The Financial Express

Scaling up hackathon into innovation success stories

| Updated: February 25, 2020 20:28:04

Scaling up hackathon into innovation success stories

A hackathon, also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest, is a time-constraint collaborate intensive design sprint. The goal is to create functioning software or hardware by the end of the event, typically lasting for a day or two.

In the 1970s, developing functional electronic circuits starting from doorbell to garage door opener used to be a popular topic. In the 1980s, developing software application running on the personal computer became a popular design exercise in arranging hackathon. The emergence of microcontrollers and accessories like keyboards, displays, and sensors opened new design exercises.

Smartphone fueled app development sprint. In the recent past, mobile robot making has become a popular design topic for hackathon participants. Hackathon has become a popular strategy among universities, government institutions, and others to promote creativity, technology, innovation, and startups among the youth. Although such a design event inspires creativity and tinkering, hardly innovative prototypes developed in such events succeed in commercial innovations, creating a profitable business, jobs, and firms.

Such reality raises a critical question about the challenge of scaling up outputs of the hackathon into innovation success stories. It's time to pay attention to overcome those challenges for nurturing creativity of our youths into profitable new products, jobs, and business, and making a contribution to economic growth.

Historically, many commercially highly successful innovations came out from the urge to make something by integrating available technology components. Often such exercises had a root in tinkering, as opposed to a formal method of science and engineering. For example, bicycle mechanics Wright brothers invented, built, and flew the world's first airplane. Similarly, Thomas Alpha Edison invented a sound recording machine phonograph, among many others. Although, they created a huge buzz, but none of those great ideas was an instant commercial success. How they did succeed should be carefully studied to figure out the solution of scaling up the hackathon outputs into innovation success stories.

By the way, not only America or Europe is blessed with creative genius; most of the communities as well as countries are also blessed. For example, the National Innovation Foundation of India has recorded 320,000 grassroots innovative ideas. Even a high-school boy of a remote area of Bangladesh has created sensational news by developing a bilingual robot. Why have the creative minds of less developed countries not equally succeeded the way their counterparts in America, Europe and also Japan did? As a matter of fact, economically advanced countries succeeded in coming to this state through the profitable exploitation of creative ideas of their genius. Why didn't similar success happen in the rest of the world, comparably benefiting every country from ideas?

Despite the greatness of idea and strength of core underlying technology, any innovative product idea out of hackathon invariable emerges in a primitive form; finding customers of such primitive products often is a daunting challenge - creating chasm to progression. Such a primitive product creates very little willingness to pay among a very small group of customers. If commercialisation is pursed of this primitive product, loss-making revenue starts generating. Turning this natural tendency of loss-making revenue into profit is a critical challenge -- often exerting significant stress on the innovation team to succeed in an innovation journey of taking ideas to market at a profit.

Unfortunately, such loss-making revenue often creates inescapable loss traps. Detecting such inescapable traps and deciding to stop pursuing further is also a useful competence to minimise wastage of resources. Innovation takes time and successive improvements for diffusing through different segments of the market.

Subsidy is required to support loss-making operations. But that does not offer a sustainable solution. The critical requirement is that the underlying technology core should be amenable to rapid improvement, supporting the delivery of subsequent versions of better quality at a lower cost. To take advantage of it, there should be a relentless mission of incremental innovation - gradually turning loss-making revenue into profit, preferably without increasing price.

Stepwise progress needs to be made in transforming the offering cheaper, or faster, or better. Some of the likely customers' questions affecting the adoption are: Can we lay off people if we buy your product? What are the trade-off, and trial and switching costs? Could it be better than doing nothing at all? What is the return on investment? Is the risk worth the reward? Why is understanding the nitty-gritty of economic value about what people are willing to pay for, highly important?

Institutions at national and local levels, among other factors, all play a role in shaping the extent to which innovative technological ideas are actually shaped and deliver value in creating a profitable business in the globally connected competitive market economy, consequentially improving well-being. Institutions set formal and informal rules, norms, decision-making procedures, beliefs, and expectations that govern interactions between actors.

So far, innovations have been nurtured through public and private mechanisms such as patent laws, public research grants, subsidies for end-users, and research networks. It has been primarily operating at the national level in a handful of industrialised countries and a few international organisations. Such approaches have had widely varying levels of success in advanced countries, but have proven inadequate overall for the purpose of replicating them in developing countries. Moreover, in the absence of such mechanisms, creative ideas in developing countries have virtually no support system to grow in offering new value and creating jobs.

The uneven and insufficient innovation is due in part to several distinct dynamics. In a globally connected market economy, often creative ideas do not grow in developing countries due to the fact that in comparison to advanced countries, developing countries tend to offer smaller market incentives to private inventors and have weaker national innovation systems for encouraging domestic invention.

Moreover, due to lack of adequate understanding about dynamics of technological innovation in the market, often innovators, investors, incentive providers, and employees fail to take a series of smart, rational decisions in the midst of uncertainty to nurture ideas into a profitable business. Despite apparent randomness in innovation outcome, there appears to have a certain pattern beneath innovation success as well as failure stories.

To create success stories out of creative exercises in the hackathon, we should focus on improving knowledge and understanding about innovation dynamics among students, academics, policymakers, investors, and society as a whole. Along with nurturing creativity, we should focus on improving the national innovation system for increasing capacity of knowledge refinement, adaptation, and generation leading to creation of demand for local innovative ideas. In the absence of focusing on creating innovation success stories in a competitive market economy, the effort of arranging the hackathon and offering prize money as well as seed capital run the risk of missing out the opportunity and creating frustrated youths.


M Rokonuzzaman, PhD, is academic and researcher: at Technology, Innovation and Policy.


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