On a summer day in a downtown Syracuse office, six students are hard at work developing a business plan as part of an internship with Ramboll, formerly OBG. Their plan could help find a solution to an ecological problem affecting bodies of water around the world: harmful algal blooms—mass proliferations of cyanobacterial or algal cells that can produce toxins and deplete the oxygen in water.
The students, three from Syracuse University and three from Clarkson University , were among the cohort of 54 students who participated in Ramboll’s annual SPARK competition at the Syracuse Center of Excellence (SyracuseCoE), where students develop solutions for a problem statement based on industry challenges. They were selected based on their individual performances by Jamie Newtown, the director of innovation at Ramboll, who manages the company’s ideation and execution process.
“We identified several students that were shining stars from their participation in the SPARK program,” says Newtown, who developed the competition in partnership with Syracuse University in 2013. “We wanted those students to take part in an internship program, but also leverage the opportunity to do something more meaningful.”
For the 10-week paid internship, Newtown asked the students to develop a method of collecting and analyzing data that could be used to detect and predict harmful algal blooms, which have been occurring more frequently in recent years due to increasing rainfall, temperatures and use of fertilizers. When the bloom decomposes, it can contaminate fish, make water undrinkable and cause illnesses or even death in humans and animals.
Ramboll worked in partnership with SyracuseCoE. As one of the first steps, SyracuseCoE engaged collaborators at Corning Incorporated and at Syracuse University’s Blackstone LaunchPad to provide subject-matter expertise. The first two to three weeks of the internship, students worked with experts to understand harmful algal blooms.
“We focused on the science of harmful algal blooms and how to detect and monitor them,” says Trufat Emanuel, a systems and information science major in the in the College of Engineering and Computer Science . “We spent a lot of time learning the biologics of them and researching sensors capable of detecting everything we needed.”
SyracuseCoE also worked with Ramboll to provide an office suite for independent work and collaboration. On average, the team had 10-16 weekly hours of direct contact with program leaders and experts who would offer feedback or challenge the students to step in a different direction. The rest of the time the students worked independently.
“This was a highly intensive and involved internship,” says Adam Sherwood, a civil engineering student at Clarkson. “We were encouraged to solve things on our own as a team.”
The students learned how to adapt quickly based on client feedback and ideate based on different perspectives. “My collaboration skills have advanced so much,” Sherwood says. “I have a better understanding of what roles within a team can put the team in a more successful position.”
After the team developed their plan—to create a data warehouse of hyperspectral and water quality data using both an unmanned aerial drone equipped with a hyperspectral sensor as well as an autonomous boat that collects water samples and water quality data at various locations—the next step was to develop a marketing strategy.
“We spent the first few weeks doing typical engineering work—research and field work—but it quickly shifted to a business project,” says Emanuel, who has a management minor. “This internship showed me the importance of business and makes me value my minor a lot more.”
Kaitlin Rossiter, a Clarkson University student studying chemical engineering, agrees. “I learned how to shift to an entrepreneurial mindset,” she says. “As an engineering major, I was focused on the technical knowledge, but the team was steered toward developing a business and marketing approach to solving problems.”
With many of the students studying different aspects of engineering and coming together to learn the business side, the internship also taught the students how to add value to future teams.
“This experience opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on engineering,” says Haleem Alakiu, a chemical engineering major in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “We typically focus on finding technical solutions to problems. This internship caused me to look at my problem-solving through a business-centric context.”
This experience opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on engineering. We typically focus on finding technical solutions to problems. This internship caused me to look at my problem-solving through a business-centric context.—Haleem Alakiu
The students were also exposed to careers in which they could apply the skills they were learning. “Prior to the summer I didn’t really know what field I would go in after graduation,” Alakiu adds. “Ramboll showed me the fascinating world of consulting.”
In addition to meeting with industry partners and employees at Ramboll, students presented their pitch deck to the firm's Global Executive Board. “We were able to network with CEOs, CFOs and directors,” says Noah Poirier, who is studying mechanical and aeronautical engineering at Clarkson University.
SyracuseCoE invited the students to participate in its annual Innovation Showcase, where they presented a poster and discussed their experience with members of the campus and community. “This internship has greatly developed my networking skills and increased my awareness of the innovation ecosystem that is present in Syracuse,” Rossiter says.
A Ramboll team used the students’ business plan to create a startup, BloomOptix, which provides high-resolution, accurate, timely information that supports early detection and future forecasting of harmful algal blooms. The startup was entered into GENIUS NY, the world's largest business accelerator competition for unmanned systems, which is funded by Empire State Development and housed at CenterState CEO’s The Tech Garden in Syracuse. BloomOptix earned a top-19 selection from a field of over 400 global competitors and has also been selected for IDEA NY, a business accelerator competition. In July, they will present to a panel of judges seeking $200,000 of funding to continue to advance the startup.
While the students can be proud of the legacy created by their work on BloomOptix, the internship’s value lies in their gained experience solving real-life issues through innovative solutions and teamwork.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I could not be more grateful,” Poirier says.