Quickly evaporating are the negative associations with the word “hacker”. Now in the common language of business are the notions of hackathons – time-compressed, pizza-fueled work sessions by multi-disciplinary, ad-hoc teams. Until recently, those events were comprised of an armada of software developers with laptops, and maybe some cloud services, cranking out applications knitting together smartphones, data sources, and cloud computing power. Emerging from the maker movement, basement workshops and garages everywhere, the new hackathon is of the hardware variety.
This past weekend, 120 hackers, mostly students, descended on The Tannery Event Centre in Kitchener to collaborate and jam with their hardware/software/design skills in the PCH Hardware Hackathon. This is the sixth iteration of the event for PCH, spanning the globe from Shanghai to Ireland, San Francisco, Toronto, and now the first in Waterloo Region. I have to smile when I type that list of locations and once again recognize our town showing up as a constituent in a global ecosystem.
Considering participation in this hackathon was free, my first question for Katherine Hague, VP of Community Engagement and Hackathons for PCH, was what’s in this for the corporation footing the bill? She told me PCH International is a global manufacturing, distribution, and supply chain player. Their customers range from large, brand-name entities to medium-size companies. Hackathons are their platform to engage smaller, emerging innovators who need help going from the workbench to distribution and fulfilment at scale. PCH’s end comes through a variety of channels: the familiar incubator equity play (7% for $50K investment), a cut of revenue as a design/manufacturing/distribution partner. The goal, Hague told me, is “to bring together everyone in one place and get them to the next level.”
Now, they say only fools make predictions, and I might suffer from confirmation bias; but I’ve been prognosticating the evolution of a hardware startup ecosystem in Waterloo Region for the past two years. I’m schooled in software and self-taught in hardware, so I follow all the signs on the trail. Our local makerspace, kwartzlab, started up in Kitchener five years ago, full of makers armed with soldering irons, Arduinos, sensors and soldering irons.
A few years later, UW evolved their hardware-focused incubator Velocity Foundry from the software-centric Garage. Last year, some enterprising UW Engineering students lit up a new multi-day hackathon they called Hack The North, which featured a bevy of hardware-based sponsors and drew a thousand-strong contingent of student hackers from across the globe to Waterloo. Cue the enthusiasm wave of the Internet of Things and observe that Ian Pilon created a local IoT Waterloo chapter for regular meetups with a 700-strong local audience.
Looking south of the border to Boston’s Bolt hardware incubator, and then across the ocean to Shen Zhen’s HAXLR8R on a similar mission, we can see the plumbing being installed to hook up ideas to organizations that can get product to the street at the lowest-cost highest quality tipping point. This is the new order of manufacturing in the world as we see venerable factories like Budd and Lear close up in our Region. It’s a global playing field and Waterloo Region’s new role is as a manufacturer of ideas and prototypes rather than end products.
There has been a very obvious gap — let’s say opportunity — for a hardware-based innovation infrastructure here. UW Velocity is accessible only to students. Christie Digital’s HYPHEN is accessible to those with deep pockets. Between the end of school and the arrival of big money, we have local innovators looking high and low for affordable local services like injection molding of plastics, laser cutting and high-fidelity 3D printing for prototypes. They are looking for quick-turn on printed circuit boards. They are looking for wireless RF modules and electronics components. And they are looking for niche expertise in domains of power management, RF, and design-for-manufacturing. As BlackBerry sheds experienced hardware staff, Waterloo Region is fertile ground for the rise of hardware.
Bringing it back to this past weekend, I embedded a bit with three hackathon teams and soaked up the familiar excitement of new connections among hackers, team spirit of collaboration, and the delightful workscape of wires, printed circuit boards, and blinking lights. I may be more of a fan of hardware hackathons versus software ones because the former provides so many more interesting visuals for photographing. But there is also something very appealing about creating a physical thing that gets waved in the air or installed in a box.
Here’s the winning team, ICEBox Data Mesh, which “developed and prototyped a wireless, ad-hoc network that delivers cached versions of websites and multimedia content in places with unreliable infrastructure, making the Internet affordable.” The team takes home $3,000 in cash and wins free incorporation, among other awards. As a platform for connecting with hackers, this hackathon also included a Friday night pitch-a-thon, which ended up with startup winner Grobo getting a ticket to China along with the PCH crew. There was also a first-ever job fair component that featured nine local tech companies. So, in the spirit of innovation, the organizers are experimenting at the meta level with the event itself.
Mentors played a significant role in helping teams realize their ideas and guiding their course. Teams received coaching not only in design and fabrication, but also in how to pitch their ideas.
Hardware hackathons are… hard. Especially in comparison to their sibling software hackathons that are inherently provisioned by hackers showing up with laptops. I met a number of hackers who had left the event to travel to Sayal Electronics and Orion Electronics to buy parts. They were looking for op-amps, microphones, capacitors, and various other bits to complete their builds. I’m sure as PCH does more hackathons they will continue to evolve their workbench.
Expect to see PCH bring the hackathon back here again. Early in 2016 is a possibility, though the calendar for next year is not nailed down.
Useful stuff does really emerge from hackathons: some realized ideas, but more importantly, new human hacker connections and a deeper sense of capability and our capacity to create beyond the software realm.