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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Red Riding Hoods should beware of the Wolf

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Unilever and Canary Wharf both invite you to come and help them crack a world-wide problem, but… Corporates are seducing startups into giving them their good ideas, but the odds and the risks against getting your rewards are less evident than they should be. There is a solution. Next week: If you have a tough problem, try a Hackathon.

Here’s a new but increasingly familiar slant for startups – from a big corporate (Unilever). We’ll identify some specific key issues, they say, (in this case how data can be used to attract people to live more sustainably). You come along and work with our staff to suggest ways to crack such issues – at a Hackathon. Our staff will provide background – marketing, sustainability, IT and consumer research, together with one-on-one mentorship. One winner gets £5,000 in prize money, and may be invited to participate in a paid pilot with Unilever, with £31,000 made available to help develop and test their idea.

Level39 at Canary Wharf’s ‘Cognicity’ has launched a similar challenge. Smart City technology companies have been invited to apply for one of six streams – each about a specific aspect of ‘the city of the future’. For each stream, six teams were to be selected to enter an Accelerator with leading technology companies and Canary Wharf Group partners – to develop their technologies and solutions. In each stream, one would receive a £50,000 prize, and ‘pilot their solutions in the ongoing development of Canary Wharf and create a showcase connected city’.

It’s hard to tell whether these are impact enterprises or commercial ventures. Each competition has only one winner; and the costs and benefits of being involved in any pilot are unknowable. There is no mention of who owns the ideas nor who shall have the rights to them. And there is no one there to protect your rights. So if you have a good idea, you would be at risk of being seduced into a process in which, whether you win the prize or not, your ideas may have lost any protection.

Nesta, some time ago in an open innovation pilot, acted as intermediary for P&G by eliciting and selecting relevant ideas and then providing a period of support and development with the help of a VC for their originators (including ensuring adequate protection and the writing of a business plan) and enabling the best to be pitched to P&G. Ultimately, one of these was felt by P&G to have very considerable market potential. (http://www.nesta.org.uk/corporate-connect). This process, known as the ‘Air Lock’ is run regularly now for many different companies by its creaters in Nesta in ‘100% Open’: it builds up communication channels and trust, and it protects IP.

Young businesses in accelerator programmes run by organisations like Techstars and Startupbootcamp expect to get from idea to marketable proposition in 13 weeks (for which the latter take around 7% of equity in return). At that point they are in a position to negotiate with users as investors on a commercial basis rather than simply on the terms dictated by a corporate.

Accessing creative start-up talent is increasingly necessary for larger companies who want to capture the best ideas, people and technologies. As scouting by corporates for good ideas becomes more common, they must not be allowed to play the Wolf to Red Riding Hoods. They should recognize that they do not know what they will be able to catch in their fishing net: vagueness simply raises suspicions.

John Whatmore May 2015

Startups like Red Riding Hood should beware of corporate wolves

Aside

Unilever and Canary Wharf’s ‘Cognicity’ both invite you to come and help them crack a world-wide problem, but… Corporates are seducing startups into giving them their good ideas, but the odds and the risks against getting your rewards are less evident than they should be. There is a solution.

Here’s a new but increasingly familiar slant for startups – from a big corporate (Unilever). We’ll identify some specific key issues, they say, (in this case how data can be used to attract people to live more sustainably). You come along and work with our staff to suggest ways to crack such issues – at a Hackathon. Our staff will provide background – marketing, sustainability, IT and consumer research, together with one-on-one mentorship. One winner gets £5,000 in prize money, and may be invited to participate in a paid pilot with Unilever, with £31,000 made available to help develop and test their idea.

Level39 at Canary Wharf’s ‘Cognicity’ has launched a similar challenge. Smart City technology companies have been invited to apply for one of six streams – each about a specific aspect of ‘the city of the future’. For each stream, six teams were to be selected to enter an Accelerator with leading technology companies and Canary Wharf Group partners – to develop their technologies and solutions. In each stream, one would receive a £50,000 prize, and ‘pilot their solutions in the ongoing development of Canary Wharf and create a showcase connected city’.

