My UNLEASH experience

Author // Rochie Cuevas Categories // Communicating rice science

UNLEASH is a global nonprofit initiative that aims to help achieve the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In August 2017, it gathered 1,000 talents from all over the world for nine days in Denmark. The six themes of the event were food, water, sustainable consumption, education and ICT, health, and energy.

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After going through a competitive search process, I was chosen to be one of two IRRI staff to participate in the UNLEASH Innovation Lab this year. The other one was Nitika. I was assigned to the Food theme while Nitika was assigned to the Water theme. Because of our different assignments, we soon went on separate adventures in Copenhagen, in our respective folk high schools, and then in Aarhus.

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UNLEASH gave me an opportunity to see IRRI’s guiding principles in action, albeit from outside the Institute. After all, UNLEASH is also all about creating a global impact that benefits the people and planet.

I didn’t know what to expect in the nine-day event because this was my first Innovation Lab. I'm happy that the UNLEASH organizers took the time on Days 3 and 4 of the program to get us up to speed on what to expect and gave us a roadmap, with examples, that could lead towards solutions.

The Food group, for instance, went to Novozymes, where we learned how biotechnological solutions (like enzymes discovery and incorporation into products) can help industries and their consumers contribute to the SDGs by becoming more environmentally friendly (e.g., laundry detergents with enzymes that can remove stains), by promoting sustainable consumption (e.g., bread flour with enzymes that make staling slower), and by improving their nutritional status (e.g., milk with enzymes that reduce the need for added sugar).

We also went to WeFood, Denmark’s first food surplus supermarket. There, people can buy processed food and supplements that near, or just passed, their best-before dates at a discount. This helps promote sustainable consumption by food waste reduction.

My favorite stop while on our SDG roadmap was the Nordic Food Lab, housed in the University of Copenhagen and led by Michael Bom Frøst. The lab has been exploring cutting-edge and sustainable ways to weave deliciousness into food products. Any foodie would be thrilled because the Nordic Food Lab is the sister institution of Noma, Denmark’s two-Michelin-star restaurant, which happens to have ranked first in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants four times.

Great people, great purpose

What I didn’t expect was to get my hands dirty… well, to smell like garlic, on the very first day.

To give us an idea of what the UNLEASH Innovation Lab was going to be like, participants were grouped according to their respective themes on the first day. Food participants were ushered outdoors for our very first challenge: to develop a sustainable food product for the future that would be shelf-ready. We were supposed to prepare a delicious dish, create a pitch and a marketing strategy that emphasized the SDGs, and present it to the rest of the participants all within 90 minutes. Oh, and did I mention that the main ingredient is grub—like the food Timon and Pumbaa feasted on in Lion King? Yes, we were supposed to prepare a dish using insect larvae. I didn't expect to enter a Master Chef competition, courtesy of an UNLEASH × Meyers Madhus collaboration, on our first day!

Needless to say, my knife skills came in handy.

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While I was busy chopping vegetables, the rest of my teammates sketched product logos, wrote marketing ideas for the dish, and started cooking the food I’ve prepared. Take note that we didn’t even know each other’s names at this point. We were strangers tasked to deal with one purpose, and each person shone under pressure. As a result, we prepared seriously tasty grub; I can say so myself because I polished what we didn’t present to the judges from Meyers Madhus. As I listened to the marketing pitches from other groups (which, were unbelievably almost made on the fly), I couldn’t help but be impressed with how imaginative, innovative, and passionate the Food participants were.

My team didn't win this challenge, but it gave me a glimpse of what I got myself into: I was surrounded by a group of great, passionate people who have a great sense of purpose.

Diversity was our strength

The team I ended up with in the Innovation Lab stage (in Brenderup Folk High School) was the most diverse team I've ever been in. One is a nutritionist from Lebanon; one is a sustainability scientist from Canada; one is a conflict resolution specialist from Spain; and two are in the business of promoting sustainable food consumption (that is, reducing food waste).

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Our team started off on a high note, with lots of ideas flying around. As a team, we decided to tackle obesity and overweight among low-income people in North America. For four days in the UNLEASH Innovation Lab, we explored the problem from different angles, challenged many assumptions, and created at least five iterations of our problem frame. Throughout the process, we were guided by facilitators from Deloitte.

I realized during the Innovation Lab that it wasn’t just the diversity of educational and professional backgrounds that we needed to frame our problem, find a solution, and prepare our pitch. Yes, I was (still am) amazed at how much passion, expertise, and skill we were all bringing to the table. However, I was more impressed with how our different personalities shone when the team needed them the most. When conflicts started, the conflict resolution specialist started putting us back on track. When we felt like our pitch wasn’t taking shape, the nutritionist started structuring the spiel. When we needed the numbers, the marketing strategies, and the visuals for our presentations, the entrepreneurs took the lead. Me? I got labeled the mother hen of the group, probably because I handled the business case while they were working on the solutions and the pitch; I was a cheerleader when they were down; and I made sure that we delivered our outputs on time.

This is diversity at its finest.

Compelling storytellers

Deeply immersed in the Innovation Lab process, I learned that it's not enough to have a great idea. Equally important, we must be able to communicate it to create impact. It was an important lesson I had to learn by losing. Here's how it happened.

Our problem, I thought, was set. Our solution wasn’t.

We proposed a solution designed to improve the accessibility of healthy food. We wanted this solution to nudge consumers toward better purchasing and eating behaviors—a difficult but not impossible endeavor, according to our subject matter experts. With only four days in the Innovation Lab, we weren’t able to fully flesh out our accessibility solution. Should we go for a food delivery service? An app that would promote healthy food as something attractive? A vending machine? Or a vegan sausage manufacturing company? We encountered challenges when we started narrowing down our options.

Not knowing what we wanted as a team became a problem when we started thinking about how to communicate the idea through our three-minute pitch. We basically didn’t have anything to pitch yet. In the end, we successfully formulated conflict without providing a clear resolution.

The next challenge we had to face was how to package the message. Our first pitch was in front of an audience composed mainly of people from Asia and Africa. The audience’s worldview, I assume, was different. Developing nations have to deal with food shortage, while in North America, the major problems are oversupply of nutrients and proliferation of junk food, which may not be seen as urgent as hunger. Selling the idea that overweight and obesity are a growing concern to this audience was an uphill battle for us.

Then came the question of communication style. The team’s presenter used reality distortion fields (RDFs) to model the pitch. RDF is a popular style choice for speakers talking in product launches. This style might be unpopular considering the audience we were facing, but we thought that was the best tool to use for the presentation.

In the end, our pitch was viewed as arrogant, and our story, not compelling. That's a bitter pill to swallow, but it was nonetheless an important lesson. This lesson was even more blatant when we watched the presentations of the groups that qualified for the final phase, called the Dragons’ Den. In three minutes, the speakers were able to engage with the audience. We laughed, cried, and reacted to the solutions that they proposed. Watching the cream of the crop battle in front of actual investors was a learning experience that we’d never get from inside the classroom or even in IRRI.


UNLEASH was nine days of great learning experiences for me. If ever IRRI gets a chance to be part of the initiative again, I highly recommend getting as many of its young out-of-the-box thinkers as possible to join.


About the Author

Rochie Cuevas

Rochie Cuevas

Rosa Paula Cuevas (Rochie) is a scientist at IRRI's Grain Quality and Nutrition Center specializing on sensory profiling. 

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