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The Innovation Marathon – the big challenge

09/02/2016 | Talking about ...

By Philipp Rouschal

TU Graz student Philipp Rouschal on experiences at the TU Austria Innovation Marathon. The aim is to develop unfamiliar new ideas, throw new light on a problem, and bravely ask new questions.

Fun as motive force at the Innovation Marathon. The team presents its solution for a problem set by AVL – a cloud-based support system for measuring devices and software.
Borrowing from Star Trek, there are also farther reaches of space at the Innovation Marathon – those of the mind.  And our adventure also boldly went where no man has gone before: 24 hours, eight teams with five members each, three phases, one mission, and no sleep till you get back home. It was a journey with pitfalls. The farther reaches of thought are deceptive – overwhelming, intimidating, marred with sirens and permeated by labyrinths. We also had to take care of our “starship” – resources were scarce, time especially, and the human factor was not to be underestimated. The journey I want to take you on is not linear. Instead, you can immerse yourself in the episodes and gather impressions to perhaps be present at the next Innovation Marathon yourself.

Finally, we were a team. Perhaps not a perfect one but definitely a functioning team.

Episode 1: From group to team

People may talk about love at first sight, but I’ve never heard of a team at first sight. That can only develop with time. The problem was, we didn’t have any time. Although that’s true, it’s less a matter of a time period than of what you experience together.
We experienced a lot and at every moment we got to know each other better. Luckily we were compatible right from the beginning. We were very open to each other. Everyone realised that only together could we find solutions and each individual contribute. From this we deduced our unspoken number-one rule: be open!
The situation is not an easy one. Imagine working 24 hours continuously with persons you don’t know. Misunderstandings, overtiredness – many things can cause friction. But everything went well with us as a team. Even more than well, we had fun – from the beginning to the end and beyond. Why did it work so well? Because we listened and paid attention to each other. The lubricant for a frictionless give-and-take was quite evidently the fun we had, which created an unforced and relaxed atmosphere.
Finally, we were a team. Perhaps not a perfect one – time was too short for that – but definitely a functioning team.

Episode 2: Getting to the bottom of the problem

There are many solutions, but not every one fits the problem.  Sometimes a solution emerges for a different problem – chance hits that unfortunately all too often get lost. Not to be led down the garden path, you have to understand. What exactly is the problem? Are we treating the symptom or the cause? Is there another way of looking at the problem?
One thing is for sure: not every aspect of a problem can be analysed in such a short time. But here, scrutiny from five different individuals helped very much. Also, the fact that none of us were experts in the field was an advantage. A view from outside shows different aspects and thus enables new solution approaches to be formulated.

...the fact that none of us were experts in the field was an advantage.

It was also a question of finding a balance. How deep should we go into it? Have we already got enough information or have we got too much? It might sound paradoxical but knowing too much can blind you. If you stare into the abyss, you’ll be overcome by it at some point. A short glance is perhaps sufficient to find a way round.
In our case, knowing too much was not really the problem; the lack of time was the problem. 24 hours go faster than you think, and the approaching lack of sleep is not helpful at all.

Episode 3: The expanse of creativity

After gazing into the abyss of the problem, we now had to look into the sky of limitless possibilities. The point of departure now came from the questions and knowledge gained in the analysis phase. They blazed the trail. I have to say it, flying is fun. To let the mind glide from one idea to the next, riding on the upwind resulting from the human exchange. All this elevates you, not just the variation of ideas, but also the general mood. Everything is right; only criticism is wrong.
Of course not every idea is worth its weight in gold, but nobody cares about that at the time. What’s important is the freedom to develop new concepts. And interaction is essential. Every person thinks differently, and every exchange stimulates new ideas. At the end of this phase, we were sitting in front of a board covered with ideas.
TU Graz student Philipp Rouschal (left) with team colleagues in front of a pin board covered with ideas at the TU Austria Innovation Marathon.
Philipp Rouschal (left) with team colleagues: “not every idea is worth its weight in gold, but nobody cares about that at the time”.

Episode 4: With sieve and cement mixer

Grouping and clustering. Which ideas fit together? Where are they similar? Before assessing the ideas, we had to understand them. Do they point in a particular direction? Have we just got apples in different colours or is there a horse among them? Are we even understanding the same thing? In front of the pin board covered with ideas, we slowly start to evolve clear structures, patterns become recognisable, some ideas identified as two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, the multiplicity remains.
From these ideas we distil new approaches. Not fully developed, but workable for further processing. And now, decision time. There was less than eight hours to go, and we had to have one or two concepts ready.
In several steps we had narrowed down our approaches. Should we continue to reduce them or perhaps instead combine them? We finally decided to combine several concepts. Their interplay was worked out, details discussed, and an answer to the original problem prepared. We had our solution!

Episode 5: The end and a beginning

Now we had our solution, the question was, how were we to present it? Communication is a game and we were exhausted. So we regained our energy by having fun and managed to convey the concept.
The five students of Team AVL with company representative at the final presentation.
Exhausted but relieved: the student team after the final presentation with the AVL coach.
Would our solution in the end be THE solution? Who knows, at least we might be able to provide a new stimulus. We had fun and we learned a lot. The compactness of the marathon showed the different phases of the innovation process very well. Also, the interplay between limitation and freedom becomes very obvious during the process. Fun as a motive force is presumably the strongest thing that’s left over.

In this spirit, have fun with innovation and change the world!


Unshakeable staying power, creativity and perhaps a touch of craziness – these are the prerequisites for taking part in the TU Austria Innovation Marathon. Eight problems, eight teams and 24 hours: these are the conditions under which students work out solutions for real problems posed by companies at the Marathon each year in summer. TU Graz mathematics student Philipp Rouschal was part of the AVL team in August 2016 which was set the task of developing a cloud-based support system for measuring devices and software. Official TU Austria Innovation Marathon Video, Forum Alpbach 2016


Philipp Rouschal
Mathematics representative
Graz University of Technology (TU Graz)
Rechbauerstraße 12, 8010 Graz, Austria