Fertile Solutions Abound At Dominican Innovation Bootcamp

Product Development

A 4-day boot camp in the Dominican Republic yields prototypes and presentations, with an emphasis on sustainability. Participants were challenged to help the Cibao region produce agricultural goods more sustainably, and increase awareness and demand for those goods.

Although the azure water and sun-kissed sand of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic is more than worth the visit, it would be an immense oversimplification to not look beyond the water’s edge.

The Dominican Republic is a rich tapestry of history, culture and natural beauty. I am grateful for the opportunity to recently return there for the first time since before the pandemic for a week of innovation programming.

I value the opportunity to share my experiences as an engineer and product development pro. I was fortunate to be part of a team that, with the backing and funding provided by the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, delivered a four-day innovation boot camp in the city of Santiago and a one-day speakers day in the capital of Santo Domingo.

The Dominican Republic is not all about the beaches.

Our week of innovation programming started with a 4-day session in Santiago.

In terms of the major cities, Santo Domingo gets all the headlines. The capital and economic engine of the country, its proximity to Punta Cana tempts plenty of tourists to make a day trip to see the charming colonial zone with its rich history and architecture that dates to the 1500s.

Santiago is the country’s second city, but it is wonderful and vibrant. It lies in the northern part of the island—beautifully located in the shadow of the Cordillera Central mountain range and the Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s highest peak. It has a population of a little over 1 million and is in the heart of the Cibao region, a fertile area that is the country’s major agricultural breadbasket.

Inside Our Training Sessions

A statue in front of the Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración looks out over the Cibao region in Santiago.

Our innovation trainings always start with a challenge question. Staying true to the region’s agrarian roots, we challenged the 20 participants to come up with a solution to “How might we help the Cibao produce agricultural goods more sustainably, and increase awareness and demand for these goods?”

With a focus on getting started versus getting it perfect, teams were intentionally given an aggressive timeline. They had just four days to come up with a solution, build prototypes, and present to Embassy representatives and other guests.

Working at the Centro Cultural Domínico-Americano (CCDA), a nonprofit for binational education and teaching English language to the local community, each team rose to the challenge.

The trainers and students at the CCDA gather.

The training session is rooted in the Design Sprint methodology. The idea is to reduce “group think” brainstorming sessions that often feel good but lead to little or no action.

Alternatively, Design Sprints allow a team to work separately but together and purposefully make decisions that lead to well-thought-out solutions.

My colleagues Eric Gorman and Julia Jackson run a Charlotte-based firm called Wily that helps established firms and startups work through challenges and validate key business questions. They are well versed in helping teams get the most from the sprint.

Eric and Julia spent the first day and a half helping teams define the problem, empathize with the human side of the issue, and help them think two years ahead to what the best and worst cases would be.

To add additional context for the students, guest speaker Gustavo Gandini from Blue Mountain Forrest Vanilla gave a great presentation about organic farming in the Cibao region. By the time the teams were ready to build a prototype, they had well-conceived solutions that had real-world perspective and buy-in from all.

Prototyping Time

Teams used the fundamentals of Design Sprints to narrow down and refine their ideas.

The second half of the training was focused on prototyping. With help from engineers Miguel Herrera and Miguel Vasquez from Xolutronic, an electrical engineering firm in the D.R., we coached the teams in effective rapid prototyping processes.

I brought a bunch of development boards and sensors, and IoT company Particle supported the program and provided a suite of its Argon WiFi development boards for the students at no cost. This allowed me to do a lab session to show how easy it is to use the Particle hardware and platform to build IoT devices in minutes.

I also brought some Adafruit Circuit Playground Express boards to show the students fast electronic prototyping techniques with block coding. Armed with the electronics and a suite of physical prototyping tools, the teams set off to execute their prototypes.

Particle Argons were the backbone of many of the prototypes.

It wasn’t long before the sound of Dremel tools and drills filled the air as cardboard and plastic were cut and shaped into prototypes.

Solutions ranged from compost bins that would give you points for how much food waste was recycled to just-in-time produce delivery systems to match crop readiness to demand at the grocery store, reducing transportation costs.

The teams also did some digital prototyping, creating brands for their new companies and functional prototypes of mobile apps to support their physical products. At the end of the program, all four of the teams presented their solutions to representatives from the U.S. Embassy and the staff from the CCDA.

The presentations and prototypes were deservedly met with applause and with wide-eyed wonder at how the teams developed viable solutions and come so far in so little time.

This prototype was a model of a just-in-time produce delivery solution. It used the Particle system to monitor conditions on the transport truck and alert the colmados (Dominican markets) when the items were ready.

Innovation Speakers Day

After a successful bootcamp, we made our way back to the capital of Santo Domingo to deliver an innovation speakers day.

The program was held at the Instituto Cultural Domínico Americano (ICDA), an English-speaking K-12 school in the heart of the city, and had approximately 60 attendees across the five different sessions.

I did two presentations about product engineering and ways that development programs can go wrong. My colleagues, Eric and Julia, spoke on the power of the design sprint process. Dominican residents Marizeth Beato and Ricky Gluski spoke on open-source hardware development and crowdfunding, respectively.

The lively sessions were high value and elicited great conversations and connections between talks—a great way to finish the trip.

The Dominican Republic is a lovely country whose soul is often overlooked by travelers who only get as far as Punta Cana. It was a privilege to get to work closely with our Dominican partners and learn more about Santiago and the Cibao region, as well as its great natural resources, and involve with local innovators and change-makers.

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