Last weekend I was part of the virtual innovation hackathon EUvsVIRUS as a mentor for teams all over Europe. It was about finding solutions for the COVID-19 problem on different levels. We were involved in the challenge “Business Continuity – New and resilient business models”. Overall it was an impressive experience for me, not least because of the people I was able to work with. The winners were announced on Thursday. I was very pleased that one of the projects I supervised won the 2nd prize in our category. I will stay in contact with the people in charge of sostenibl.es, because like many of the projects this is not only a short term help because of the virus. It is rather a valuable contribution to more sustainability in the long term.
The challenges in coordination
The overall dimension was impressive. 20,900 participants with 2150 submissions in 37 challenges (in ours alone there were 130 teams) were participating. More than 2600 mentors volunteered to support the teams. A completely different dimension than at the InnoDays in April, with new learnings for me as well. We carried out the mentoring as teams of 2, so that we were assigned 19 teams. This meant that we had to familiarize ourselves with the tasks of the teams in the shortest possible time. The first checkpoint session was perfectly timed thanks to my co-mentor Svetlana Jefimova. We had 5 minutes per team to check the basic idea and give feedback on it.
The tools provided by the organization team helped us to do this efficiently. We used Slack as a tool for quick information exchange. Dealing with the multitude of channels gave me the chance to quickly deal with the possibilities and restrictions of this platform. The video conferences ran smoothly via Zoom. This enabled us to communicate well with the teams distributed throughout Europe. But what helped most in the collaboration was the mutual trust when working together.
Success factors for the Hackathon
48 hours from idea to prototype – a great challenge. The ideas of most teams were very good, 5 factors were in my opinion very valuable for success:
- Motivation and result orientation of the team
- Fast team building – getting connected to each other
- Constructive handling of feedback
- Validation of the results with users
- Focus on one area and create a real prototype
Motivation and team building
The difference of motivation can be explained by 2 of the teams. One team had been registered by the employer (a university). After initial problems the project was quickly terminated. While for another motivated team, the failure of their original idea (due to the legal framework) was accepted and led to the rapid development and implementation of a new concept.
Some teams had already worked together, either with their own solution (www.subaj.io or www.clickoala.com), others already found each other in hackathons internationally or nationally. These teams made concrete use of the extended network and suggestions of the mentors to develop further. Others formed their team and invested the time to involve people. Feedfarms in particular, which address the problem of a lack of labour and poor conditions for them in agriculture, was an example of this. The investment in building the team on the first day paid off with a good result on day 2.
Feedback from mentors and potential users
As a mentor it is not always easy to find the right communication. We didn’t know the people and were positively surprised by the openness with which some teams implemented our suggestions. Not only during the final pitches and videos were we enthusiastic about how our points were received. The Coreise team already gave us the opportunity to take part in a guided tour in Copenhagen on Sunday – after we had suggested this on Saturday afternoon. Besides the motivation boost from an event were they gathered 30 participants, the feedback on the points that didn’t work out or were recognized as potential was very valuable.
This shows how important validation is. Not to focus on the entire solution but to talk quickly to potential customers, whether they would work with the supporting software was crucial. The Digital Care Package team, who developed an online help system with chatbot for small businesses, used their local hairdresser and learned not to rely on their own knowledge about tools. As in other IT projects quite often the developers assume a knowledge of the users based on their own skills or they underestimate the user´s competences. It is important to evaluate and provide different solutions depending on the customer needs.
Focus on a first solution
In an agile working environment, design thinking or lean startup approaches are used to search for so-called MVP – Minimum Viable Products, with which one can quickly learn whether one’s own solution is usable and how users handle it. Clickable prototypes or actual programs are very valuable – but if you try to implement all desired functionalities in the 2 days, you will most probably fail. The definition of a use case and running it through is more valuable than a broad spectrum of solutions that have just been started.
A good example is https://clickoala.com/wizard/, which enables sustainable companies to better sell their products online to sustainable clients. Similar examples of how participants focused on solutions were provided by other teams as well. This concentration and focus was especially valuable for the short, 2-minute pitches when the applications were submitted. In this way you quickly learn what is behind the ideas.
How to proceed?
It is not yet clear whether all these solutions will be developed finally. However, the ideas are available and can be further developed. If you would like to develop innovations yourself, but don’t have your own team for this, then I would be happy to look for possibilities with you. An internal hackathon in your own organization, with partners or in the local community is also conceivable as a starting point. I have partners in my network who focus on the innovation process.
The next concrete possibility for the circular economy will be very soon. From 13 to 15 May I will be the Lead Mentor at InnoDays Vienna. There the focus will be on the topic of circular plastics. I am looking forward to the next exciting ideas.