“We’ll throw particles together and see what happens.”
Those were the opening words Stu Fergus gave as he started the Blackstone LaunchPad IoTathon, a hackathon this month.
Fergus, the program manager for Blackstone LaunchPad at Trinity College Dublin, says something powerful happens when you bring different kinds of people together in one room.
What started initially as software-creating marathons, the hackathon has increasingly become a common way to get the creative and innovative juices flowing. Hackathons in 2017 are quite different from what they were before, but what makes them special remains constant.
Dublin is home to an amazing assortment of hackathons and hackathon-like gatherings every month. From Chainsmith’s internationally renowned Blockchain hackathon to TechStars’ Startup Weekends each event offers something different.
The day-long Blackstone LaunchPad IoT hackathon at Bank of Ireland’s Trinity campus was my first. It was also the first time the Blackstone LaunchPads at NUI Galway, University College Cork and Trinity held a joint idea-building event.
Blackstone LaunchPad is a campus-based entrepreneurship program, accessible by over 630,000 students globally. It’s designed to support and mentor students, staff and alumni – regardless of major, experience or discipline.
Our goal was to come up with an innovation involving the Internet of Things. With teams of five, post-graduate students mostly studying sciences or engineering brainstormed, developed an idea, and presented it. It was a chance to take risks.
The key ingredient is the randomness of the team. My group of five came from four countries. Each of us brought our own expertise and our own.
“Working in a small group is market research for your own idea,” says Paul O’Shea, a PhD student at University College Cork who was part of my team.
The ideas ranged from sensors to improve farm yields to smart inhalers. Each idea tackled a real problem.
Annamaria Fordymacka, a master’s student at UCC researching biomedical engineering says the IoTathon was about more than our team’s idea.
“It was bringing me outside of my comfort zone, since I’ve never participated in something like this.”
Group work like this also helps individuals realise their weaknesses and strengths. Sebastian Maier, a member of my time and a post-graduate researcher at Trinity, says his background helped him connect the dots even if he didn’t have deep expertise in the topics.
“There are some times I feel there aren’t many substantial things I can contribute,” says Maier. “However, I could connect abstract ideas with a business management.”
It all helps.
— LaunchPad NUIG (@LaunchPadNUIG) July 18, 2017
My team presented the concept of a low-cost sensor inside municipal waste bins to determine if crews need to collect the trash.
“I loved the idea we settled on: the smart waste system,” says Edel Browne, a graduate student at NUI Galway. “ I never would’ve thought of or come up with that without such a diverse group of people.”
I’m proud to say my team, all featured in this article, won the event, despite being close to abandoning our idea an hour and a half before the presentation. It was a beautiful collaboration of individuals to create a greater good.
So what makes a hackathon work?
Gene Murphy, an entrepreneur in residence with Bank of Ireland, organises TechStars’ Startup Weekends in Dublin. He says the secret ingredients of a good hackathon is sort of an “Italian seasoning” of sorts: passionate organisers, attendees with big ideas, and coaches willing to see people succeed even after some tough love.
“Alone they are pretty good,” says Murphy. “But bring these all together in the right amounts and some of my pretty mundane cooking finally is memorable!”
There are legitimate criticisms of hackathons. Anjali Sastry of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Karap Penn of consultancy Mission Spark wrote in Fast Company hackathons rarely spark real and lasting innovation. They argue hackathons are a waste of time, because they operate in a vacuum disconnected from reality.
Furthermore, Sastry and Penn say hackathon cultures, especially on a corporate level, hurt innovation. They say the events create a winner-take-all approach even when no idea is worthy of a win.
There certainly is truth in that.
Most of the pitched ideas at the IoTathon likely won’t end up reaching the market. But that is fine.
Sastry and Penn ignore the benefit of hackathons: inspirational energy and new connections.
Murphy, who organises Startup Weekends says it’s about opening the door for people to entrepreneurship and new skills.
“It’s not a manufacturing line for new startup companies, although some great ideas have turned into business’s from Startup Weekends in Ireland,” says Murphy “It’s more than that. It’s a way for people to realise there are skills to learn, there are places for them in either creating companies or being part of the team that makes great ideas a reality.”
That’s especially true when participants come from fields outside business.
“I can see myself maybe [launch a business] in the future. At the moment I’m more in the research,” says Fordymacka. “I’ve got three more years to think about it.”
Fergus agrees, saying hackathons are as much about the human interaction as the actual ideas presented.
“It pulls back the inhibitions you might have by throwing you in the deep end.”
He compares it to a typical networking night. While you meet people at both, hackathons have the benefit of a purpose. It brings people together and inspires them to do more.
That’s what I came away with. As a journalist, I talk with a lot of entrepreneurs, but I rarely think about starting my own business. After this event, maybe I might reconsider.
It’s a chance for people coming from a wide variety of backgrounds to realise they have something special to offer.
Blackstone Launchpad Trinity sponsored this article and invited me to take part in the programme. However, the opinions expressed reflect my observations. Right now, they are holding their LaunchBox summer accelerator for student businesses. They have been working all summer on getting their companies ready for launch and will present later in August.