Become a challenge provider: The 7 steps to engage in successful university collaboration in sustainable venturing

In the decade of transformation, businesses take a leading role in the transition to a green economy. However, they cannot do so alone, but need strong partners on their way to shifting towards more sustainable and regenerative business models that create positive environmental and social impact.
Challenge your corporate strategy and processes by providing a challenge to committed university students who are eager to drive real impact. Challenge-based learning with academia is an innovative collaboration approach that is gaining more traction and delivering remarkable business results. Be at the forefront of this exciting development and start experimenting and establishing which challenge formats in sustainable venturing work best to help your company thrive.

To help kickstart your challenge journey, we take you through each phase of the “sustainable venturing challenge cycle” from the perspective of business partners. We differentiate between the three phases “Inform & Prepare”, “Connect & Co-design” and “Implement & Reflect”, which are detailed below.

Inform & Prepare

Select a challenge format suited to your company’s needs

Providing a challenge to students requires thorough preparation and planning. This entails becoming familiar with the challenge-based learning approach and getting to know the different features of sustainable venturing challenges. The following dimensions provide guidance as you decide on and select the right format for your company’s needs:


Challenge focus

Which focus would you like to take? From providing a thematic challenge which focuses on a specific field you are active in to open ideation or business model generation for specific ideas – which focus to take in your challenge will depend on the business problem you are facing and the input from academic staff.



In general, we differentiate between short-term challenges, which usually span one to three days, and long-term challenges, which span several weeks to months. While short-term challenges require far less upfront investment in terms of time and personnel, long-term challenges give students more time to internalise your business problem and to dive deeper into the subject matter at hand. As a result, these solutions usually exhibit a higher degree of detail and sophistication.


Number of university partners

You will need to decide on the number of universities you’d like to partner and collaborate with as this influences the challenge process and outcome. Developing a challenge together with several universities brings the benefit of receiving a multitude of solutions to your problem and means less intensive supervision of a larger number of students. Partnering with only one university, for instance the local university in your region, will enable you to engage in more in-depth collaboration and supervision of a smaller number of students.


Type of collaboration

Which kind of collaboration suits your company? While it is recommended to use traditional face-to-face collaboration, virtual or hybrid collaboration provides for a convenient and flexible option if you’d like to offer an international challenge. Here, you will need to find the right proportion of face-to-face and virtual activities. In the case of fully virtual collaboration, you need to ensure a good level of connectivity and communication with academic staff and students.


Study level

Depending on the focus of your challenge, you have to decide on whether your challenge will be open to undergraduate or postgraduate students, or both. This will depend on the experience level you deem necessary to work on the challenge you provide.


Student diversity

The challenge-based learning approach values participation of mixed student teams which are made up of students from different disciplines, universities and countries. Where possible, configure a diverse student team as this enriches team creativity and in effect, the quality of solutions delivered.

Gain an understanding about the role of business partners in sustainable venturing challenges  

Providing a sustainable venturing challenge to university students can be energising for business partners and educators alike. However, given that it comprises a high level of co-creation, it requires additional effort in terms of involvement and time. During the challenge activity or programme, you will engage in multiple roles and it is important to develop a good understanding of what these individual roles entail:

Company representative

You will be responsible for representing your company in academia, both to university staff and students. Acting as intermediary between your company management and the university, you engage in managing and maintaining the challenge process, ensuring smooth collaboration and communicating expectations on both sides.


Given the co-creational nature of challenges, you work side-by-side with students to develop a solution to your business problem. As you do so, you provide the students with expert knowledge linked to your specific field and give input on company- and industry-related topics. Besides engaging in direct discussion, you might also provide supplementary data and methodological insights, if useful for advancing the challenge process.


As the students get to know the business problem you are facing and begin to develop new ideas, it will be important to provide them with support and the right tools along the way. Sharing your experience and giving insights into project management and planning, proper time management and delegation as well as communication and negotiation will provide them with necessary guidance and help to boost their motivation for solving the challenge.

Jury member and assessor

At the end of the challenge, it will be your task to evaluate the student ideas and solutions and check their potential for implementation at your company. Usually, this takes place in the form of a final pitch event. Here, the academic staff will ensure that all materials and systems necessary for you to fulfil your role as jury member are provided.

Connect & Co-design

Scout for suitable academic partners

Finding a suitable academic partner largely depends on the business problem you want to provide and how you envision to engage in the challenge process. But where to get started with your search for universities suitable for cooperation, in the first place? There are several possible ways to scout for the right academic partner:

Individual professional networks

Start by scanning your own professional network and check your contact databases for suitable contacts or those that can refer you. Also consider rediscovering dormant ties and relationships that have faded out of view. In the case of prior experience in academia, reconnect with past employers.


University transfer offices

University transfer offices are a suitable first point of contact to inquire about opportunities for collaboration. Transfer office staff can also redirect and put you in touch with a specific university department they deem suitable based on your requirements.

University entrepreneurship support

Reach out to entrepreneurship support centres at universities to learn of ongoing activities and venturing formats to see whether your proposed challenge activity fits with their programme.

Digital platforms

There are several actors who have specialised in connecting companies interested providing business challenges with suitable universities. Browse our emerging database of sustainable venturing challenge platforms and matchmakers to see whether there’s a suitable university partner for your individual needs.

Media announcements and platforms

Stay abreast of the latest news from the university ecosystem, subscribe to receive regular press information from specific innovation-oriented universities or browse media platforms specialised in higher education to learn of universities interested in collaborating with business partners.

Check compatibility

Once you have identified a potential university partner, there are several key criteria that should be considered and cross-checked, and which, if met, lay the foundation for building a solid partnership, including:


Innovation orientation

Does the university’s innovation orientation fit your innovation endeavour and the challenge format you envision to implement?


