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Hackathons: Where Curiosity and Creativity Collide

I thought there needed to be an easier way to communicate within groups in real-time.

Jared Hecht, co-founder of GroupMe

Global interest in the hackathon – a linguistic blend of the words “hacking” and “marathon” – has exploded over the last couple of years, as growing numbers of corporations, organizations, and government agencies host these collaborative, free-for-all brainstorming sessions. 

Hackathons grew out of Silicon Valley’s tech culture as a way to generate new ideas and find quick solutions to challenges that might otherwise take months to solve. Over the course of 24 hours to several days, participants armed with laptops, smartphones, single-board computers for coding, and other devices collaborate and let their imaginations run wild to come up with new software or apps, often in response to a prompt or challenge initiated by the host.

“It pushes a lot of thinking,” Shutterstock CEO Jon Oringer said in a recent interview published in the New York Times. Shutterstock, a US company that offers royalty free photos, music tracks, and videos, holds semiannual company-wide hackathons. “A lot of people get really excited about them, and they can build whatever they want … it could be crazy, practical, whatever. We actually end up implementing a lot of things throughout the year.”

Social media giant Facebook held its 50th hackathon in January, with a focus on artificial intelligence (AI). Facebook employees are allowed to work on anything they want within the hackathon’s parameters, but they are discouraged from working on anything that is already part of their job as a way of jump-starting their curiosity. In an interview for Fast company CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that ideas that come out of these hackathons can influence "the product road map that all the teams have at the company, and it ends up being how we incorporate a very large percentage of what we build at the company."

   Two hands on the keyboard of a laptop    Two hands on the keyboard of a laptop

Harnessing the World’s Curiosity

Many hackathons are open to the general public and their host or sponsor may offer cash or in-kind prizes to winning teams who develop a working prototype. They’ve become especially popular in education:colleges and universities, high schools, middle schools, and even some grammar schools now host events designed to get children and young adults excited about coding and software development.

While developers Jared Hecht and Steve Martocci didn’t win anything at the 2010 open hackathon sponsored by tech industry publisher TechCrunch, they wound up with something far more valuable: a group messaging app they developed and named GroupMe. “We started using our product Day 1,” Hecht wrote on TechCrunch’s website. “I went … to print out business cards for the panelists and I stayed in touch with our group the entire time I was out. The product worked and we immediately found a useful application for it.” A year and five days later, Hecht and Martocci sold the app for US $85 million.

  A group of people talking at the hackathon   A group of people talking at the hackathon

Create the Future!

In May, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany hosted its 2nd ever hackathon in Tel Aviv, Israel. The first had been held at their global headquarters in Darmstsadt six months earlier.

Andreas Schindler, Director Ideation, Innovation and Technology Foresight at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany initiated together with the Innovation Center of the company both hackathons, and recalled that when he first invited students from the Technical University of Darmstadt to participate, “some were reluctant at first. But when they finally came, they were super excited. Now I have professors from the university calling me to suggest their top students for work at the company.”

In Tel Aviv, hackathon participants were given six healthcare-related challenges to choose from. After an inspiring keynote address by Mooly Eden, the innovator behind the Intel Pentium processor, encouraging participants to let their curiosity guide them, participants were assigned to one of 11 teams and gathered around tables piled high with batteries, Bluetooth devices, light bulbs, mini-computers, and other items. They designed algorithms, built devices, and collaboratively experimented together for the next 24 hours.

Two teams tied for first place: the first designed a kit for testing food allergens in the home; the second developed a smartphone app using the phone’s flashlight as a spectrophotometer to diagnose preeclampsia, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy involving high blood pressure and damage to the internal organs. The two winning teams will present their ideas to Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, executives at the company’s Israeli R&D center in Yavne.

Participant Chen Tzur, who studies Electrical Engineering at Bar-Ilan University and frequently participates in hackathons, seems enthused: “I love these events, and this one was one of the best!”

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