Empathy: Enabling students to be entrepreneurs

Article by Adam Duckett

University of Twente
David working on the BuBble Gun project for needle-free injections

David Fernandez Rivas talks to Adam Duckett about interacting and taking risks to innovate

DAVID Fernandez Rivas wants educators and industry to spend more time teaching students to innovate. “I think those who are not talking about innovation or entrepreneurship are doing a bad job,” he says.

Rivas, who teaches chemical engineering at the University of Twente in Netherlands, has co-authored two papers published in the journal Education for Chemical Engineers. The argument these papers make are that while chemical engineering will contribute to sustainability goals, if we continue to mostly apply traditional process optimisation techniques then industry will not bring about the changes quickly enough.

The papers discuss how new generations of chemical engineers need new tools that include a grounding in process intensification so they can help accelerate change from within industry. Rivas teaches process intensification, used its principles to develop “bubble bag” reactors, and has started up a company to sell them, and is using microfluidics to develop needle-free injections.

I had expected our conversation would focus on the need for structural changes to chemical engineering courses, such as unpicking standalone elective units on process intensification and weaving the related content throughout the curriculum, as is common with safety and sustainability.

But it didn’t play out like that. While he accepts process intensification is a useful toolkit, what Rivas describes is a more subtle, underlying change in which the chemical engineering community works together to provide students with the baseline “durable” skills that will enable them to successfully become more innovative and perhaps entrepreneurs.

Empathy relates to the relationships that we need to have with stakeholders. Not only engineer to engineer, but also with the operator in the plant or the community

No es facil

Rivas says his Cuban heritage is important when understanding what he means by entrepreneurship.

“In Cuba, the word itself has a different connotation. It’s about risk taking. Entrepreneurs are risk takers.”

These risks include investing time in an idea, or money, or the risk of failing.

“You could be a brilliant mind, but if you don’t take the idea out of your head and risk the possibility that people think that you are talking nonsense, then you are just a wise person sitting there not interacting with the environment. So, if you really want to change the world or improve it, you need to interact. You need to take risks.”

And “interaction” is a theme that Rivas comes back to time and again. Providing students with knowledge – or the chemical engineering fundamentals – is key but he thinks students need more interactions that help them develop durable skills, and among these he believes empathy is crucial to becoming a successful engineer and entrepreneur.

“Empathy relates to the relationships that we need to have with stakeholders. Not only engineer to engineer, but also with the operator in the plant or the community living near the plant that you are going to build. We need to really start thinking beyond getting higher efficiency or yield – all these technological indicators. They are good but they are nonsense if we don’t really implement them or make it part of [solving] a bigger societal problem.”

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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