IoT entrepreneurship on display at North Texas hackathon

At Collide Village in Addison, more than a hundred participants including developers, students, investors, partners, mentors, and entrepreneurs have gathered for an event spanning two weekends. The goal is simple: to create startups in the IoT space. Those teams with ideas that win the approval of judges are in line to receive much more than a one-time prize. The winners will go through a two month program covering business and customer development, product innovation, go-to-market strategy, and more to help build their concept into a viable business. It’s an opportunity valued at $20,000 and offers a real shot at landing funding from serious investors.

A hackathon on a mission

Tahir Hussain, CEO & Managing Partner at Collide Village and organizer of this “Collidathon”, says this is a departure from the typical hackathon.  At a traditional event, it’s all about that week or two of frenzied activity. What happens at the hackathon tends to stay there—never making it to the commercialization stage. “We want to take two or three companies in this group and take them to the next level.”

In fact, Tahir’s organization has invested in 14 companies so far, providing both funding and mentoring to help them succeed. Some of these bets do pay off. For example, one team that Collide Village helped accelerate launched a product called “NoiseAware” that monitors noise levels in short term rental properties. This startup recently landed an additional one million in funding from local investors.

Hackathon will target big problems

While consumer IoT is currently at the height of its hype cycle, enterprise is ready for its big boom next. The Collidathon focuses on key areas of innovation of interest to large organizations in the public and private sectors including smart city, smart building, connected car, industrial, and blockchain concepts. Participants brought a very wide range of ideas to address problems in these sectors.

In the smart building category, one team proposed a voice assistance program to help seniors age in place. It would be the IoT device version of responding to that famous cry, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Instead of a button, an entire building would be on the alert to aid those in need. HVAC monitoring and management was another smart facility idea with an eco-friendly twist, while other attendees promoted the concept of waste reduction through asset tracking and the gamification of recycling.

Connected car and smart city concepts overlapped and proved to be hot topics. ParkIt, an IoT solution that provides parking lot tracking in the cloud, was presented as a strong contender—with a team that already drives revenue from their product. A group of students proposed GPS tracking of university cabs in real time to help college goers manage their ride options and get to class on time. From bitcoin wallets to pay for parking and smart cars that track their own maintenance records to geo-specific trivia programs that help drivers stay awake on the road, attendees had many ideas about transportation and secure communications. This event will tell how many of the concepts have the ability to go the distance.

During the weeklong event, participants will solidify their teams, create business models, do in-depth analysis on their chosen problem, and start developing the solution. A few days in, Hussain revealed that this process has already helped weed out some of the less feasible ideas, forcing teams to ask whether the problem they’ve focused on is really worth solving. It’s a hard question for technologists to grapple with, but one that must be answered to stand a chance at winning funding.

Sponsors and partners support the Collidathon

This hackathon has attracted a number of major vendors as partners including STmicroelectonices for devices, Senet for connectivity, and Microsoft Azure for cloud. Microsoft is acting as both a mentor and sponsor, with Technical IoT Specialist Kevin Saye and Azure Data Solution Architect Ranga Vadlamudi in attendance. For Kevin, the idea of pairing IoT with modern medicine is particularly interesting. He responded to one attendee’s idea to miniaturize EKG and ECG monitoring equipment. “Healthcare is an interesting sector. It’s not just data but prediction and machine learning with IoT that will help solve problems.” He agreed with other sponsors that IoT is an enabler of digital transformation—not the answer but an important component in reaching a solution.

Mentors came from many sectors, including the academic side. Nancy Hong, a self-described retired “IT Girl”, is the Director of Student Programs at Texas Woman’s University. For Nancy, this is an excellent opportunity to help students and other budding entrepreneurs think more deeply about the ‘why’ behind their ideas. After all, a hackathon should be more than an academic exercise. “They need to be thinking about the business problem first.” For Steve Ball, Senior Director of Product Management at Senet, the Hackathon is in alignment with an important aspect of his company’s mission: to accelerate new ideas to market.

IoT must serve business needs to make it hackworthy

Hussain echoed this sentiment. Fortunately, he has found that the current crop of hackers is eager to gain this important perspective. “There is a huge hunger for understanding of the business model. They are realizing that the technology is just an enabler. It’s not an end goal in itself.” Attendees will no doubt walk away from this event with a greater appreciation for the economics behind IoT development and a better feel for the marketplace. For the Collide Village team, the effort will be worthwhile if even a few ideas have the potential to answer real world business problems. “It is an exciting time for seeing if we can create solutions and value through these events.”

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