The journey of an early-stage startup can be compared to the race of trying to win a hackathon. Identifying a problem, selecting the right technology and fast prototype building are just the main phases that the two processes share.
When we found out about the CASSINI Hackathon, sponsored by the European Space Agency, it seemed like an ideal team-building activity for our early startup. Moreover, you never know what opportunities may present themselves after completing such a hackathon.
In this blog post, I’ll walk you through the entire experience. Before diving in, let’s take a quick look at what the CASSINI hackathon was all about
Coming out of the recent pandemic, revitalizing tourism and creating eco-friendly ways to access European destinations has been an area of focus for the EU, regional and national governments. The hackathon explored the intersection of entrepreneurship, tourism and space technologies.
The hackathon proposed three main challenges. Participating teams were required to build a solution that would address at least one of these challenges:
For more details about the challenges, please visit https://hackathons.cassini.eu/.
To optimally solve these challenges, the hackathon organizers suggested certain space technologies and even gave datasets for us to use. The suggested technologies were:
Now that you have a general notion of what the hackathon was all about, let’s dive into the experience 🥽!
As this was a spaced-themed hackathon, aviate labs reached out to Aether, a student team that brings together young Belgian engineers who are passionate about space technology.
The team was composed of Aether’s software engineer, Joppe Leers, and the aviate labs core team. Together, they set out to conquer the 48hr CASSINI hackathon 💪.
As recommended by our 6 Tips to Help You Win a Hackathon… Without having to get the Gold article, the team scheduled an initial brainstorming session. In this session, the team focused on what problems are related to each of the three challenges 🤔.
As an example, take the first challenge mentioned earlier: finding sustainable destinations. This challenge was inspired by the fact that touristic destinations have to balance the income and employment generated by tourists with the cost to their environments and communities.
One of the main problems we identified from this was overcrowding, and how it leads to increased stress on the city's resources. Furthermore, it (in)directly increases various forms of pollution
After going through a similar process for all the challenges, the team had an extensive list of problems that required a modern solution. While we did not have a solution at the end of this brainstorm, we had identified real problems that can help guide the ideation of our solution. Thanks to this, no time was wasted during the hackathon about defining what problems need to be solved.
The hackathon began on Thursday, 12 May at 7 pm. It kicked off with a welcome session from the main hackathon organizers, which gave us a tour of all the different hackathon locations and all the different teams participating. It was motivating to see the scale of the hackathon as well as all the brilliant minds coming together to tackle the challenges.
Our team was participating online from Barn 58, our office in Leuven, Belgium. However, we were still part of the regional hub which was located in the Space Business Innovation Center in Noordwijk, Netherlands 🚲.
Aside from all the welcome activities and workshops, most of the time on day one was spent agreeing on a solution to the problems we identified in the initial brainstorming session.
After day one, our team agreed on building a solution for challenge #2, experiencing cities and cultures.
Our solution was a travel companion app that provides a stress-free experience in discovering everything local along the road less traveled. The key technological component of the solution was that it used GNSS data to provide live crowdedness updates to help tourists plan their visits, as well as suggest other visit-worthy locations that are outside of the busy areas.
With a solution in mind, the team was ready to build, build, build. Along the way, different members participated in various workshops that were organized to elevate the quality of our solution. One key workshop answered the question: how can our idea make money? This workshop helped the team to understand who this solution is for and develop a target persona. Furthermore, it outlined how the idea can be profitable 💸.
In addition to the workshops, the team engaged in many calls with the regional hub in Noordwijk. These calls were vital in keeping our team on the right track as it allowed us to touch base, as well as iterate over our solution with the valuable feedback provided by the experts at the hub.
With the sunny, springtime weather in Belgium, we organized a barbeque for the team followed by some smores 🍴.
Yes, time is limited during a hackathon, but it is also counter-productive to be working tired and hungry. Especially after 24 hours into the hackathon, the dinner was a well-deserved break and a nice change from eating pastries or sandwiches over our laptops.
In hindsight, the nutritious and filling dinner played an important role in fueling the team to work well into the night.
Imagine a dark room, RGB lighting and crushed cans of soda spread across the desks. The hackathon team went full hacker mode 👩💻👨💻.
These hours for the team were the most productive in the whole hackathon. Each member was able to work individually on their tasks, uninterrupted.
Up until 5 am, the team continuously hacked away at the challenge and developed the solution. During those hours, there were ups and downs. But, when the candlelight blew out, the team was content with the state of the solution. All that was left were the finishing touches and to perfect the pitch.
After what felt like a bootcamp of a day, the team mustered up all their energy to deliver the final five-minute pitch.
It is safe to say that on this day, all the members of the team never realized how short five minutes truly is. Initially, there was a lot of content that we decided should be part of the final pitch, but after countless rehearsals and iterations, roughly 70% of that was cut out.
All of the work up until this point has been deemed essential, but through the process of cutting out content from the pitch to make it fit under five minutes, we quickly realized what was truly essential to convey our story and persuade the judges.
The final hours proved to be quite frantic as we made sure our project page was updated and all the files were included. Nevertheless, everything was submitted in time and the hackathon drew to a close. But now, it was time for the pitch contest to begin 🏁.
As we were called to pitch our idea, there was a slight sense of nervousness in the room. But we were prepared, and that gave us all the confidence we needed. We were lucky not to face any technical difficulties while pitching online, which is good for a tech startup. The pitch did not surpass the time limit, the prototype demonstration went smoothly, and the Q&A highlighted the team's expertise as everyone was able to give a detailed but concise answer to the judge’s questions.
After a nerve-racking wait to hear the results, they finally arrived. We achieved 2nd place 🥈!
Time is limited in a hackathon. That means progress needs to be fast, the learning curve is steep and working independently is very important. It’s that last point that proved the most challenging for our team.
Working alone is not the same as working independently. The former implies isolation while the latter means you are not dependent but still on the same page as the rest of the team. At one point, each member of the team started to work alone, which caused us to develop slightly different interpretations of the final solution. As a consequence, the final solution was not as precise as we had hoped.
Had we touched base more often, or developed a clear vision of the final product together as a team before carrying out our individual tasks, we could have developed a solution that would have been a stronger contender for first place.
Nevertheless, our team is proud of the result we achieved. And after all, hackathons teach lessons through experience, and this is a lesson that the aviate labs team will only learn and improve on for the hackathons to come.
So look out 😎⚡.