It’s hard to tell whether these are impact enterprises or commercial ventures. Each competition has only one winner; and the costs and benefits of being involved in any pilot are unknowable. There is no mention of who owns the ideas nor who shall have the rights to them. And there is no one there to protect your rights. So if you have a good idea, you would be at risk of being seduced into a process in which, whether you win the prize or not, your ideas may have lost any protection.

Nesta, some time ago in an open innovation pilot, acted as intermediary for P&G by eliciting and selecting relevant ideas and then providing a period of support and development with the help of a VC for their originators (including ensuring adequate protection and the writing of a business plan) and enabling the best to be pitched to P&G. Ultimately, one of these was felt by P&G to have very considerable market potential. (http://www.nesta.org.uk/corporate-connect). This process, known as the ‘Air Lock’ is run regularly now for many different companies by its creaters in Nesta in ‘100%Open’: it builds up communication channels and trust, and it protects IP.

Young businesses in accelerator programmes run by organisations like Techstars and Startupbootcamp expect to get from idea to marketable proposition in 13 weeks (for which the latter take around 7% of equity in return). At that point they are in a position to negotiate with users as investors on a commercial basis rather than simply on the terms dictated by a corporate.

Accessing creative start-up talent is increasingly necessary for larger companies who want to capture the best ideas, people and technologies. As scouting by corporates for good ideas becomes more common, they must not be allowed to play the Wolf to Red Riding Hoods. They should recognize that they do not know what they will be able to catch in their fishing net: vagueness simply raises suspicions.

John Whatmore April 2015

A flurry of specialised Accelerators

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A flurry of specialised accelerators – in partnerships with leading organisations Accelerators are increasingly being targeted at special sectors. Set up in partnership with leading organisations – in fintech, fashion, communications, the arts, traveltech, future cities, restaurants, grocery and ‘ideas’ – they provide expert support to their entrepreneurs. Nottingham’s BioCity offers a model for clusters, catapults, incubators, science parks and innovation catalysts alike.

Both Accenture and Startupbootcamp have recently run Accelerator programmes in Fintech, for up to ten teams – drawn from worldwide, each programme under the auspices of groups of banks – Accenture’s at Level39 at Canary Wharf, and Startupbootcamp’s at the Rainmaking Loft.

The Trampery’s Fashion Lab, in partnership with the London College of Fashion, is designed to support early-stage fashion designers as they innovate their business, products and services as well as providing expert guidance in the fields of finance, legal, manufacturing and marketing.

Publicis, in collaboration with the Trampery, has developed an initiative called ‘Publicis Drugstore’ around a new innovation facility in the heart of London’s Tech City, available to all Publicis clients, to help multinationals and high-growth enterprises work together to spearhead innovation and change. It consists of a suite of services and products from ‘supper clubs’ and ‘meet the makers’ workshops, through coding classes and hackathons to fully managed incubator programmes.

Fish Island Labs is a small short-term workspace in a remote part of East London set up by the Trampery in partnership with the Barbican for a community of some thirty emerging practitioners in different disciplines – artists, technologists and designers – to work creatively together and with new technologies, enabling them to cross boundaries.

The Trampery’s Traveltech Lab is a new, a well-designed working environment in central London that provides a global springboard for startups working in travel, tourism, hospitality and events. They will be supported in looking for investment, alpha customers, promotion or resellers, with privileged access to senior industry executives, investors, mentors and media through London & Partners network; and regular socials and events bringing leading figures in to offer advice and inspiration.

Level39 recently launched its Cognicity Challenge – seeking applications from smart cities technology companies in its quest for ‘the city of the future’, whose the first two streams are about Sustainable Buildings and Integrated Transportation. From the applicants to each stream, six startups are to be selected to enter 12-week accelerators and work with leading technology companies and Canary Wharf Group teams to develop new smart city solutions, the winner receiving a £50,000 cash prize and the opportunity to pilot their solutions in the ongoing development of Canary Wharf and create a showcase connected city.

