How to win at an IoT hackathon

The IoT hackathon, known as ‘Collidathon’ as it takes place at Collide Village in Addison, Texas, just concluded and three winning concepts were chosen from over a dozen teams. Unlike most technology hackathons, this event kept a laser focus on the commercial side of technical innovation. Participants were encouraged to form a coherent businesses case before writing a single line of code. Collide Village CEO Tahir Hussain said there were three basic steps in the process. “First you have to get the idea on paper. Then, you need to determine how big the problem is, looking at the market size and the competition. Finally, you need to determine if the problem is really worth solving.”

What was the outcome of this IoT hackathon? A very tight race that concluded with several great ideas rising to the top. Each of the winning concepts addressed at least one of the hackathon’s predetermined categories such as connected car, blockchain, and smart city. The judging was based on a number of criteria, with a strong emphasis on making a business argument that demonstrated a clear problem and a significant market opportunity. Team structure, ease of implementation, scalability, and the quality of the finished demo were also important factors in the decision making process. A more nebulous “awesomeness” score was also given based on how cool and unique an idea was. Here’s a look at the three proposed solutions that took first, second, and third in the competition.

AutoLog secures first place for IoT innovation in the automotive industry

Carl Ott and his team of robotics enthusiasts presented the idea that won first place: AutoLog. This solution combined aspects of blockchain and connected car technologies. But the team didn’t end up presenting a prototype for the judges. “The pitch wasn’t the technology. It was the concept. We did a demo with a clickable wire frame.” With billions spent on auto repair each year, the idea of AutoLog is to securely track vehicle maintenance records. Drivers could use this better recordkeeping to help them keep up preventive maintenance, save on roadside assistance, and have easy access to the information needed to file warranty claims.

Mike Courtney is a technology futurist and the founder of Aperio Insights. As a judge on the Collidathon panel, he found the winning team had an intelligent narrative. “AutoLog told a story a lot of us can relate to. Any piece of machinery or software is going to break eventually. We can accept that, but we like to think we are buying a quality product. We are not mad it failed. But if there’s a warranty or guarantee, we have to be able to prove the situation. It makes sense to use technology like blockchain to help prove things with a secure and immutable record.”

Eco-responsible IoT inventions

Zero Waste Advocacy showed up with a full team including technologist John Bushe and business advisor Steve Mangum. Their concept placed a strong second in the competition. Mike commented, “As an angel investor myself, I like to see a social or financial benefit in an idea. There is a lot of inefficiency in that space and it’s worthwhile to solve.” Trash wasn’t a sexy topic, and the solution was practical rather than flashy. “They aren’t inventing magic. They are taking existing technology and applying it in a useful way.”

Mangum pointed out the irony of the problem his team wants to address. “The whole waste industry is incredibly wasteful. The more waste is generated, the more they profit. The incentives and rewards are misaligned with the mission of waste reduction. Our solution helps with resource management to reduce inefficiencies and reward reuse and recycling.”

The Zero Waste IoT system would deploy sensor technology in waste containers so that they would only be emptied or hauled away when they reached a level that justified making a trip. Rather than having to contract for waste disposal based on peak volume, businesses could move to a consumption based billing model. According to Steve, “We want to supply information for better decision making.” The sensor technology itself wouldn’t be terribly difficult to put together. But, as with many IoT solutions, there is much more to the picture than the edge devices. “The value is in the algorithms, software, and implementation to integrate the pieces of the puzzle.”

EZ Park takes third for making life easier on campus

EZ Park aims to make parking safer and simpler for people parking on university lots and garages. Team leader Yeshwant Muthusamy, PhD, described the problem succinctly. “Campuses across the U.S. account for millions of parking spots, but they are complex to navigate with all the different rules and zones. Students are stuck paying high fees to park but are frustrated and may be late to class because they can’t find parking. For universities, enforcing the rules is also expensive.”

With an IoT system consisting of smartphone apps, sensors, and hubs, students could quickly and easily locate available parking. With the geospatial aspect of the solution, users could also enjoy greater safety and universities could help provide a better experience to their students.

