Students “hacked” away this past weekend at Cal Poly’s second annual Hackathon.
The Hackathon is an opportunity for students to sign up, pitch an idea for a web or mobile app, formulate teams, develop a product in 12 hours and pitch it to a panel of judges for various prizes.
The event was hosted by the Cal Poly Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CIE), which is essentially the “entrepreneurial hub on campus,” manager of student innovation programs Chelsea Brown said.
Graphic communication professor Lorraine Donegan was the faculty coordinator for the Hackathon and serves as a faculty fellow for CIE.
“This is a really fun event for students because it connects them with each other within different disciplines, and it also gives them the opportunity to build something cool with the skill set that they have. Some of them have a broad skill set, some of them have a narrow skill set, but they understand that if they work in teams, they can produce something in a short amount of time. And it’s really fun to watch,” Donegan said.
The Hackathon is about the product. It’s about the functionality of the website or application, the design, the coding and that sort of thing. It’s not about the business model, Brown said.
“It’s mostly about designing and developing and creating something super cool,” Brown said. “But at the same time, it’s a really entrepreneurial thing to do because you could be solving a problem for somebody.”
Brown used the example of last year’s winner, who created a website for people to post poems anonymously.
“So CIE would teach you how to essentially turn that into a startup or turn that into a business. So we love to partner on events like this; they’re really fun. And we are a cross-campus center, so we aren’t housed in any one college,” she said.
On the first night, participants enjoyed pizza during an introductory ceremony, took part in raffles, listened to keynote speaker Noah Stokes and were introduced to the long list of sponsors and mentors.
Some of the sponsors included Apple, Rosetta, TransUnion and the Robert E. Kennedy Library. Red Bull provided beanbag chairs for students’ work spaces and other amenities such as refrigerators full of Red Bull energy drinks.
Students were then given a short amount of time to pitch their ideas. Pitches ranged from roommate-finding apps, to apps that act as the “Tinder of volunteering,” to apps tracking where people go to the bathroom.
Based on their pitches, the participants formulate teams consisting of a marketer/idea person, a developer and a designer. They then come up with a plan and essentially “hack the night away” until they are kicked out at 10 p.m., graphic communication senior and CIE events intern Sara Torres said.
Some teams go elsewhere and work throughout the night, while others wait until doors open again at 7 a.m. the next morning, Donegan said.
They then work until it’s time to deliver pitches, which take place at 8 p.m. the next night. During these pitches, students are judged on criteria like development, engineering and user experience, Donegan said.
“From there you’re awarded prizes,” Brown said. “And there are some special prizes, too. So Apple just came out with a new coding language called Swift. So any students that want to code using Swift could have the opportunity to win four iPad minis that were donated. And for the students that want to develop something for the library, the library is going to give those students a prize as well.”
The first-place prize would have the best overall score in every category, Brown said.
This year’s grand prize went to team Optimism. Graphic communication junior Alyssa Wigant came up with the idea for the mobile app during this past fall quarter.
“In essence, Optimist is a visual treasure map or virtual geocaching of optimism around you. So it’s a way for people to leave messages around that other people can find when they’re feeling bad. And they can find the message via their phone, so they can feel better because someone has left a message for them,” Wigant said.
Graphic communications junior and Optimist team member Hanna Giorgi believes other apps didn’t win because they were too similar to already existing ones. Optimist made sure to check that there wasn’t anything else like it online, she said.
The team of six received $2,000 for first place as well as the Apple Swift prize, for which they received four iPads and $500.
Many students continue their projects after the Hackathon, Torres said.
“There’s something called the Hatchery program,” Brown said. “As a part of the first-place prize, for example, they will get the opportunity to apply for the Hatchery if they want to. So they will be able to continue working on their business while they’re still in school. They can figure out who are my customers, how will I monetize this, how will I make money off of it, how am I going to reach my customers and that sort of thing.”
Brown hopes to make the event bigger and better next year. She wants to get partners from across the entire university to help in order to make it three times as big, she said.
Students can register for free via an event bright page. Tickets “sold out” both years, Torres said.
Wigant participated in a Hackathon her freshman year, which at the time was put on by Evernote and was a 24-hour process. She described it as a traumatic experience because she didn’t know what she was doing and didn’t feel confident. But that experience pushed her to try it again two years later, when the event was organized by Cal Poly.
“I definitely think that designers, developers, marketers — no matter what your experience is in the field — the Hackathon will definitely challenge you in every single way possible. And I think no matter if you win or lose, you still get a resume builder, you still get experience and you get connections with people you never would’ve met otherwise,” Wigant said.