DETECT! project: connecting deep technologies and entrepreneurship as a driver of institutional change

Interview with Hana Stepankova and Monika Tomaniova

In this interview, we speak with Hana Stepankova and Monika Tomaniova, key figures behind the DETECT! project. Hana and Monika discuss the transformative goals of DETECT!, including integrating deep technologies with entrepreneurship, fostering innovation and the challenges of bringing creative learning to highly technical fields.

Hana Stepankova and Monika Tomaniova

Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?

Hana Stepankova: I have been a project administrator, manager and financial manager since 2003. I worked for four years at Imperial College London. After moving back to Prague, I continued my career primarily as an EU project administrator. I am passionate about education and developing maker skills to create valuable, creative learning environments for both students and staff.

As a mother of four young adults, I have personal interest in shaping ideal education, which drives my involvement in the DETECT! project, even though my children are studying elsewhere or have already graduated. This project is very close to my heart.

Monika Tomaniova: For the past five years, I have served as Vice Dean for External Relations at the Faculty of Food and Biochemical Technology at the University of Chemistry and Technology (UCT) Prague. My responsibilities include managing the Erasmus+ programme, communication activities and fostering cooperation with industry. My background is in food science, focusing on food safety, quality and authenticity. I also have extensive experience in project management, knowledge transfer, communication and dissemination activities.

I have coordinated the European Institute of Technology (EIT) Food activities in Czechia through the EIT Food Hub since 2018. This role emphasises supporting education, innovation and entrepreneurship in the agri-food sector. Through my work, I have realised the importance of incorporating an entrepreneurial component into education, which can broaden students’ perspectives and offer new opportunities. Additionally, I have learned that industry and educational organisations often speak different languages, and we must find ways to bridge this gap to better transfer innovation into practice.

For those who don’t know DETECT! – what is the project about?

Hana Stepankova: The DETECT! project is about driving institutional change, particularly in the practical use of deep technologies. It aims to integrate deep technologies with entrepreneurship and technology transfer to eventually establish start-ups. We believe that students in highly technical and often theoretical fields need more creativity in their education. Our goal is to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and present less traditional career paths.

The project’s main activities include training and mentoring, with mentors primarily from business and industry. Courses focus on entrepreneurship, lean canvas and science communication. Another key activity is the development of multi-disciplinary digital skills, which involves creating maker spaces and collaborating with local FabLabs. We also focus on innovation support systems and technology transfer, enhancing existing systems and providing education in these areas.

Could you tell us more about the entrepreneurship and prototyping spaces and the Maker Institute?

Hana Stepankova: At the Maker Institute, we believe that learning by doing is crucial for education and product development. Makerspaces, FabLabs, hackerspaces and biolabs are essential for personal and professional growth and should be accessible to everyone. Maker Institute offers an inspiring, vibrant and innovative environment for makers, tinkerers and innovators of diverse backgrounds and skills.

How did the idea for this project come about?

Monika Tomaniova: Our connection with EIT Food introduced us to the first EIT HEI Initiative challenge. The challenge required involving the university management, so we initiated a series of meetings to discuss integrating entrepreneurship support into the curriculum. Given UCT Prague’s strong focus on scientific and research projects, this integration was not straightforward. Understanding and support for these requirements developed slowly. The turning point came when the Counselling and Career Centre joined the process. This centre bridges the gap between the labour market’s demands for graduates and our supply of highly technically skilled students. Discussions highlighted the need to add creativity and entrepreneurship to our students’ knowledge base, fostering innovation in companies and, for those with entrepreneurial spirit, the potential to establish start-ups.

The project’s success also benefits from the experiences of our project partners, the Zlín Technology and Innovation Centre in Czechia and Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Similar situations at other universities helped us create a joint plan of activities.

What added value did the EIT HEI Initiative bring to this project?

Hana Stepankova: The EIT HEI Initiative event in Prague, where projects from previous calls were presented, provided invaluable ideas and inspiration. The event featured posters, workshops and opportunities for informal discussions with other project researchers. Our project support contact has been a tremendous help, always willing to advise and support us. Her assistance has been crucial given the project’s tight schedule and reporting requirements.

What are some of DETECT!’s major achievements to date?

Hana Stepankova: One major achievement was a successful multi-day project meeting in Prague, which marked a pivotal point in implementing our training and maker skills programme. Throughout the project, we shared knowledge and successes across our home institutions.

