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When most people think about wearable technology, they are likely to think of the Apple Watch, Google Glass, or some outlandish device from the latest Silicon Valley start-up. They are unlikely to think of the garments or gadgets developed as part of a student project at Cern, the European particle physics centre in Geneva and the epitome of Big Science.

Home of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful atom smasher, Cern plans to close the perceived gap in Europe between excellence in basic science and commercial application, while proving that the billions of euros spent at Cern can produce technologies for social good.

“The motivation is to demonstrate the value of fundamental research to society. We believe there is so much more we can offer,” says Markus Nordberg, part of the development and innovation team at Cern.

So it is that over the past six months students from European business, engineering and design schools, working together with some of Cern’s brainiest scientists, have developed prototypes for a range of wearable technologies — including garments for the elderly that prevent hip fractures and wrist monitors that trigger more socially-aware behaviour among young people with Asperger’s syndrome.

These ideas have been promulgated by teams — all named after famous physicists — in the Challenge-Based Innovation (CBI) course, part of Cern’s IdeaSquare project, which was set up to nurture innovation.

“We are very good at doing experiments, physics experiments,” says Dr Nordberg. “This is a social experiment.”

The project has brought together students from Esade Business School in Spain and Aalto in Finland, along with other universities in Europe, and one, Swinburne University, in Australia. “[We wanted to know] if it is possible to combine these two very different worlds,” says Dr Nordberg.

The approach goes far beyond a traditional technology commercialisation project, according to Tuuli Utriainen, course co-ordinator at Cern, who says the aim is to teach what happens before entrepreneurs start their business.

The student teams were asked to address six social problems including food security, energy management and ageing population. The first two months of the project were spent on understanding the real user needs and only once the concept was determined did the learners develop a prototype and investigate whether Cern had developed relevant technology — in a process often referred to as design thinking [see box].

“This is not a technology push problem,” says Lotta Hassi, a lecturer at Esade. “The task is for the students to find user needs. There is no guarantee [they] will use Cern technology.”

The technology developed at Cern ranges from radiation detection equipment to powerful magnetic devices and superconductors. As Jonathan Wareham, dean for research and faculty at Esade, points out, the technology needed to prove the existence of the long postulated Higgs boson particle is highly specialised and has to be engineered on site. “This is not something you can buy off the shelf from Siemens,” he says.

Esade MBA Heron Mochny was part of team Schrödinger, which set about creating wearable sensors for those with Asperger’s. “We developed a tool to gather data on their interactions that might not be evident to them,” he says.

When a stressful situation results in an increase in heart rate, for example, wearable sensors can give both instant feedback on which to act and be used to collect data for later analysis.

Ms Utriainen believes the CBI was valuable to all involved. “For the Cern people it gives a nice glimpse of how other people work and think,” she says, and helped scientists evaluate their work. “When you work closely on something you forget how cool it is. [This way] you see other people get excited.”

The project might also encourage some of the PhD candidates to go into business, she says. “If it is something they would like to do, they will have the confidence to know that they can do it.”

Mr Mochny believes the students benefited from the intense interaction with their mentors at Cern. “They bring a real sense of rigour. That’s the great value of the Cern connection.” He also believes the challenge acted as an antidote to the often hidebound parameters of business-school thinking.

“A business school can be very passive, and case studies look backwards,” he says. Not so the CBI. “You don’t think about now, you think ahead, about what this is going to mean in 10 years.”

The initial success of the project means that it will be repeated next year, says Joona Kurikka, a doctoral student at Cern and Ms Utriainen’s partner in developing the challenge.

“One of the biggest improvements [will be] to involve Cern even more,” he says, with students visiting the Geneva site more frequently. “Now we realise how we can scale up.”

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