Edit 18 December 2020
by Rossella Soldi, UIA Expert

ZOOM-IN #1: The ‘business challenge’ mechanism of UFIL

Forests of Cuenca
Forests of Cuenca
In UFIL, the ‘business challenge’ is a mechanism ruling the internal competitions which are run in the project’s innovation lab. These competitions are an integral part of the project’s learning process. They encourage teamwork and the development of new entrepreneurial solutions. Still, the ‘business challenge’ mechanism serves a higher scope than skills’ enhancement as it represents the way to embed the project into the business community of Cuenca and of its province. Although the project’s effectiveness in pursuing this higher scope is still to be demonstrated, the design of the mechanism is worth to be analysed in detail as the good functioning of the mechanism has the potential to positively influence project’s performance and impact.

The analysis is run by looking at the main components of the mechanism, which are assessed to include: competition, reality-check, and engagement. Individual discussions of the components are then used to develop a SWOT analysis of the whole mechanism.

1. Looking into the components of the business challenge mechanism.

The project defines a challenge as a task or situation which tests someone's skills. The reference is to ‘business challenge’ because challenges are expected to be proposed by members of the business community located in and around the city of Cuenca and involved to some extent and with any role in the forest economic sector.

There are three main components to be considered when analysing the UFIL mechanism of the business challenge:

1. The core of the mechanism is a competition.

2. The mechanism wants to be pragmatic rather than theoretical.

3. The mechanism has to lead to the engagement of its target groups.

More in detail:

  • Competition. The mechanism develops around the presence of a challenge. Against this challenge, trainees/future entrepreneurs are asked to develop their ideas and projects in a competitive but friendly environment. Conceptually, these competitions resemble very much those events referred to using the -athon suffix (for example, a hackathon).   
  • Reality-check. Challenges are proposed by stakeholders located in the target territory and involved in the forest sector. In this way, challenges reflect real worries/difficulties forest-related businesses are facing. In addition, any solution derived from the contests is expected to contribute to overcome these worries/difficulties and is therefore grounded in a real setting.
  • Engagement. The mechanism has two main target groups: the business community and the trainees. Businesses proposing the challenges become involved in the project’s activities as sponsors. Trainees/future entrepreneurs participating in the competition engage with their colleagues and with staff members of the project’s partners by means of teamwork. Ideally, trainees/future entrepreneurs and sponsors also end up engaging one with each other.


1.1       Competition

The competition is a training method to involve UFIL trainees/future entrepreneurs in co-creation activities. Similarly to hackathon and foodathon – words which are nowadays of common use – these contests organised in the framework of UFIL may be referred to as ‘woodathons’. The Cambridge Dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org) explains that by adding the suffix -athon (from marathon) to the end of a word which refers to an activity, the activity is meant to last for a long time. A woodathon in UFIL lasts about 2-3 months.

UFIL woodathons represent the practical side of the training carried out in the project’s forest innovation lab located in Cuenca. The group of 35 participants in the project’s training course is divided into teams of minimum 2 and maximum 3 people. Care is put in creating multidisciplinary groups of participants having different backgrounds. This is a necessary requirement as it allows to look at the challenge from different perspectives and to widen the opportunity of finding creative solutions. Figure 1 summarises the multiple purposes tackled through the use of these contests.


Figure 1


The project’s lab puts at the disposal of participants testing and prototyping equipment in order to facilitate the development of attractive solutions already at the design stage. Forests around Cuenca are the testing ground for further incubation of ideas. In addition, it needs to be mentioned that the contest is run in a ‘controlled’ environment. This means that participants in the woodathon are given specific training tools and are supervised by staff members of the project’s partners who have expertise in design, innovation and forest bioeconomy.

1.2       Reality-check

As the project intends to create skills and jobs in Cuenca and surrounding rural areas, it needs to be pragmatic in its scope. Therefore, rather than setting theoretical challenges for trainees, it lets trainees work on real challenges faced by businesses which are already operating in the forest sector. Figure 2 summarises the multiple purposes tackled through the reality-check.


Figure 2


1.3       Engagement

UFIL is an individual project and cannot by itself create a forest-based bioeconomy. The project alone is invisible in this sense – like a ‘drop in the sea’ or, better, a ‘leaf in a forest’. Rather, the project’s scope is to trigger the innovation potential of the target area in the forest bioeconomy domain. So, if on one side UFIL nurtures talent and entrepreneurial skills, on the other side it has to create a favourable environment for the development of a bioeconomy based on its forest resources. Towards this scope, it has to develop linkages and partnerships with existing actors and in particular with those that already contribute to the forest economy and with those that may do so in the near future. Figure 3 summarises the multiple purposes tackled through engagement.


Figure 3



The objective of the competition is set through the definition of the business challenge. Solutions proposed as part of the woodathon need to meet specific requirements and are assessed against a given set of evaluation criteria. An evaluation committee is in charge of scoring and ranking the solutions.

The selection process which is outlined below is the one used for the second challenge proposed in the UFIL project. Requirements and evaluation criteria, as well as representatives of the evaluation committee may change according to the topic addressed by the challenge.