Kitchenette is a 12-week pop-up Accelerator that aims to coach people who are looking to start a restaurant. Pop-ups like Street food, market stalls and Supper clubs provide opportunities to develop your product ahead of any full-scale launch, and the programme includes a residence at the Kitchenette restaurant in Ladroke Grove. Participants have mentors including advisers from among existing restauranteurs, property developers and investors.

In partnership with Bathtub 2 Boardroom, the Grocery Accelerator is another similar approach – just launched, for brands in food and drink with hi-growth potential. The six month programme (non-residential) includes close mentoring and coaching from industry experts, with input from Ocado, senior buyers and specialists in branding, product development, logistics and finance, with the bonus of a three day trip to the States’ largest food fair (New York).

Second Home Accelerator at Brick Lane, is a startup community primarily about creative agencies, fashion, design, art and finance, whose common theme might be ‘ideas’, which is what Rohan Silva, its creater and founder of Tech City, is best known for. Big companies, he says, want to be next to small ones, to be close to innovation. Second Home is equipped to a high spec because startups should not have to endure the ‘crappiest digs’ when ‘Google is spending £1bn on its new HQ in Kings Cross as a beacon for talent.’

Last year, BioCity, a Biocience incubator in Nottingham, set up a novel Accelerator in partnership with Nottingham City Council under the government’s Cities Programme, which sought to bring together issues in local clusters with people who had viable ideas and to help them to develop those ideas over a period, some of which might end up in BioCity – an aggregation of partners that should inspire other cities and their clusters. http://wp.me/p3beJt-8A

See also in Applied Creativity (http://johnwhatmore.com):

Stories from the front line: what Startups value most in Accelerators What they got out of Office Hours, group lunches, others on the programme, their first meeting with mentors, mentor slots and other events. http://wp.me/p3beJt-a7 Feb 2015

I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank – clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. http://wp.me/p3beJt-9P Dec 2014

Good Incubation: the craft of supporting early-stage social ventures
Models, methods and types of venture, together with some views about the future.
www.nesta.org.uk/publications/good-incubation April 2014

Making it big: Suggested strategies for scaling social innovations
An analysis of destinations, routes and strategies, together with some stories.
www.nesta.org.uk/…/making-it-big-strategies-scaling-social-innovations
July, 2014

A new Accelerator – in retail

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John Lewis, the latest corporate to launch a technology incubator
Organisations of many kinds are increasingly looking to incubators for their innovations – new products, services, processes and business models, but incubators from which they can quickly elicit something useful. Accelerators like this one – to be held at Level39, Canary Wharf’s innovation centre – are becoming increasingly specialised – to sector, such as this one in retail.
John Lewis is to launch a technology incubator called JLAB that will give one start-up a £100,000 investment in return for an equity stake in their company, and they’re hosting the programme at Level39’s Innovation Quarter, in Canary Wharf, where innovations are nurtured in a menagerie
of Hackathons, hatcheries, Accelerators and Incubators.
This development follows in the footstops of Finovate and Fintech Lab London, the former a programme that invited a large number of SMEs with technology that might be of value to the big banks to come and make the briefest of pitches – all in one day. Fintech Lab London brought together a small number of carefully selected SMEs to enable them to introduce their products to the big banks through a 13-week programme in which chaperones from the banks helped them to meet relevant people in the banks.
John Lewis has partnered with entrepreneur Stuart Marks, who invests in companies specialising in big data. “There are one or two retailers that have their own in-house development teams. The one that comes to mind is Tesco, who have developed Huddle internally. But there is no one in the UK that has done what we’ve done – this is not a corporate venture fund, this is about inviting companies from the outside to come in but with a very John Lewis centric approach that is unique”, said Stuart Marks.