If you have a tough tech problem, try a Hackathon

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If you have a tough tech problem, try a Hackathon
As short and intensive mass meetings for designing technical solutions to current issues, Hackathons are in hi-growth mode. Used by professional developers and migrating rapidly in the US into the college community, they serve several functions simultaneously in the fast-moving hi-tech world.

Hackathons are the very latest in speed-innovation. In the UK they are to be found regularly now in specialised ‘innovation labs’ like IdeaLondon in Tech City, Level39 at Canary Wharf and the Digital Catapult. And they have become commonplace among professional developers in the US, especially in booming tech centres like San Francisco and New York, where they have emerged as prime places for networking, job recruiting, entrepreneurial pitching and, in many cases, winning cash/big prizes.

The goal of a ‘hackathon’ (part ‘marathon’, part ‘hack’) is not to obtain confidential data, but for teams to build a new piece of tech, either of their choosing or with code provided by one of the sponsors; and sponsors often encourage students to use their devices – a team of software engineers from Apple was at one hackathon to mentor students at all hours of day and night.

One team spent the week-end programming four of Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinects with an Oculus Rift reality head-set to create an immersive 3-D video conferencing system. Another found sleep-deprived students participating in a 36-hour contest to program mobile apps, websites or hardware, including aerial drones and virtual reality headsets. At the end, the judges walk around as the programmers show off their projects. The winners of one hackathon had developed a robotic arm controlled by a motion sensor; and they won a free trip on a zero-gravity aeroplane as well as travel expenses and admission to hackathons in Taiwan and South Korea.

Week-end hackathons organised by and for students are surging in scale, size and frequency in the US. Only recently a sub-culture, now they are mainstream: last year there were some 40 inter-collegiate hackathons; this year more than 150 are expected. The longest-running was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and has now ballooned to accommodate 1,200 students each semester; and demand is outpacing growth.

In most cases, sponsors underwrite the entire cost – upward of $300,000 – including travel, food and perks; as well as games – frisbee, laser tags, tug-of-war and yoga sessions. “It’s a big party”, commented the Director of one US university hackathon.

Hackathon-goers maintain that it is not the awards that motivate them, but getting off your butt forces you into situations where you learn new tech skills. They encourage students to tinker with new software and hardware and challenge themselves; and students teach one another – there are experts there on nearly everything. They acquire practical skills that college courses fail to teach them, and gain technical proficiency at a much faster pace. And some of them are spinning off their projects into startups and money-making apps.

Identifying coders who can dream big and thrive under pressure is particularly valuable to Silicon Valley. Since hackathons showcase some of the best, brightest and most motivated upstart programmers, the events have become a focal point for recruiting – some say they are essential for pursuing a career in tech. Likewise, students say that hackathons are an ideal way to test-drive the experience of working at a startup. But for venture capitalists, finding talent is only part of the appeal: they provide opportunities to spot emerging tech developments – with virtual reality projects now taking over from social media apps.

In the US, Hackathons, it is claimed, are instilling in young engineers a sense of life after college, and the feeling that they can accomplish anything. In the UK, for the moment, they are essentially intensive sessions for generating technical solutions to topical problems.

From an article in the New York Times, April 8, 2015

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National Virtual Incubator has untapped potential

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The National Virtual Incubator has vast untapped potential
It can provide intimate learning opportunities with specialist experts – without the need for travel: bringing together startups and experts that have interests in common with the flick of switch (and a bit of organising).

Cisco’s National Virtual Incubator is effectively a number of inter-connected local mini-studios, each strategically located in innovation centres such as science parks, incubators, innovation spaces and universities (currently 13 nodes). Their focus is on startups and early-stage ventures; and their aim is to provide opportunities to showcase and make use of each host’s activities and expertise. (Many solutions are inspired by similar problems from other domains.)

It was described as a bit like engaging with a TV – or as Skype-like conversations writ large, able to project several individual participants at the same time, or groups of participants, and to organise and moderate discussions among the participating nodes: participants can be as little two in each location and as many as a hundred or more. It has the potential to provide intimate learning opportunities with specialist experts – without having to travel more than a few yards!

