteps, enabling its graduate program students to gain practical experience in the challenges that startups face.
Although this is a compulsory course, which students attend for two years of their graduate program, the feedback from students reveals that they find working in interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams that bring together students from different study programs, both useful and inspiring – not to mention fun!
We talked about this innovative approach, offered at the level of graduate programs – in applied computing, data science, digital marketing and digital design – and how students are taught entrepreneurial skills in practice, with program leads and lecturers at Algebra University College, Assistant Professor Leo Mršić, PhD, the Director of Algebra LAB, and Lecturer Maja Brkljačić, PhD, Business Development Manager at Algebra LAB.
What were the graduate students’ first impressions after you launched this introduction to entrepreneurship program last year?
The impressions are great! We are very proud because the first generation even exceeded our expectations. In our college, as in most other colleges, students rarely or never collaborate with their colleagues from other majors and often do not even meet the colleagues in their own major. Here, they work on projects in small cross-functional teams and have the opportunity to learn how others think and what their colleagues from other fields know.
That is what is so great about this experience, because they have to step outside of their bubbles, rely on the expertise of all members of the team and learn from one another: the programmers learn from marketing students how to conduct market research, while marketing students learn from programming student how to do functional specification…
Work on practical projects is a real hit with the students: there are no exams, continuous work is evaluated
Do students prefer this sort of practical learning through projects to traditional lectures?
The students are satisfied because by design this course includes very few contact-hours of traditional classroom teaching, whereas they work independently the rest of the time: planning, researching and developing their projects. The structure is clearly set and the goals are defined beforehand, but they have absolute freedom in coming up with their own solutions for achieving them!
Every two weeks, they have “sprints” with mentors in which they present their progress, and they are evaluated continuously, so there is no exam at the end of the semester. Even though this requires continuous commitment from them throughout the course, at the same time, it allows them to maintain focus and produce a much higher quality end result. They are evaluated both as a team and individually – which means that the best among them can fly to the Moon and be rewarded for it, while the others can learn from their colleagues and not just from the professors.
The process of validating or disproving one’s own assumptions is actually very exciting – and right now they are on the path of continually doing just that. There are no ready-made solutions or formulas the professors write out on the blackboard! The mentors serve only as a form training wheels on a bicycle, to help steer them if they veer too far from the objective. Everything else is the result of their own hard work!
The system must serve to help students to become independent and successful!
What is proving to be the biggest challenge – that is, which area needs the most work in order to support the students in developing their entrepreneurial ideas into something that could become a real-world marketable product?
In a word: becoming more independent. The entire Croatian educational system rests on “babysitting”: hundreds of hours of teacher-centered activities and lectures or guided exercises, from first grade of primary school, all the way to college graduation. It should come as no surprise that when young people find employment, they lack entrepreneurial skills and independence. Many of them never got the opportunity to be different.
Research indicates that the average successful entrepreneur is three times more likely to have been a rebel as a teenager than his or her peers who did not become entrepreneurs. This is both sad and wrong – does you really have to rebel against the system if you want to be successful? Is the system not in place to help you excel?
Our rigid educational system perceives independence, proactivity and originality as stubbornness, so not only are such traits not promoted, they are in fact actively penalized during schooling. And then we are shocked when surveys show that an increasing number of young people dream of a career in the public sector.
Of course we need more proactive and original people in the public sector as well, but they are especially important for the economic sector – regardless of whether they become employees or start their own companies. This is what we try to explain to the students in this course: two years of working on their own project, that produces a concrete final result, is something that will make them interesting to any future employer, because developing a new product or service is both the most complex and the most important part of any business system.
In addition to a degree, our students have a market-ready product when they leave college
What can prospective graduate students expect in this regard?
Future students can expect that, upon graduation, in addition to a note in their resume that they have earned a degree, they will have received a mentor’s recommendation in their portfolio, will have forged an emotional connection to a project of social significance, in which they can demonstrate their very tangible contribution, a fully functional prototype or a minimum viable product (MVP) of a technologically complex market-ready project, and a range of practical knowledge in the field of project management, market evaluation, and defining a business model.
Additionally, students will come out of college with the knowledge of what it means to work in a team, in which different people, with different affinities, have to contribute and do contribute to the success of the entire team. In short, students graduate fully prepared for the job market, either as professionals or as entrepreneurs.
Ambitious and promising ideas should be encouraged
We believe that already during this first year, several interesting projects have sprung up within the student teams – projects that potentially have a future outside the framework of the study programme.
Can you single out a few that have drawn your attention the most?
