Ambitious young academics showcase game-changing ideas at Falling Walls Lab Moscow

All of the talented competitors following the competition. The three winners are pictured holding their award certificates, including Natalia Glazkova and Dmitry Smirnov (left) and Ksenia Scherbakova (center). Photo: Skoltech.

All of the talented competitors following the competition. The three winners are pictured holding their award certificates, including Natalia Glazkova and Dmitry Smirnov (left) and Ksenia Scherbakova (center). Photo: Skoltech.

Students, researchers and early-career professors flocked to Skoltech on Friday to participate in Falling Walls Lab Moscow – a unique competition that invites young academics to wow a panel of experts with their most innovative ideas in three minutes or less.

The Falling Walls Lab was established in 2011 as a means of inspiring innovation across a broad range of fields, fostering interdisciplinary and international collaboration, identifying and developing talent, and creating strong networks of ambitious early-career researchers.  

Each year, local and regional events are held in dozens of countries around the world. The winners of these smaller-scale competitions, such as the one held at Skoltech, are eligible to compete in the international finals in Berlin.

Falling Walls Labs are no holds barred event, where ground-breaking research projects, initiatives, ideas and business models from all disciplines are welcome. And the Moscow iteration was no exception. Project ideas presented ran the gamut from battling irresponsible consumption to personalized DNA-based nutritional plans.

Among 13 strong competitors, three projects were selected by the jury as being particularly promising: Dmitry Smirnov’s “Breaking the wall of unsustainable freezing-based biopreservation,” Natalia Glazkova’s “Breaking the Wall of healthcare,” and Ksenia Scherbakova’s “Breaking the wall of [the] upstream carbon footprint.” Smirnov and Glazkova are Skoltech students, while Sherbakova is a student of the Russian State Geological Prospecting University.

Smirnov took first place with a state-of-the-art system for shock-freezing based on the Stirling refrigerator, which beats its more conventional counterparts by just about every measure

Asked what he thought gave his project a competitive edge in the eyes of the Falling Walls jury, Smirnov pointed to the necessity of innovation in his chosen market, his well-practiced knack for conveying complex material clearly and concisely, and the practical utility of his product.

“I think, our project included several comparative advantages that set our three-minute pitch on a winning track. We had a proof of concept of how to replace the conventional refrigerating solutions: a real system and experimental results of shock-freezing food samples based on our novel system. Another critical challenge for all competitors were to explain in three minutes complicated scientific principles and terminology in a clear and applicable language for judges. I had realized this challenge and invested much time in putting the description of our solution in a crystal-clear form so the judges with different backgrounds could understand. Besides that, our project addressed significant and vital industries – food and biomedicine – where our system could make a big impact. For example, the frozen food industry has an estimated size of about $300 billion globally, with ready-made meals accounting for about one-third of that size. With a bit more testing, our system – with its reduced cost, improved energy efficiency and with zero usage of carbon emission or ozone-depleting refrigerants – could provide a superior taste and quality in the segment of ready-made meals,” he said.

Glazkova’s project focused on the early detection of heart arrythmias. “We are working on developing an arrhythmia management system that aims to increase arrhythmia detection rates compare to the Gold Standard method. We focus on stroke prevention in patients with atrial fibrillation through continuous seven-days ECG monitoring. We are developing a body-worn multi-lead adhesive ECG-sensor with clinical grade accuracy and an adaptive algorithm for noisy data analysis,“ she said.

Asked what she thought set her project apart from those of her competitors, she pointed to the imperative of accelerating the convergence of healthcare and high-tech. “Healthcare, being one of the most conservative industries, needs change and to adapt to reality. It has to take advantage of rapidly improving technological advancements,” she said.   

Scherbakova’s project focused on the creative generation of green gas. “During [oil and gas] exploration and production, a massive amount of associated gas is burnt and wasted, because it cannot be economically used on site or transported via pipeline. My project provides a proactive stand on CO2 emission by utilizing CO2 to generate Green Gas.”

Asked what she believed set her project apart, she cited the fact that her project involves a problem with a global impact.

“I believe that judges were objective [with respect] to all participants of the competition and made fair and unbiased decision based on their rich professional and scientific experiences. From my point of view, the fact that my project took a prize-winning place was an indication of an actual problem that affects the whole of humanity, and the fact that I proposed an idea for a solution of the problem,” she said.

Having snagged first place, Smirnov will be heading to Berlin in November to present the Stirling-based shock-freezer before a truly global audience.

Following the competition, Skoltech Interim Provost and Dean of Faculty Clement Fortin discussed the myriad benefits of experiences such as the Falling Walls Labs for burgeoning entrepreneurs.

“Falling Walls Labs is a great opportunity for young, innovative entrepreneurs to test their ideas and capabilities, and to quickly present key elements of their projects. Three minutes is extremely short, which makes it a great test to see how well structured their projects are,” he said.

He noted that while considering each presentation, he focused on three elements with respect to each project: the credibility of the idea, the quality of the project itself, and the potential impact. He noted that a strong delivery also made certain projects stand out.

“All of the winners had great ideas, timely presentations and conveyed themselves as high-quality individuals,” he said.

Having snagged first place, Smirnov will be heading to Berlin in November to present the Stirling before a truly global audience. In total, 100 individuals who participate in Falling Walls Labs around the globe in 2018 will be invited to participate in the Berlin finale. Each finalist will once again present their ideas to a jury at the international round, and then three winners will receive cash prizes and the opportunity to deliver their talks at the Falling Walls Conference.

“To prepare for Berlin, I’m going to focus on two, interconnected elements: creating an even more compelling story and conducting more experiments on our novel refrigeration system. By the start of the finals in the beginning of November, I would like to visit more food producers and biomedical practitioners to better understand their needs in the process of preserving their products and how the improved functionality of our refrigeration system can better satisfy these needs. Additionally, more scientific tests are needed to identify optimal characteristics of the system for commercial use,” he said.

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