How we got to an idea that won $10,000 | By Amit...

How we got to an idea that won $10,000 | By Amit Singh


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

This is the journey of an idea from its inception stage to winning “Thought for Food” Challenge.

It all began, when one of my friends heard about a competition called “Thought for Food Challenge”. It is an innovation competition, which aims to develop breakthrough ideas to feed 9 billion people. It offered $10k to the winner and free Europe trip to all the selected finalists. At that time the ignorant me, saw it as an opportunity for a free Europe trip. Little did I know that it would become such an integral part of my life.

So, we went ahead and formed a four member team of diverse people who had won a few competitions in the past.

Now, all that was left to do was think of an idea to

Feed 9 billion in 2050

Well, that seemed easy enough. All we had to do is, figure out a way to do that.

Surprisingly, it turns out — it is a very hard problem to solve.

Our whole idea generation process can be summed up in 5 phases:

  1. Figuring a niche
  2. Defining the idea
  3. Idea Validation
  4. Changing the idea
  5. Communicating the idea

Figuring out a niche

Step 1: General problem to solve

The rules of the competition had given us a starting point. Atleast we had a generic problem to solve. Our sector was “Food Security”. Maybe, you won’t have this, while you are thinking about an idea. Then, your first step would be — to figure out a generic problem to solve.

Step 2: Idea Garage

Thereafter, we started by creating a Idea Garage. A simple spreadsheet document wherein we had ideas organised by 2 filters:

  1. Niche Problems we could solve
A traditional approach. Think of problems. Shortlist them. Think of solutions. Select the most feasible one.

2. Competitors whom we could get inspiration from

Some find it easier to think of an idea by looking at how others have done stuff.

Step 3: Shortlisting

From around 50 specific problems on Food Security, we shortlisted 4 we wanted to tackle.

Ours were:

  1. Lack of storage options for farmers
  2. Vertical Farming
  3. Crop Cycling
  4. In-vitro meat

Step 4: Focus

Then, we started out by following Stanford D School’s Design Thinking framework.

As now we had a brief idea of what specific things we could do, we embarked upon the Empathize phase of Design Thinking. We talked to people who could be stakeholders in Food Security. We looked at ourselves and what skills we had (and that eliminated In-vitro meat, as no one in our team had a biotechnology background).

We developed rough studies on each of the ideas.

Step 5: Brainstorm

Now, we discussed each of these studies, their pros and cons, feasibility and our team’s expertise. We were engineers so we knew, we wanted to build a product and not just provide a service based value proposition (well, this changed later).

Result of this brainstorming — we knew that we were going to tackle the problem of lack of storage solutions by building a pre-fabricated storage unit.

Defining the idea

Now we had a vague idea about what we wanted to do. What exactly? We didn’t know. So we went ahead in trying to figure that.

Step 1: Resisting urge to directly build the product

Because mere humans, we already had a biased idea of which features our solution should have (even though we had not talked to our customers/market till then). Initially, we imagined our product to be this.

We resisted the urge to go ahead and build the product. We thought we should define our idea further.

Step 2: Talk to stakeholders

We went ahead and talked to fruits and vegetable vendors, people who operated refrigeration devices, our professors who worked in similar domain.

Step 3: Incorporate feedback

We wanted to incorporate Lean Methodology principles as early in the product development cycle as possible. Infact it is because of incorporating feedback from our stakeholders, we heard about new solutions like — pre-cooling and forced air-cooling, which were revolutionising the way storage was done.

Step 4: Business Model Canvas

We used Business Model Canvas to define our business model. It turned out to be a great brainstorming exercise. This is how our initial BMC looked like:

business model canvas

Idea Validation

This is where things got ugly. We talked to a lot of people about what they thought about our idea. Some were positive. Some were negative. Some said it would never work (and we asked why?).

What we were lacking, was a structured way to validate our idea.

We looked a few of our options:

  1. Facebook/Google Ads/Landing page
  2. Online Survey
  3. Offline Survey
  4. Building an MVP and then measuring the key variables

Because we were an offline solution, building a Facebook or Google Adwords campaign to measure demand was not going to work.

So we chose to do a comprehensive offline survey. We prepared a questionnaire; talked to a lot of farmers. Visited their farms. Talked to them about their problems. Talked to retail chains. Understood how horticulture supply chain works.

Result of this exercise:

We got to know that maybe our product was too costly for individual farmers. We knew that something needed to be done.

Changing the idea

Now that we knew that something needed to be done. We went ahead to figure out — what?

Every person we talked to had his own opinion/advice to do things. We didn’t know who to listen to.

This is when we decided to change our fundamental bias. We went ahead, and changed a product based value proposition to a service based value proposition. It was a very hard thing to do; but we knew it was the right thing. This changed our whole business model. But, made our solution more scalable and feasible. It reduced sales cycles and gave us more freedom.

We went ahead and did a pilot testing to see if the new business model actually works. Well, it did.

Communicating the idea

Now that we had a solid business model and a pilot test to prove that. All we had to do is — communicate it.

Few of the things we kept in mind while doing this:

  1. Narrate a story.
  2. Have a conversation while pitching.
  3. Use big pictures and fonts in the presentation.
  4. Don’t talk about what you are not doing; talk about what you are actually doing.
  5. Always have a hook in your pitch. People will remember you by that.
  6. People can read faster than you can talk about it. So the presenter has to lead the presentation; and not the other way round.
  7. Don’t memorise the script, memorise keywords.
  8. Keep it simple.

And this, is how we did this —

Tools we used:

  1. Evernote for quick note-taking and presentation among teams
  2. Google Docs for collaborative work
  3. Google group for formal internal communication (typing in everyones email addresses to forward a mail was very tedious)
  4. Canva for quick and beautiful designs
  5. Dropbox for saving each and everything anyone did regarding the project
  6. Whatsapp group for informal communication among the team
  7. Canvaniser for Business Model Canvas

We didn’t really felt much need for a project management solution like Asana, Trello or Basecamp. But, our team size was just 4 people.

(The article originally appeared on Medium as written by Amit Singh)