200 Hackers, 9 Challenges, 3 Days, No Sleep

On this weekend about 200 students from around 30 countries have come together in the InnovationHub in St. Gallen for the first STARThack. During the 3-day hackathon the participants competed in one of the challenges put forward by companies or worked on their own projects.

The term „hacker“ is used in two conflicting ways, either describing people from the programming subculture in general or denoting people that subvert digital security systems (cracker). So, before anyone calls the police, the event didn’t look like you might expect it from popular media coverage of “hackers”. There really was lots and lots of keyboard pressing going on however.

Making the fridge smart

So, what exactly did the hackers do then? Well, take for example the team KitchenPad, the four guys who came here from Amsterdam, Athens and Geneva used their weekend to work independently on making the kitchen smarter. As one of the team members, Fotos Georgiadis, told me, that doesn’t mean that your fridge can display the weather, but that you always know what you have in there and what you can do with it. They have connected a barcode-scanner with a Rasperry Pi and built an easy method to keep a digital inventory of your aliments, including expiration dates, and connected that to IBM Chef Watson, the AI that finds recipes for you.

A smart kitchen was of course only one of many issues the students worked on. One of the beautiful things about the hackathon was, that the projects really were as diverse as the crowd. One group has worked on a way to transfer bitcoin by sound, another team used machine learning to optimize the speed of toy racing car, yet another team created a „Tinder for shopping“. And the fact that the latter had to go and wake up their third team member when they were announced as the winners of the Swisscom challenge really showed the „hacking all night long“ spirit of the hackathon

From Haifa to St. Gallen


Another interesting group that found its way to the Starthack comes from the Technion in Israel, a university in which „every faculty ends with word engineering“ as they told me. At the hack the group split up to work on different challenges, inter alia four of them created a P2P-app to help people with disabilities and won the SBB-Challenge. Asked what makes Israel such a fertile ground for Start-Ups they’re not a hundred percent sure however. Probably a combination of a lot of technological knowledge coming together in a small space combined with “tough mothers”. Similar to the Valley people have quite a bold mindset and you almost have to have a Start-Up out of sheer peer pressure.

At least, those who stay for the Summit, have some time for sightseeing now. One student even was excited about seeing snow here, probably the first time ever I’ve heard someone complementing the weather in St. Gallen.

Tech is essential for business

At the moment „HSG-Hackathon“ still sounds a bit like an oxymoron. For one, there is a visual contrast between hacking and business culture, not in terms of the gender ratio, but in terms of the clothing. One group focuses on signaling, the other group on comfort. However, the real difference lies beyond stereotypes and in the lingual abilities. Yes, lingual. Most HSG-students speak several human-to-human languages, but only very few can communicate with machines, which is also the reason why there are next to no HSG-students competing in the hackathon; yet. It’s a somewhat inconvenient truth for business students, but IT is more than just an internal support process since eventually all industries will become information industries. Already today, it’s hard to build a successful Start-Up without coding and that surely won’t change back anytime soon.

Being at the hackathon I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a muggle. Technology isn’t magic of course. There is no such thing as magic. However, the results technology can achieve can seem like magic if you can’t fully comprehend how the code works. (If you could travel back in time and take some 2016 technology with you, it shouldn’t be that hard to convince people that you are an actual God; at least until the batteries run out)). This is not to say that MBA-skills will suddenly become obsolete and for all practical purpose you really should be fluent in at least one human-to-human language, but the dependency on the ability to write code and use the leverage of technology will only increase. How can a HSG entrepreneur put innovative ideas to reality? You can buy the „magic“ from Bulgaria or elsewhere, but that doesn’t really seem like a sustainable solution. Bringing together business and tech in St. Gallen is definitely a smart approach. However, if it comes down to who is really indispensable in this relationship, well, we may actually want to learn a bit of magic ourselves.

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