Currently each month one node runs an event; recent ones include:
• Angels and VCs joining in an Investor Panel to discuss what they were looking for and what is on offer for investors in early-stage ventures – such as the EIS and SEIS schemes; to talk about pitfalls in raising funds and to offer their help.
• The Digital Catapult Centre has run in information session on MassChallenge with the University of Strathclyde and The Landing hub in Salford.
• The Swansea node ran an event on Big Data.
• Ten startups across a number of nodes came together to discuss the creation of mobile apps.
• The Sunderland node joined with InnovateUK to talk about the latter’s activities and offers, and about the launch of the local Digital Catapult Centre.
• And on two occasions, IdeaLondon has run events where customers were brought in and SMEs pitched their problems to them – looking for solutions.

It is ideal for bringing together those in the same field who are in different places (1); and for bringing together experts in some field with potential beneficiaries who are in another part of the country or even in another country (2) – a sort of magic conference.

Started less than two years ago, it is on a steep leaning curve. The hardware is provided by Cisco and the dedicated space and the management are provided by the local host. There is an NVI website, which is evolving and becoming better known; and each node has ‘lead’ participants who meet twice a year to co-ordinate the activities of the network and identify good examples to showcase [where leaders of Accelerator programmes, VCs, InnovateUK and the Digital Catapult could also have a useful contribution.]

(1) BT Labs use electronic conferencing facilities
BT Labs has equipped many of its development teams with large plasma screens, interactive white boards and video conference facilities (round one half of a circular conference table with the project team round the other half), enabling their members to conference or ‘hothouse’ (a sort of BT Hackathon) alone or with fellow teams eg in Ireland or Bangalore.

(2) ‘Mentor Managers’ can work miracles for startups
Above all else, early-stage ventures need their hands holding in their new adventures, but they have no idea about whose hands to hold. Mentor Managers find experienced and expert mentors by searching on the internet and linking up with them by Skype. http://wp.me/p3beJt-9R Jan 2015

John Whatmore
March 2015
Website: http://johnwhatmore.com

An Accelerator Workshop

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Accelerators – a Discussion Forum                                                                          under Chatham House Rules                                                                               Wednesday,18 June, 2014                                                                                                    at IDEALondon, 69 Wilson Street, London EC2A 2BB

An opportunity to meet up with people involved with early-stage projects – Incubators, Science Parks, Enterprise programmes and Accelerators – to learn about and discuss the experience of those involved with Accelerators.

At IDEALondon, UCL’s new incubator in Tech City (where we will have a tour), two Accelerator leaders and a mentor/investor will tell us about their experience; we will discuss problems and opportunities – in problem-solving mode – and what makes for a successful Accelerator; and a Guru will offer us a picture of what Accelerators might be like in 2020.

To book a place, see below.

AGENDA

9.30 Coffee and registration.

10.00 Introductions: John Whatmore.                                                                         Participants: your role and your interests in Accelerators?

10.30 Jessica Stacey, joint author (with Paul Miller – see below) of Nesta’s recent report Good Incubation, will give a quick overview of the different applications and approaches of Accelerators that we are seeing; and the opportunities they present.

11.15 Coffee

11.35 Paul Miller, Bethnal Green Ventures (and joint author of Nesta’s report Good Incubation, and of Nesta’s earlier report, The Startup Factories), will join Simon Jenner, Oxygen Accelerator, and Stuart Hillston, a multiple mentor and investor, to discuss the best and the worst of their experiences – on topics such as: recruiting good candidates, delivering an effective programme, mentors and mentoring, relationships with funders, and setting up and running an Accelerator.

12.45 Buffet lunch followed by a short tour of UCL’s Incubator

2.00 Kate Stuart-Cox, an expert facilitator in problem-solving will discuss with us ways in which aspiring entrepreneurs (and others involved) might be helped to solve problems.

2.30 Group discussions: what in your experience is best about Accelerators; and what are the downsides.

3.15 Tea

3.30 Group discussions continue: what are your plans for the future (changes, developments, innovations); and what is holding you up?

4.00 Groups report back to a full session.

4.30 Final session: Nektarios Liollios, CEO of Startupbootcamp Fintech, just launching here in London, has run Accelerators in a number of cities throughout the world, and is a leading expert on them. He will speculate about the future of Accelerators: might they become the universal approach to generating innovation; and if so, who will lead their adoption; and how might they differ in different circumstances?

