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Science & Technology

Product Design "Duck Tank" Competition Celebrates Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Jes Burns

University of Oregon student-entrepreneurs walked away with a cash prize after competing in the inaugural Colligan User Interface Design Challenge. The aim of the so-called "Duck Tank" was to give students real-world experience conceptualizing a product and pitching it to investors. 

Fans of reality TV may be familiar with ABC's "Shark Tank."  In the show, entrepreneurs pitch a business idea before a panel of venture capitalists who either fund or reject the pitch.

"Duck Tank" is a bit less cut-throat.

First and foremost, the idea is to educate and encourage the entrepreneurial spirit.  U of O Product Design Professor Jason Germany co-organized the competition.

Credit Jes Burns

Germany: "I think for students it has the opportunity to empower them to believe that they can develop their own ideas and potentially pursue them on their own.  As opposed to always looking for an existing job opportunity or working to develop ideas for someone else… That they have an opportunity to pursue their own ideas."

This could be an invaluable skill for college graduates because youth unemployment in the US remained above 16% in 2013.  

"Duck Tank" is not a class at the University of Oregon.  Instead the students volunteered to compete by creating a new user interface.  That's the industry term for how people interact with technology, and it's exactly what Product Design Senior Sarah Burns wants to do when she graduates.

Burns: "All of us are more interested in the tech side of product design, so interface design, digital graphic design, and user experience."

Her team, Iris, was one of four to make it through the "elevator pitch" round in December to compete in the finals just last week.

Credit Jes Burns
University of Oregon students await the results of the "Duck Tank."

Team Iris: "Today we want to present to you our three-part design product, which is an aid for international medical communications systems."

Team Iris and three others presented their ideas to a panel of technology and innovation experts, including competition name-sake Ed Colligan.  The U of O grad went on to become a pioneer in mobile technology at Palm.  

Colligan: "Who do you sell this to?  Have you thought about the market and who you'd sell that to and how big it is?"

A large focus of the design challenge was to create an interdisciplinary opportunity for students.  The competition attracted participants from 16 different majors. Kimberly Andrews Espy is UO vice president for research and innovation.

Credit Jes Burns
Ed Colligan presents "Duck Tank" awards.

Espy: "Many of the problems that we have left to solve require people from different backgrounds coming together to have different eyes on the problem. That's what you saw here today."

In the end the ambitious medical translation device of Team Iris placed second behind a restaurant rating app called TasteBuds.  After their pitch, Andrew Landau of team TasteBuds was feeling confident.

Landau: "Once it started flowing, I felt like we really killed it on our presentation.  I like that the judges were asking us a lot, because I could see they were inter… or it seemed like they were interested.  So I like how they kind of hammered us and we got some good ideas."

They also got $8,000 to help launch their business.

The Colligan Design Challenge will continue at least one more year at the University of Oregon - with a new batch of innovative Ducks diving headlong into the tank.