For challenge # 2, solutions are required to:

  1. Be innovative.
  2. Rely on the sustainable use of the forest resources of Cuenca.
  3. Be possible to be manufactured in Cuenca.
  4. Be sustainable.
  5. Be centred on the potential users.

Trainees are given a ‘fact and figures’ compendium prepared by the project’s partners that comprises a lot of background information on the sector, including from the point of view of existing exploitations of the forest resources. Trainees are tutored throughout the contest period by representatives of the project’s partners. Once the solutions are developed, they are asked to make a presentation of their proposals in front of the evaluation committee. The evaluation committee is composed by ten members including representatives of the partners of the project and of the sponsors.

Solutions are then evaluated by the evaluation committee according to the following three criteria:

  • Criterion 1 Impact and innovation potential

Disruptive solutions are looked for, either for products or services. Ideas have to add value to what already exists and need to have a potential for commercialisation. This criterion is weighted 40% of the overall score and is divided into four sub-criteria.

  • Criterion 2 Compliance of the solution with requirements

Proposed services/products have to respond to the required function, be technically and economically feasible, imply sustainable processes and have an aesthetic appeal. This criterion is weighted 30% of the overall score and is divided into five sub-criteria.

  • Criterion 3 Performance

The proposed use of products/services has to be compatible with the properties of the utilised forest resource(s) and has to be user-friendly. This criterion is weighted 30% of the overall score and is divided into three sub-criteria.

Over the project implementation period, UFIL will implement three training courses. Each course lasts 10 months and has 35 participants. Over the 10-month period of one course a number of challenges are proposed to trainees as the basis of their practical training and as inspiration of innovative entrepreneurial solutions. During the first training course (still ongoing), trainees were proposed two challenges.

  • Challenge # 1

The first challenge required solutions aimed to generate employment and business opportunities on the basis of Cuenca’s forest resources. In detail, the question representing the challenge was:

“How can we take advantage of Cuenca’s city forest to generate employment and business opportunities?”

The sponsor to this challenge was the Municipality of Cuenca. Over a period of two and half months (March-May 2020) trainees, divided into groups of 2-3 people, developed 12 solutions. The three best solutions were selected in May 2020 and are represented below using the titles and logos developed by the trainees (Figure 4). As it may be evinced from the titles, these solutions deal with furniture making, honey production and CO2 compensation, respectively.


Figure 4
  • Challenge # 2

The second challenge was launched in May 2020. Trainees were given a time lapse of three and half months to respond to the new challenge that reads as follows:

“How can the City Council, through the regeneration of public spaces, enhance a demand in secondary processed wood products?”

The sponsors of this second challenge are the Municipality of Cuenca and Cuenca Council Wood SA (ACMSA), a wood public company owned by the Municipality and participating in UFIL as a partner.  

This second challenge is more focused than the first one. In practice, it requires participants to think and design wood-based solutions for the city’s public spaces. The urban-rural perspective is very much evident in this challenge. Furthermore, an incentive is added to the process as the call for solutions mentions the possibility to reward the best proposals with a cash prize and to manufacture and install the prototype of the best proposal which was developed during the contest.  

The business challenge is an excellent mechanism to combine training with the development of business ideas that will be further coached and incubated within the framework of the project. Several other strengths and opportunities highlighted while discussing the individual components of the mechanism also apply to the mechanism as a whole (Figure 5).


Figure 5


The major threat in using this mechanism is that the type of new entrepreneurial ideas will depend very much on the type of talent that has been recruited by the project. It is therefore important for the project’s partners to analyse in detail the results achieved with the first group of 35 trainees and build into the next recruiting campaign (which is ongoing) the lessons learnt. This may, for example, be achieved by reflecting these lessons into the selection criteria. A successful recruitment process is a necessary condition for the business challenge mechanism to function properly.

The mechanism also shows some weaknesses that may require fine-tuning interventions by the project. The most evident one is the lack of sufficient incentives for the business community to participate in it. Ideally, the training course would host employees of local companies working in the forest sector. In this way, these companies could play the role of sponsors as their employees gain skills and eventually develop new ideas which may be later implemented at the company level. Unfortunately, this situation is difficult to achieve. Without even mentioning the difficulties brought in by the pandemic, it is a fact that the business community in the province of Cuenca is mostly composed by micro and small enterprises. It is therefore unlikely for these micro and small businesses to be able and/or willing to release their employees for a long period (the course lasts 10 months).

UFIL needs to offer concrete incentives to businesses to get involved in the implementation of the project through business challenges. This need is imperative. Indeed, the mechanism can work without the input of the business community but if challenges keep on being proposed by the project’s partners the project will not end up in being embedded in the territory.

Finally, it is worthwhile to highlight two of the noted opportunities. First, it is suggested to the project to prioritise digital innovation in the thinking of new businesses. The digital transformation process is even more important now, after the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis, and will continue to be high in the policy agenda of the next EU programming period.

Second, it is suggested to increase the number of entry points for innovation in the business challenge mechanism by involving also stakeholders from outside the project team, for example, from the industry and the research, development and innovation community at the regional, national and even European level. Exposure to external excellence and/or success may be an important inspiring as well as motivating factor for the trainees.

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