October 13, 2015

GRANT | The Future of Hackathons

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This weekend, the New York Economic Development Corporation and Cornell Tech launched the 2015 I Heart FinTech Conference at the NYU Skirball Center. Although we generally think about hackathons as events for hardcore computer science majors who never see the light of day, according to I Heart FinTech’s Participation Stats, aggregating data from the past three hackathons in Fall 2014 and Spring 2015, computer science majors only made up 34 percent of the participants. I contend that the remaining 66 percent are individuals who have skillsets applicable to solving everyday problems, people who are looking for the space to bring their talents to life.

Last April, I attended Cornell Tech’s Health Hack, I was surprised to see a large number of medical, graduate and business school students at a hackathon. Based on I Heart FinTech’s Participation Stats, the 66 percent non-computer science majors range from liberal arts majors to engineers and everything in between. The goal for every group is the same: to address a company’s problem that needs solving, providing a business model that the company can use to solve a particular issue.  Despite academically diverse teams joining together, the fact of the matter is that victory for one team means the demise of another. If a team does not measure up to the judge’s standards, at the end of the hacking weekend, that team is sent home without a prize, which can range from investor funding to office space to work on their idea and develop it further.

Here lies a problem for spurring innovation: If twelve teams compete for three prizes, nine are destined to go home empty handed. For serious project teams, after a hackathon, a team will need physical space to incubate and become the next big startup, which will promote innovation and job creation longer than the limited period of two day hackathon. For this reason, having access to space helps hackers — and this problem has been taken on by Lars Hinrich, Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and Founder of Apartimentum, Europe’s leading smart-tech ecosystem.

A colleague of Mr. Hinrichs, Manouchehr Shamsrizi, puts it: “Lars is helping IoT-startups a lot by bringing them into his Apartimentum project,” by specifically designating space by cubic meters in his new apartment complex Apartimentum for innovators like these hackers. Today, Cornell innovators are thankful that places such as the POPSHOP in Collegetown exist. For Cornell Tech students, it’s important to have access to workspaces that are cheap and easily accessible. Perhaps Ithaca’s own real estate leader John Novarr will set his sights on providing innovators with more spaces like POPSHOP in his apartments in Collegetown. Or maybe Mr. Hinrichs, a regular attendant of TED in California, will visit the new Cornell campus the next time he is in the United States.

Furthermore, hackers who want to encourage greater innovation in the future should work to foster collaborations across a number of disciplines — perhaps even solving their own space problems by working with designers and architects to create spaces that incubate creativity.

Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jg856@cornell.edu. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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