The next generation of entrepreneurs, startups, leaders and developers are the innovators behind the emerging technologies making history in our digital era. To inspire and engage with them, Cisco launched the Innovation Grand Challenge, focused on finding fresh and exciting market opportunities  and game-changing trends.

During last year’s competition, dozens of teams competed for a share of $250,000 to jumpstart their ventures.  Awarded at the Internet of Things World Forum in Dubai, winners also received access to Cisco mentors, resources, as well as potential partners and funding opportunities.

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John Chambers, Executive Chairman of the Board at Cisco, inspects a Green City Solutions CityTree on display at Viva Technology.

We are currently holding the 2016 Grand Innovation Challenge.  We thought you’d enjoy a look back at how the winners from the last challenge are disrupting industries impact the world. First up of a three-part “Innovation Grand Challenge: Where Are They Now” series, is Zhengliang Wu, CIO of Green City Solutions.

Green City Solutions has been quite busy since being named a winner in the Innovation Grand Challenge. In fact, just last week, they were busy at
Viva Technology Paris, an international start-up event. There everyone got to see Green City Solutions deploy its first “city tree” in Paris. As you see from the pictures, Green City Solutions has a great deal of interest around its deployment; certainly the mark of a truly unique idea. I’ll share some other pictures as well, but rather than keep you waiting, let’s hear from Green City: 

Q: Zhengliang, thanks for taking time to speak with us! Please provide a bit of background on your experience and how it helped to start your company’s journey with the Cisco Grand Innovation challenge?

A: I’ve always been intrigued by DIY hacking projects, maker fairs and open source software and hardware. All of this gives people an easy way to build things on their own, educate themselves and help them approach problems differently. That’s why I am also a big fan of using design thinking to compliment an approach to finding a solution.

As far as my education, I studied media informatics in Germany and started out as freelance web designer. When Green City Solutions was founded, I shifted my focus to augmented reality first and then to IoT.

Q: How did the Cisco Innovation Grand Challenge come across your team’s radar?

A: Our Senior Manager of business development was conducting research on IoT market opportunities and discovered the Internet of Things World Forum and the Innovation Global Challenge in Dubai. We thought it was a long shot, but tried our luck, and here we are a year later.

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The CityTree currently has the air cleaning power of 275 trees.

Q: We know that Green City Solutions’ innovation lies in helping cities clean their polluted air. Why did your team focus on solving such a massive problem?

A: Air pollution is a global threat that causes millions of deaths. It’s a problem we have to start applying real solutions to.

Every day, 90 percent of cities’ inhabitants breathe polluted air, which is the cause of every seventh death worldwide. The major components of air pollution are nitrogen oxides, ozone and especially fine dust (PM),  which 10µg per m³ of air shorten the life span by half a year. At the same time, the global population is going urban and in 2050, 80 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

Q: It’s definitely a dire situation. How did you approach solving this complicated problem?

A: We took a look at our four co-founders’ roots and created CityTree – a freestanding installation that’s equivalent to the air cleaning power of 275 trees.  Each one helps rid the air of pollutants, like nitrous oxides, ozone and other harmful agents.  They are 95 percent more effective when compared to power of those 275 trees, and take up less space.

A special moss culture literally attracts air pollutants from the atmosphere, and we use IoT technology to trace where we’ve reduced pollution.

Essentially, CityTree unites horticulture, informatics with architecture and mechanical engineering – our four co-founders’ college majors – to fight a major global problem.

It took years of research and work to create CityTree.  A great deal of the knowledge about which plants to use, and how to use them, is based on research conducted over 10 years at different universities in Germany.

We started our venture back in the summer of 2013, and had our first minimally viable product in May 2015. Since then, we’ve grown our development team by three more people and are continuously working to improve on what we do.

Q: We are quite impressed. We know getting a venture like this off the ground wasn’t easy. What would you say was your biggest challenge with, well – everything?

A: For every start-up, finances are always a big issue. Unless you are bootstrapping a software venture, you’ll always need money to back up an idea and a great team behind it.

We were actually pretty lucky we already knew each other as friends and were able to start a company that way, because another big obstacle is finding the right people who share the same vision.

Q: Obstacles don’t end once you join in the Innovation Grand Challenge, right? As you went through the challenge, what kept you up at night and how did you resolve those issues?

A: We actually had two big challenges that were essential for our success. One of them was the videos we had to provide during the application phase.

I spent a lot of time and effort in making those short clips which were only eight minutes in total, but I think people who have experience in video editing know that even short clips can take a long time. In the end a little creativity combined with perseverance and dedication made it work.

The other challenge was of course the final pitch to convince the jury that our venture was viable. The problem we are tackling, air pollution, is invisible to the human eye so I had to rely on other instruments to show that the problem exists. Luckily, next to the venue where the IoT World Forum was held, there was a monitoring station for air pollution and the PM10 levels were quite high on that morning. At the beginning of the pitch I actually used respiratory protection to catch the jury’s attention.

Q: So you fought through those obstacles, obviously, but what were some of the disappointments and revelations you discovered during the Innovation Grand Challenge?

A: I think a big disappointment in the beginning was the realization that our business model did not work as well as we imagined it would. That’s why, like many other start-ups we had to adapt and partly pivot to get to the point where we are now.

Also we are always sad to see friends and people leave our venture to pursue their own dreams and careers, but of course we wish them the best of luck. Since air pollution affects almost 90 percent of all city residents it was hard to believe that actions still take a long time to be implemented due to the decision process and structure municipalities and cities have. It was hard to get people to understand what problem we want to solve because many people don’t know about the dangers of air pollution.

If you can’t see, taste, feel or smell a problem how can you convey the message? But now we know that with all the data that is available already we can use IoT technology amongst other technologies to achieve that goal. And that is why a big success for us was to win the Innovation Grand Challenge and gain Cisco as a partner, for instance for a smart-city project in Paris to help us accelerate our business.

Q: How did the Cisco Innovation Grand Challenge help you grow and expand your profile?

A: The financial support was of course, huge. But, apart from giving us financial support, winning the challenge resulted in a huge marketing boost. With Cisco’s help, we found new global partners and accelerated our expansion.

Q: Be candid – what was the biggest surprise about working with Cisco and your mentors?

A: We were – and still are – astonished by the size of Cisco’s network, their willingness to connect us to people and their openness in sharing their resources with us. We had amazing and knowledgeable mentors from all over the world that supported us with invaluable advice. And together with Cisco, we’ve formed a partnership for a Smart City project in Paris.

Q: Your product is fascinating and we give kudos to your team for creating a solution that benefits the entire world. It sounds like your experience after the Innovation Grand Challenge has been nothing short of incredible. Do you have any advice for future IGC participants?

A: Enjoy the time you’ll spend at the Innovation Grand Challenge Live Finals. Take full advantage of opportunity you now have in your lap to gather new contacts and learn about upcoming challenges.

As far as the selection process, try to work on it with your entire team. And, for the pitch, as always: practice, practice, practice.

Embarking on this challenge is a lot of hard work, obviously. But, don’t forget to have fun along the journey!

Do you have a disruptive idea that will transform an industry or impact social change?  The Cisco Innovation Grand Challenge is open for submissions through August 31. Enter it now and visit the FAQ page to learn more.


Alex Goryachev

Senior Director, Innovation Strategy & Programs

Corporate Strategic Innovation Group