Go Hack Yourself: How I Learned To Love The PCH Hackathon

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Love PCH Hackathon DublinGlobe.com

“Dublin is really good at the internet. But why not make Dublin the capital of the Internet of Things?”

I’m speaking to Ronan Furlong, Executive Eirector at DCU’s Innovation Campus in Glasnevin, Dublin 7, not far from the main campus of Dublin City University. He’s taking a few minutes away from the third floor, labelled the ‘Hackathon Floor’ on signs around the building (there can’t be many buildings in the world with a single floor permanently dedicated to hackathons).

True to the signs, it’s a hackathon that’s running today. The third PCH Hardware Hackathon to be held in Dublin is nearing its conclusion, attracting startup veterans, engineers, students and hardware initiates to take part in a two-day race – from concept, to fully-functioning prototype, to pitching in a room full of judges, spectators and competitors.

“Anyone can make, you don’t have to be MacGyver,” says Furlong. “The world of hardware has been democratized: people are able to crowdfund their projects now, you can buy kits online, find online communities… Looking through Kickstarter, it’s a fifty-fifty split between hardware and software. Because hardware is something tangible and engaging and hands on, it’s really captured the public imagination.”

I’m brought for a tour of the Hackathon Floor, a blank expanse of white paint and exposed brick now filled with competitors and their inventions. There’s a gym bike set up near the door with somebody furiously peddling, wearing a Wi-Fi connected shoe called Zero. It’s been designed for triathletes to adapt instantly during races. I step over a raised floor panel branded with CircaCity, another competitor product designed to measure footfall in city streets. The atmosphere is roughly that of a startup coworking space, crossed with a lab, crossed with a particularly nerdy mechanic’s garage.

The Innovation Academy lives up to its name with a busy calendar of hackathons, often specialized around challenges proposed by sponsors. The idea of a beef hackathon, for example, seems at once so bizarre and so utterly Irish that it couldn’t happen anywhere else, but the Beefhack, a collaboration with Intel and APB Food Group, was a resounding success earlier this year. Furlong is now planning an aviation-themed hackathon (I immediately envision a fleet of homemade drones soaring over Glasnevin).

“There’s no reason why we can’t, as a country, excel at this,” he says. “This isn’t an incubator, or an accelerator – we don’t take equity in companies. There’s nothing else in Ireland specifically geared up for hardware like us. We have labs, coding, guys in boiler suits hammering away at prototypes – we can’t open up enough floors fast enough to cater to the demand. It’s a real mixture of skills, with people bouncing ideas off each other.”

The winner of the PCH Hackathon receives a prize package comprising four months of office space at the Innovation Academy, introductions to a network of multinational sponsors, a service design workshop with Dublin design house Each&Other, and a €3000 cheque made out to the company – a deliberate touch designed to both kickstart and focus the team from the outset. PCH CEO Liam Casey, a driving force behind the hackathon, has stressed the massive potential opportunity the event offers to participants – read him talking to Dublin Globe on the matter HERE.

I speak to Katherine Hague, VP of Community Engagement & Hackathons at PCH, who coaches the teams twice during the hackathon weekend, in order to refine their pitching skills. “Ideally, a team will have a bit of everything,” she says, “great design, functionality and presentation skills. But different specialities emerge in different areas. The product doesn’t have to work perfectly for the pitch, but it definitely helps if it does.”

Contestants only get three minutes to talk the judges through their product. “We find that the more time they get, the worse the presentations are,” says Hague. “Demo day at Highway1 (PCH’s US-based accelerator programme) only gives them five minutes.” Previous hackathons have awarded several smaller prizes; the decision to streamline to a single prize fund this year was a deliberate statement of intent. “We try to give meaningful funding, and we check in with the winners four weeks later,” she says. “There’s a really awkward conversation to be had after every hackathon with the winners, dividing up who is going to own what and do what part of the work, and it only gets more awkward the longer you wait, so we try to get them on track early.”

Hague cites a previous hackathon success story, Dublin startup Drop (who created a tablet-connected kitchen scales) as an influence on the new wave of hardware experimentation. There are other identifiable trends: health tech, wearable tech and the aforementioned Internet of Things all make an appearance. “We’re going through a phase of connected everything,” she observes. “It’s that first stage of experimentation – then we’ll get past it to more specific products and solutions. Hackathons really make a lot of sense, with hardware. You get that energy from it being this actively hands-on thing, and not just coding in front of a laptop.”

A very loud voice booms over an intercom, summoning attendees to the hall for their final pitches. There are eleven teams in total, their products ranging from niche (CatchSmart, a fishing lure which adjusts to different water temperatures) to civic minded (AutoAngel, a motor eCall system which can be fitted to older cars by plugging into the lighter) to the wholly fantastical (Blorb is a small fabric-wrapped ball which lights up when thrown at a surface, designed to help children scare away imaginary monsters at night).

Materials for building the prototypes have been provided by lead sponsor Intel and components sponsor RS. Along with the 3D printers, the milling machines, Galileo boards and Raspberry Pis, contestants have scavenged for additional parts, relying on creativity and invention to craft waterproof convertible shoes and a chair which gives you a doctor’s check-up.

Finally, the winner is announced: BlueTape, a fully prototyped connected tape measure. In the end, it’s not a big sci-fi styled creation the judges choose, nor a product with radical claims to ‘disruption’. It’s a simple and smart solution to an everyday problem, designed to save online clothing companies money on returns by offering their customers the perfect way to measure themselves. Low key, maybe, but BlueTape could stand to save e-retailers and their customers millions in return postage.

By Monday, the sawdust will be swept away, the Innovation Campus will be back to daily business – still hacking and inventing, albeit under less pressurized conditions – and BlueTape will be on their way to becoming an actual company. Forthcoming PCH Hackathons are planned for Canada and Hong Kong – there’s one closer to home, scheduled for London this October.

Maker culture has truly gone global: if you think your idea might just be the next Drop or Nest, follow @PCHHackathon on Twitter, take note of the next competition date, and get hacking….

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