5.00 Finish

Cost: £245+VAT = £294.To reserve a place, (places will be limited)e-mail john.whatmore@btinternet.com. Your place will be confirmed on receipt of payment – either by cheque to the Centre for Leadership in Creativity,

138 Iffley Road, London W6 0PE, or by bank transfer to the Centre’s bank, HSBC, sort code 40-03-21, account no 62065010.

Is Level39 at Canary Wharf the future of Innovation

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Eric van der Kleij suggests that innovation centres are a valuable way of providing comprehensive support for new hi-growth businesses – in their best markets; and every city should have one.

 

Who better to ask about the future of innovation, than Eric van der Kleij, formerly Head of Tech City at Shoreditch, and now Head of Level39, Canary Wharf’s innovation space. Accelerators, he responded will specialise; they will spawn natural pre-cursors and after-care, they will proliferate and they will be more about revenue than about investment – more about growth than about funding. And innovation spaces will be a natural feature of cities and clusters.

He believes that Accelerators will become more thematic, citing The Bakery in London, with its Adtech focus, and the Tramperies, whose progenitor Charles Armstrong, has just opened the ‘Fashion Pub’ – a workspace for fashion designers and startups in Hackney. Other new specialist programmes include Ravensbourne College of Art’s incubator programme in Media Technology and Design, and UCL’s IDEALondon space with its focus on future media, healthcare and mobile.

And Eric sees a future for the Technology Strategy Board funded Catapults, designed to propel forward specific areas where technologies promise innovation. Hack Days, of which Level39 has run many in the past year, can help to identify commercialisable IP, and the Catapults need good leaders who can manage the tech transfer process, and help them to get allied with authentic startups.

He sees innovation spaces not only running Accelerators, but also running Hackathons, whose prize winners will enter Accelerators; and as at Level39, innovation spaces will offer tailored accommodation in co-working areas to hi-growth companies coming out of Accelerators (some of which can grow at twice the rate of their less curated entrepreneurs.) The future that he sees is of thriving, self-sustaining and independent clusters, consisting of startups/young businesses, users and funders.

And he thinks that every city will have an innovation centre; and he reels off the names of innumerable cities the world over that have beaten a path to his door to learn about how Level39 does what it does – cities with whom he has made Friendship Agreements.

He is quick to add that every such innovation space has to work with its own context; and he cites one city in a country with few roads, where the prize for winners of a competition to enter the Accelerator included an SUV – inscribed with banner details of that person’s new business – which would enable the participants all to reach the Accelerator daily.

So what is Level39? At first it was one complete floor of One Canada Square, the tallest building at Canary Wharf, which provided desk spaces for early-stage businesses (in retail and financial technology) because of its unique ‘connectious’ environment (with mentors and more experienced entrepreneurs), most of them already post-revenue – some desks in communal rows, some in small glass-fronted offices, some in larger spaces, with an attractive central area (with its 3pm Cookie Bell for getting people to meet up, and its infamous electronically controlled coffee machine!) In addition there are three Sandboxes – areas which organisations take in order to wrestle with particular issues, each of slightly different proportions and lay-outs; and there are Board Rooms, and a handsome auditorium and beside it a large restaurant area. (For a fuller description, see http://wp.me/p3beJt-65)

Now a second floor of One Canada Square has been added. Two successful Accelerator programmes have prompted the equipping of a tailor-made space for such programmes. Last year’s Fintech Lab London, a 12-week Accelerator programme designed to help up to a dozen small businesses introduce new products to the big banks located at Canary Wharf is about to be repeated (see http://wp.me/p3beJt-3); and Dassault Systemes, Europe’s second largest software company, invited startups to come and develop customer solutions in one special area of its expertise – both these programmes run by teams separate to the incubator space. The new space has rows of bench-type desking, all with essential IT, and a couple of small meeting rooms. In addition, this new floor has a number of rooms set aside for hi-growth companies emerging from Accelerators, along with a kitchen/rest room (with its Subbuteo table.) And more space on this floor is about to be equipped similarly.

Established with the imaginative support of Canary Wharf’s landlord  (who was concerned about the future of the area), Level39 has proved that Incubators and Accelerators have closely complementary roles and that a comprehensive innovation space is a viable concept. But insiders cannot turn the taps on; it needs influential outsiders to help nudge into being the policies that can bring them into existence. And any city can adapt the concept to its advantage.

 

John Whatmore                                                                  January 2014

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity, London