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Top 5 challenges a successful IoT hackathon must overcome

Tahir Hussain, CEO of Collide Village, made it clear that running an IoT hackathon is no easy task. Here's what had to be overcome to make the IoT event successful.

Running an IoT hackathon is no easy job. Just ask Tahir Hussain, CEO of Collide Village and coordinator of the 2017 Collidathon in Addison, Texas. At the event Tahir's company is hosting, more than 30 teams are competing to earn the trust of the judges—and the unique business opportunity that goes along with winning a top spot. Those ideas that prove worthy are eligible for a spot in the organization's incubation program, a $20,000 value. During this two month process, they will receive intensive mentoring to get them ready for the marketplace. However, the anticipation of creating a viable startup does not automatically translate into a plentitude of good business ideas all vying for the prize. Getting worthwhile concepts to take shape requires a lot of mentoring and a shift in perspective. Here are five areas where an IoT hackathon and its participants can run into trouble—and how Collide Village is trying to do things differently.

#1 The IoT hackathon should not be the end

Tahir has seen his share of hackathons—and how they fizzle when the week is over. "Most Hackathons are about being there. Of course, there is lots of pizza and Red Bull. At the end of the day, you test the tech capabilities of the hardware, the prizes are handed out and that's the end of the hackathon." The Collidathon, sponsored by a startup accelerator, angel investors, and major technology partners, has decided to do things differently. At the end of the event, something new should be born. "We want to see if we can get one, two, or three good teams and actually create a startup." 

#2 The problem must be clearly defined

Hussain has found that most entrepreneurs in the technology space are unable to articulate a problem without referencing their solution. That can be a sign that the problem hasn't been fully explored, or it can sometimes mean that the problem doesn't really exist. For example, no one really needs an IoT enabled shoelace finder or a coffee pot that also displays real-time data from the stock market (these ideas were fortunately not put forth at this hackathon).

Mentors at the Collidathon spent a substantial portion of the first weekend helping participants do a deep dive into their problem statement and market research. As Tahir put it, "Let's see if we can teach the business model before writing the first line of code."

#3 Participants must focus their efforts

Nancy Hong, Director of Student Programs at Texas Woman's University, is a retired techie who still likes to help out with hackathons and related events to keep her finger on the pulse of emerging technology. One of the key areas where she advises students is in narrowing their idea down to something they can manage. Having a grand vision is fine, but having a workable concept is better for immediate results. "Sometimes their idea is so huge even a major company could not accomplish it. They need to focus on a smaller piece to be able to develop something in the allotted time."

#4 The problem must be worth solving

On the other end of the IoT hackathon equation, Hussain also sees participants who are going too narrow. If there's not enough of a market for an IoT solution, it's not worth building. Another area where IoT hackathoners can go off track is by choosing solutions that have already been done. Surprisingly, there were a few of these ideas floated at the hackathon.

IoT for asset tracking at small retail outlets was one example of an idea that has been fully explored by well-established technology companies with limited success. Azure Data Solution Architect Ranga Vadlamudi, one of the event mentors, disclosed why this idea was a non-starter (or non-startup). "They have already tried it, but RFID is expensive." It isn't that it can't be done. It's that the solution is more expensive than the problem when it comes to tracking low-value items. "It really depends on how much they want to invest."

#5 Teams must be robust and complete

Even having a good idea and a solid plan for how to solve it is of no use without the right players in place to execute. Steve Ball, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Senet, pointed out that "Participants may have a great idea and vision in mind but don't have the skills required. There might be a need for expertise in firmware, software, RF, business, LWAN certification, end node, data collection, event management, analytics, and more. That's a lot of different skills for a startup to put together." While some teams arrived at the Collidathon with all hands on deck, others turned to mentors and the general pool of participants to fill in the gaps. Collide Village took steps to ensure that business analysts worked alongside technologists as well to make ideas feasible for commercialization.

What about after the hackathon? Follow on challenges in delivering a workable product, crafting a business plan, developing a clear brand message, and attracting ongoing rounds of investment will be next. As a tech accelerator, Collide Village plans to take the winning teams over these hurdles and into successful startup status. 

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