Impact orientation

Is the university aiming to generate impact through the collaboration? Together with you, is the academic staff willing to develop and set clear impact objectives?


Sustainability orientation

What is the company’s strategy and level of engagement regarding environmental and social sustainability? Does it suit the intent of co-developing sustainable ideas and solutions?


Resource availability

Do you both dispose of the necessary resources to ensure a fruitful collaboration, for instance with regards to time and personnel?



Is the university willing to share all necessary information, know-how and data to ensure that the challenge is designed and implemented in an effective way?



What drives you both to co-design and co-implement the sustainable venturing challenge? Collaboration in venturing challenges requires upfront commitment and the willingness to interact with an outside actor who brings in different values and working approaches. Does the university’s level of commitment and intent fit with your yours?

Discuss requirements, set conditions and co-design challenge

Once you have identified a suitable academic partner, you should enter into discussion to discuss key requirements and together, begin to prepare the challenge. To ensure successful collaboration, the following topics should form the basis for discussion:


Managing expectations

Make sure to clarify expectations early on in the partnership process. Managing and aligning expectations is important for ensuring a good collaboration. This includes defining the role you will take on as business partner, but also clarifying the roles of academic staff and students in the challenge process. It is also important to discuss how much time and resources each of you will invest in preparing and implementing the challenge activity or programme. It is also recommended to discuss the intended learning objectives for students. The most important things you decide on should be documented in project plans and be set forth in a formal agreement. Also check in advance whether you wish to set up a non-disclosure agreement and prepare this with the university’s legal services, if necessary. Also discuss who receives what rights to the results produced.


Defining challenges

Discuss how to frame and communicate the business problem to the students. It is important that the challenge is neither formulated too broadly nor too narrowly. It should be open enough to foster students’ creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, but concrete enough to provide them with a sufficient degree of clarity and to not overwhelm them. It can be helpful to ask the following question: “What can be done to create a solution to the problem?” This question leads to a challenge and contains a lot of learning possibilities for the students. Asking how to solve a problem goes in the wrong direction (at least in terms of following the challenge-based learning approach), as it suggests that the solution is already known and the students are only to carry out operative implementation.


Handling VUCA

VUCA is an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity and is used to describe the nature of challenges. Both sides should be aware of this and discuss how to handle it.


Choosing suitable collaboration spaces

Based on the duration and type of collaboration, determine which collaboration and meeting spaces you will need. Also consider whether you would like to provide your company facilities as a learning location for the students. If you engage in virtual collaboration, you will also have to give thought to the design of the virtual collaboration spaces.


Preparatory training

Discuss with the academic staff whether and in what way training to prepare for your role as coach and mentor to the students will be necessary.


Implementing student ideas and solutions

You should reflect on the “after-phase” of the challenge. In the case that you decide to work with the developed student ideas and solutions, how will you go about implementing and measuring the impact of the implemented solutions? How will you involve the students in this process?


Assessing and grading student teams

How do you plan on assessing the students’ ideas and solutions and which evaluation criteria will you use? Together with the educators, you should decide on whether you will grade the final ideas and whether your company will issue official certification for the students’ achievements.

Implement & Reflect

Implement the challenge programme or activity following the different stages of the challenge process

Student-business challenges in sustainable venturing will typically feature the stages shown below. In each of these stages, companies and academic staff are involved to a varying extent. As a business partner, your input during the kick-off of the challenge format is extremely important for setting the stage and making sure that students can develop a sense of motivation and take ownership of the challenge they derive from your business problem. This includes supplying material which includes information on your company activities, structure and strategy, as well as background information about the problem associated with the challenge. You might also include information on your expectations to the students and pose specific questions related to the topic that you want the students to investigate for you. Academic staff will provide student guidelines which detail the planned challenge procedure and the expected role of students, academic staff and the business partner.

Depending on the level of engagement agreed on, the business partners make time available to act as coaches and mentors during the stages in which the students generate ideas and develop a concrete solution. As regards the learning process during challenges, the widely recognised Challenge-based Learning Framework formulates three interrelated phases: “Engage”, “Investigate” and “Act”. In the engagement phase, challenge participants explore the given problem and based on this, move towards formulating a challenge. The investigation phase involves in-depth research and analysis which result in multiple perspectives and new ideas. Refining these ideas leads to the final phase of action in which the participants eventually develop a concrete solution. During the presentation of the student solutions, business partners act as jury members alongside the academic staff and together, assess the proposed solutions.
Analyse data to evaluate and improve the challenge

The assessment and evaluation will be managed by academic staff to a large extent, but will involve your support to assess and evaluate the outcomes of the challenge. This will ensure that all involved can grasp the impact of their commitment and in the case of continued collaboration, improve the challenge activity or programme with regard to efficiency and effectiveness.

If you would like to measure and improve the impact of your challenge activity or programme, the “Guidelines for the evaluation of collaborative student-business venturing activities” are a suitable resource. The manual is aimed at both company managers and academic staff and introduces approaches to make transparent the costs, benefits as well as the outputs, outcomes and impacts of student-business collaboration schemes in sustainable venturing. It also shows how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of existing teaching and learning schemes, and provides insights on how to improve and develop them further.



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powered by ScaleUp4Sustainability
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
Department of Business Administration, Economics and Law
Adj. Prof. Innovation Management and Sustainability
Ammerländer Heerstr. 114-118, 26129 Oldenburg, Germany

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The platform was created as part of the ScaleUp4Sustainability project. ScaleUp4Sustainability (Project Reference: 601150-EPP-1-2018-1-DE-EPPKA2-KA) is funded by the Erasmus+/Knowledge Alliance Programme of the European Union.