Although DETECT! is not large-scale in terms of financial volume or duration, it has had a significant impact. For instance, we have successfully divided subjects at one partner institution into deep tech and non-deep tech categories, raised awareness about deep tech teaching approaches and introduced business-oriented courses to deep tech students. Bringing together deep tech and non-deep tech students in maker spaces to collaborate on complex tasks has been particularly enriching.

For our coordinating institution, the project has fostered new cooperation between departments that previously had minimal interaction. Departments such as Technology Transfer, the Counselling and Career Centre, the Department of Education, the Project Centre and the School of Business now work closely together on the DETECT! project. We aim to bring a fresh, breakthrough perspective to our primarily deep tech environment.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Monika Tomaniova: We faced several challenges during the project, some within our control and some beyond it. One significant issue was the project’s time frame, particularly Phase I, which commenced during the holidays and did not align with the academic year. This timing caused scheduling conflicts and disruptions.

Another challenge was establishing effective communication channels with partners and working groups for different activities. We needed to ensure smooth communication to achieve our planned goals, which proved difficult at times.

Additionally, a change in top management occurred between project phases at UCT Prague and the Slovak University of Life Sciences in Nitra, creating instability and requiring adjustments.

Lastly, disseminating information about project activities to students, employees, and management, as well as generating interest in the courses, workshops, and other activities offered, was a continuous struggle.

Your project is an example of institutionalising training programmes to foster entrepreneurship. Could you elaborate on this process and the support from your higher education institution’s management?

Monika Tomaniova: Institutionalising our training programmes involved a multi-faceted approach to ensure they became integral to the involved organisations. At UCT Prague, we began with a thorough needs assessment to identify skill gaps and training requirements through consultations with various departments. Based on this, we designed a training offer integrated into the student course list, both optional and mandatory, and into the lifelong learning programme. This approach aligns with the DETECT! project vision and addresses the development needs of students and staff. We used a mix of in-person lessons, workshops, online modules and on-the-job training to cater to different learning preferences and schedules.

To ensure consistency, we developed standardised training materials and guidelines for trainers. We measured the programmes’ effectiveness through post-training assessments, impact evaluations and participant feedback surveys. Debrief sessions after each training cycle allowed us to review feedback and identify areas for improvement, ensuring the programmes remained relevant and impactful.

For long-term sustainability, each project partner provided access to training materials via an online learning platform, allowing easy access for all students and employees, regardless of location. We also plan to secure funds for further development through follow-up projects.

At UCT Prague, involving the rector and integrating the rector’s and university support departments helped connect the project to the university level. The university management supported the project’s activities through the rector and we aim to strengthen this connection in the coming years.

Tell us more about the transferability of your training programmes. How have other higher education institutions (HEIs) adopted them, and what has been their impact so far?

Hana Stepankova: Training programmes were organised at each HEI based on their specific focus and needs. Some activities conducted in English were offered to the entire consortium. For example, the online course ‘Practical Introduction to the world of artificial intelligence’ was widely attended.

In total, nearly 1,100 participants were trained and mentored across the consortium. This includes 586 students who completed training in both deep tech fields and areas like entrepreneurship, creativity and technology transfer. Additionally, 111 students participated in mentoring. Academic staff also benefited, with 217 participating in various training types and 32 receiving mentoring. Non-academic staff were also included, with 123 receiving training and 26 successfully mentored.

What’s next for the project?

Monika Tomaniova: DETECT! has initiated many valuable activities that we intend to continue. Student feedback highlights the importance of these activities, and our project partners are also eager to continue our joint efforts. This interest signals that we should seek further funding to sustain and expand our initiatives.

Our main tasks ahead include convincing the management of HEIs of the importance of the activities launched through the project.

We aim to continue developing the internal system, which involves maintaining web microsites and creating guides for activities, courses and workshops focused on deep technologies, entrepreneurship, technology transfer and scientific communication. Our goal is to firmly integrate these subjects into the curriculum. Enhancing cooperation with maker spaces, such as FabLabs, is another priority. Additionally, we plan to create an international group of mentors who will be available to interested parties from all participating institutions.

Visit the DETECT! project website to learn more about the project’s activities.

Share your experience with the EIT HEI Initiative and inspire higher education institutions across Europe to boost their innovation and entrepreneurship capacity.

Published on: 01 July 2024