Bob Gessel, Head of Network and Technology Strategy for Ericsson and one of the hackathon judges, revealed that the decision making was quite challenging. In the end, fractions of a point separated some of the teams. “The top five or six ideas were very close.” Third place team EZ Park secured a spot in the top three, in part, because they had a solid message. “They did a good job of articulating value. They have a captive customer since students have to pay for their parking.” Courtney was impressed with EZ Park’s proposed use of crowd sourced data. Yet again, it was the practicality of the idea that won the day, “This kind of solution has an impact on everyday life, especially since parking may be done multiple times a day.”

Surprise twists and lessons learned at the hackathon

Ideas for innovation evolved rapidly during the course of the week. The AutoLog team actually started with a handful of concepts before settling on their final choice.  “We were originally pursuing a home security system solution. We spent a lot of time on it during the IoT hackathon, but we eventually realized we were chasing down a red ocean project.” The red ocean refers to an idea that has limited market potential because too many sharks in the water are going after the same prey or customer base. “There were just too many competitors and it would be too easy for someone to swoop in and take over.” As one of the mentors, Tahir listened to the team’s ideas and helped them identify one that had more potential for success as a startup.

There were seven entrepreneurs on the team for Zero Waste Advocacy. Unlike many of the competitors, this team was already well-seasoned and had been focused on their area of interest for a long time. Their challenge in presenting a winning idea lay in breaking off a chunk that was small enough to handle. In Steve’s words, “Our team has spent years advocating for waste reduction. We have many aspects of the problem worked out. But how do you go down to one small piece of it to get it into the market. What’s the starting point?”

Their proposed solution zeroed in on a significant market sector and a minimal viable product that could have a big impact. In fact, it might turn the waste management sector on its head. One judge remarked that the use of IoT could be an inverted disruption in this space, starting with the end user and eventually forcing change within the industry as a whole.

Mike expressed respect for the effort put in by the participants. “I was surprised at the detail some of the teams went into. They had just 5 minutes to explain their idea, and some were able to create a working demo. It was impressive how they were able to create that in such a short time.” He also looked forward to how innovators like those at the Collidathon could impact the world in the future. “The exciting piece is the unintended consequences. Devices may be put in place for certain purposes but have an adjacent impact we weren’t expecting.” For example, tracking waste disposal and hauling might show which suppliers are reducing waste in terms of packaging or could even highlight activities like illegal dumping. There could be secondary uses not yet imagined.

Technology aficionados find new enthusiasm for business

Muthusamy revealed that he did not typically go to hackathons—because they never came to anything. But the Collide Village event sparked his interest. “The first weekend was all about the business aspect. “The big problem is that techies fall in love with a new mousetrap and gloss over the value proposition. Here we were taught to ask, ‘Does it solve a problem that has business value?’ Collide Village provided a set of tools to apply to any problem. You can run any idea through it to find out if it is worth pursuing. The answer might be that it is a great technology app but not a good business idea.”

In fact, he experienced the power of this approach first hand. “This event caused me to think about the hard questions up front. I was able to decouple emotions from the data.” Conducting a market survey, talking to people, and making changes shifted the concept in the right direction to secure a winning spot. “If we had gone in with the original form of the idea, we probably would not have placed.”

Coming from a sales and coaching background, Mangum saw the value in having a hackathon that taught technical specialists how to communicate about their ideas in a more effective way. “In the technology world, there are a lot of brilliant technicians. But they have difficulty explaining what it does and the problem that it solves. It needs to be translated into language that makes sense to a non-technical audience.” By the end of the event, the participants had a much better idea of how to express their concepts in terms of business opportunity.

The technology and business communities certainly came together to support this first-of-its-kind IoT hackathon. Bob knew the event was a great idea, but even he was surprised by the response. “It was Collide’s first attempt at doing something like this and the room was packed. The community really believes in this. The quality of the concepts was also good. There was no idea that really fell on its face. I’m excited to see what they do at the end of the day.”

Tahir spoke about being encouraged by the shift in perspective that took place over the course of the week. “I think the biggest surprise for me was that towards the end of the event, almost all the teams were focusing on business model rather than focusing on building their technologies.” The winning teams may participate in a two month incubation process that will give them plenty of time to start developing the tech. But the hackathon has served its most important purpose of pointing them in the direction of creating the right solution at the right time.

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