We're up all night creating the future!
New ideas are often generated within a team. And in many cases, new ideas arise in academic institutes. A “hackathon” is an intensive combination of the two. During one such hacker marathon in Tel Aviv, Israel, 11 teams spent a whole day and night searching for solutions to six challenges presented to them by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. At the end of the hackathon, four winning teams took the first three places, with two of the teams sharing first place.
"Create the Future!" - This was the message on the colorful signs that welcomed dozens of young and bright students from Israel's best academic institutes to the first Hackathon from Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, in Israel. Engineers, scientists, programmers, and communications students, all arrived at the Tel Aviv Convention Center in mid-May 2016, ready to spend the next 24 hours inventing, innovating, networking and most importantly – having fun.
The Hackathon in Israel was the second such event that the company has hosted; the first one was held at global headquarters in Darmstadt in November 2015. Following the success of that first Hackathon, the event in Israel was initiated and organized by the company’s Business Technology Team, the Innovation Center team together with it’s team in Israel. "When I went to Technical University of Darmstadt to invite students to our first hackathon", recalls Andreas Schindler, Director Ideation, Innovation and Technology Foresight who initiated the hackathons, "some were reluctant at first. They simply didn't know what kind of opportunities Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, has to offer. When they finally came, they were super excited. Now I have professors from the university calling me to suggest their top students for work at the company".
A hackathon with six challenges
Marc Feiglin, Head of Technology Scouting, explains the idea behind the hackathon: "Good partnerships stand at the foundation of our company’s business and innovation, whether these partnerships are with established companies, start-ups, post-doctoral or undergraduate students. Some of the greatest ventures of our time germinated in university. Our mission is to engage these students at an early stage in their career, let them know how Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, can be their trusted partner, and let them appreciate the value of this kind of partnership".
“Great things are happening here!“
Managing Director of Inter-lab
After some healthy snacks were consumed and a few opening remarks were made, the hackathon's six challenges, representing real problems that Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, is coping with across its different businesses, were presented to the students. The first challenge required the students to come up with concepts for medical diagnostics techniques that utilize wearable sensors such as step counters, heart rate monitors and smart watches. The second challenge involved developing creative applications for location sensors in the workplace and the research laboratory. The third challenge called for the students to find ideas for fighting the life-threatening problem of product counterfeiting in the pharmaceutical, aerospace, agriculture and electronics industries. The fourth challenge was to find a way to digitalize chemical labs and make them smarter and more efficient. The fifth challenge had the students build use-cases where “steerable” lighting devices offer improvement over current lighting devices. The sixth challenge was to develop a smartphone application that mimics a microplate reader that will be able to measure and analyze samples when a microplate reader is not available.
While the hackathon's organizers were dividing the students into hacking groups according to their interest in the different challenges and their qualifications, Mooly Eden, the legendary Israeli, former Vice President of Intel Cooperation, and the man behind the revolutionary Pentium processor and Centrino adapters, gave a keynote speech. "In the specific situations where you need to improvise, get creative, break some rules and challenge conventional ways of thinking, the Israeli engineers will excel", he said.
Indeed, Israeli innovation is a world phenomenon. With a population of only 8 million, there are more Israeli companies listed on the NASDAQ stock market than from Japan, Korea and India combined, and mega-corporates like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Intel and HP have set up their leading R&D centers in Israel.
"Great things are happening here", says Regine Shevach, Managing Director of Inter-lab, the R&D Center of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, in Israel. "We are running the MS Ventures Bio-Incubator, which has already produced two companies; Neviah Genomics, which developed a ground-breaking drug toxicity screening technology, and Metabomed, which focuses on drug discovery in the field of cancer metabolism. In Jerusalem, we nourished for six years and eventually bought QLight Nanotech, an Israeli start-up for LCD nanotechnology which has turned into a successful international company.
At about 5:30 a.m., the hacking began. Eleven teams took their places in the designated hacking area around tables packed with an impossible mix of stationery, batteries, switches, light bulbs, gauze pads, elastic bandages, duct tapes, Bluetooth devices, books, cables, pills, Raspberry Pi 3 mini-computers, and thin films. Each team was assigned a mentor, an employee from the relevant business area at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. From dusk till dawn and beyond, the students researched the backgrounds of their challenges, threw ideas around, discussed each other's ideas, designed algorithms, built devices, wrote codes, and conducted experiments. They also played billiards and table football in the hallway and learned exactly how foolish their fellow teammates become after losing a night's sleep.
Four teams captured the first three places
The following morning, the teams presented their solutions to a panel of judges comprising employees from Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, and members of Israeli academia. Over lunch the judges had a long debate, and finally the winners were announced as the heroic Star Wars theme was played in the background. Third place went to a team who proposed integrating steerable lighting systems with audio, visual and touch sensors, and applying them for surgery, scuba-diving and military purposes. Second place went to a team who designed a Bitcoin-like transaction tracking system that could help prevent counterfeiting in the pharmaceutical industry. First place went to two teams; one designed a home-health kit and application for checking potential allergens in foods, and another that designed a smartphone-based spectrophotometer for preeclampsia self-testing. The winning teams have been invited to present their ideas to executives from Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, at the company's Israeli R&D center in Yavne.
Adi Paz from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and a member of the hackathon's panel of judges, describes the judges' process, "We had a very passionate debate. Almost every judge had a different favorite team. Eventually we picked the winners based on their solution's creativity, originality, feasibility, and the way it addressed the actual challenge presented". Chen Tzur, an Electrical Engineering student from Bar-Ilan University and one of the hackathon participants, says: "I've been to many hackathons and this one was organized excellently. I had fun and connected with a lot of amazing people. The atmosphere was great and the food was good too. I love these events, and this one was one of the best."