Without false modesty, it is safe to say that all the projects initiated so far in the framework of this course have a future outside of the study programme. The students are working on a solution for a more interesting and effective way of conducting online classes in primary schools; improvements in the system of individual health insurance; solutions that provide support in caring for the elderly, platforms for the personalization of travel, medical tourism aggregators or “marketplaces”, and information points for the increasingly popular digital nomads.
All of these topics currently seem to have excellent prospects on the market, and if the students decide to pursue them after graduation, they will be fairly likely to get funding for them. Moreover, for an idea to succeed on the market, apart from the ability to execute it, another crucial component is timing, especially when it comes to digital technologies. Very often it is better to postpone an idea until the market is ready for it.
We encourage ambitious ideas and work with students to teach them to manage ambitions, so that they learn to harness the knowledge gained in this process and apply it to other ideas, if they see fit.
Students have a genuine desire to utilize new technologies in making the world a better place
What are currently the “hot” technologies that students of computer engineering, data science, digital marketing and design find the most interesting for basing their projects on?
Off the bat, everyone would like to work on solutions that employ the most complex systems for machine learning or deep learning – that is, systems that use artificial intelligence (AI) for personalization of user-end services, whether these services are offered in the healthcare, tourist or educational sector, or the entertainment industry. Of course, these systems are very challenging to develop, particularly because they need a huge volume of data from reliable sources to conduct initial training.
We believe this is an interesting trend from the user point of view as well, because it makes it patently clear to all the companies that the new generations of consumers expect personalization to the very last detail. Recommendations systems have to be far more sophisticated that the ones currently used by services such as Netflix, Spotify, Amazon and the rest if they want to satisfy their users. This is an excellent indicator, because it paves the way for the Netflixes and Amazons of the future, provided they are able to recognize this need for radical personalization, and then know how to meet it. The same is required in other fields, not just in the entertainment industry.
Another trend that we have recognized as a motivating factor among the students is their genuine desire to make the world around them a better place. We have a team working in the area of care for the elderly, which is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, as well as a team working on a flood warning and prevention system, which occur as a result of inadequate sewage systems combined with heavy rainfall (in other words, a team of students from Zagreb would rather not see a repeat of the recent events in Selska Street).
We find this to be an encouraging and important signal, because it demonstrates an interest in other people, as well as readiness to take initiative.
We help students avoid mistakes that cost the real start-ups dearly
At Algebra LAB’s incubator, you have been continuously helping “real” startupers develop their projects and find investors for a number of years. In what way is working in such an organized way with students different?
The main difference is of course at the very onset: startupers arrive with a clear vision of what they want to work on, they come with project in different stages of development and what they need the most is networking opportunities, in order to connect with potential partners and investors. They also need help in honing their business models or formulating their market launch strategies. Mostly they know what they want, or think they know.
Working with students starts from the first step: what need to figure out what we are going to work on. What is the need we want to satisfy with our solution? In a sense, this is also their advantage, because they spend an entire semester doing market research, mapping the needs, developing and confirming the functional specifications of a project with the users. In the first semester, we do not let them write a single line of code, in order to reduce the possibility for error in the future and the dissatisfaction of potential users.
What are some of the other similarities and differences compared to startupers who have a well-developed vision, since for the students this might be their first encounter with entrepreneurship in this form?
Startupers often come to the incubator with a developed prototype or after many hours spent programming, without having conducted a single coherent conversation with a member of their target group. Sometimes this results in a lot of tears and pain, because when we work with them at the incubator, in a way we force them to focus on their users, rather than on their super turbo cool app. It often happens that this change in the center knocks down large portions of an already developed solution, which is never pleasant.
It also sometimes happens that by diverting their focus to the future users, they realize that these potential users in fact – do not exist. That is, that they are prepared to pay very little or almost nothing at all for this wonderful app that they have been working on for months. We try to make the students aware of this from the very first session – they need to fall in love with the user and not their ingenious solution.
We want graduates to feel confident in themselves when starting their own businesses
What are your expectations, in the short, as well as long run, from working with the students in this way?
We expect to have satisfied students, who have had the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills in a rounded and holistic way and not just in the compartments of individual subjects. They all feel very safe walking within the narrow spaces of their micro-specializations, but if they are removed outside of the framework of standard college subjects and courses, they lose their bearings, so, in order to stay afloat, they need to develop certain other skills and knowledge.
We expect that our graduates will come out better prepared and have higher competencies, and will come out of their study programs feeling equally confident and motivated either to start their own business or assume complex roles at any international company. Naturally, we also expect that some of the student projects will continue outside the framework of college – we will definitely try very hard to make that happen!
In the coming weeks we will present several of the innovative student entrepreneurial projects created within the framework of Algebra University College and with the support of its mentors.