For Dan Katcher and a five-person team from Rocket Farm Studios, staying up all night to participate in an Internet of Things hackathon was part training exercise, part marketing for their small company, and a lot of intensive team-building.
The Boston-based interactive firm competed in the LiveWorx 2015 IoT hackathon, held at Boston University’s Engineering Product Innovation Center. What emerged after long hours of concepts and coding was a game app to help backyard farmers and community gardeners increase their production and network with neighbors while charting their progress via smartphones.
The app is called FARMR, and it uses sensor data and wireless networks to share moisture, light, and pH levels through game-like animations. Even if the app never gets to market, the experience was worth it, Katcher said.
Just entering the hackathon was a chance to see the next generation of sensors and get a view of possible clients. Most of their work is behind-the-scenes so another novelty was developing for the “front end” or consumer audience.
“It was exciting, and exhausting,” said designer Nancie Kelly.
And when Katcher accepted a prize check from Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, in front of thousands of people at Boston’s convention center, the company got a publicity boost no PR agency could match.
It added up to a lot of gain for one sleepless night.
The RocketFarm team included a graphic designer, marketer, a coding expert, and even a part-time employee who wanted to sharpen his skills.
Hackathons, idea jams, meetups and other kinds of short-term projects apply serious time pressure to a particular challenge and create a new set of insights. Sometimes, they generate technical or business model breakthroughs, using new approaches or integrating ideas from another industry. They’re not just for amped up collegiates and wanna-be entrepreneurs.
Like runners who advance from 10k races to marathons to triathlons, hackathons run the gamut from on-campus competitions to national events. There is even a website and Twitter feed (@hackathonwatch) devoted to HackathonWatch – as people and companies enter events to raise start-up cash, scout for talent, innovative ideas or potential partnerships.
Open innovation programs widen participation online and in-person. Some companies are using a similar approach, hosting events that get clients and partners more closely aligned, said Kyle Seaman, director at Freight Farms, which uses shipping containers as high-output locations for planting food crops.
“Sometimes just getting so many creative people in a room provides a fresh view of the situation and solutions,” Seaman said. “People want a problem solved and they want to help using tools that already exist.”
A hackathon might be the start of a new project or a way to test ideas about deploying new technology in your daily work. What challenges might you open up to a community? You may give up a little control over the process, but the answers will surprise you.
Tips for hackathon success:
Keep motivation up while shedding non-core ideas quickly. Focusing on a few specific milestones can be difficult when time is tight. Teams of strangers can use a ‘secret ballot’ to select what their team’s results should look like to avoid hurt feelings. Or choose a team manager early who can coordinate and lead effectively.
One of the LiveWorx 2015 judges, Canary co-founder Chris Rill, gave an unannounced prize—a Canary wireless home security device—to a hackathon team in the wee hours of night. That “Midnight Warrior” prize was the kind of spontaneous surprise that keeps teams moving ahead, he said, when dealing with dead-ends, experiments that fail or other roadblocks.
Assemble a diverse set of viewpoints and expertise. Rill, a two-time LiveWorx hackathon participant, won in 2013, then crowdfunded that idea into a company. That initial win might not have happened without people with unique backgrounds.
“You need a designer, a builder, a storyteller – a range of different skills,” Rill said. “It’s not enough to build, you have to explain it and sell it.”
Have a back-up plan (maybe more than one). Putting together a “Plan B” set of goals is key. At most product-based hackathons, judges want to see a prototype or the start of one, not just a presentation of slides.
Spend some time researching the market opportunity and competitive landscape.
Be prepared for emergencies, said Kevin Holbrook, who hosted the Liveworx hackathon. Pack back-up batteries, a spare WiFi router to make sure you have enough bandwidth, or a Swiss Army Knife.
Use what you know. Leverage what you know in an existing technology or industry and explore new ways of using it, suggested David Wang, a LiveWorx winner with Team SafeSign. His knowledge of machine learning is based on text applications, he said, so he wanted to experiment with video, camera-based vision analysis or live-data flows. He’s participated in several competitions with various teams and has more planned.
“The hackathon is a great opportunity to learn and I try to do something different in every event,” he said. “It’s exciting, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
Don’t fear going it alone. Esya Volchek was a one-woman team at LiveWorx 2015. She built a data gathering app for commercial gardeners. Watering, fertilizing and other events could be managed remotely based on alerts and real-time information.
She described the solo hackathon experience as “intense” and has entered other competitions both as a solo act and with friends.
Teams often add or lose members during a hackathon – creating opportunities to join teams or spin off as fluid situations change.
Photos by Matt Butler.