Sixteen of USC Viterbi’s best and brightest spent a recent weekend competing in the inaugural Viterbi Fellows Grand Hackathon, a 24-hour hackathon, testing the limits of their engineering mettle and gaining invaluable hands-on experience in entrepreneurship.
The event, held Feb. 3 to Feb. 5 in Viterbi’s Startup Garage in Marina del Rey, gave many of the 16 participating students their first hands-on taste of the fast-paced world of startups, product development and technological innovation.
At the hackathon, four teams of four students had just 24 hours to build an app or device that addressed one of the 14 Grand Challenges, which include providing access to clean water, advancing personalized learning, prevent nuclear terror and securing cyberspace.
Hunched over their laptops and surrounded by discarded water bottles and coffee cups, the hackers worked late into the night coming up with ideas and racing to turn them into apps and devices. Viterbi alumni business mentors helped the students focus their concepts and identify potential markets. Technical experts from BCG Digital Ventures and ESRI, a leader in mapping solutions, helped them overcome some of the technical challenges.
At stake: a $1,000 grand prize.
“The weekend was a big success. Students, mentors, and judges all came away with something. It was a win-win-win for all,” said Alice Liu, assistant director for USC Viterbi’s Office of Innovation Technology and Entrepreneurship.
“The hackathon,” she added, “was a great way for the students to make contacts. LA investors served on the judging panel; mentors came from the high-tech world; and our students had an opportunity to bond with their fellow classmates. If any of them ever launch a startup in the future, these may be the same people they might think to call on.”
Maji, the winning team, came up with a chatbot and a web app to help people find access to clean water. The three runners-up included Doctorum, which provides an early warning of disease outbreaks by mining text communications between physicians and patients; Edge, which data mines students’ social feeds to customize learning; and Globalingo, which offers virtual-reality language immersion and VR tours of some countries.
“I was impressed with all four teams,” said Ron Silverton, a partner at ALJ Capital and member of the Tech Coast Angels who served as a hackathon judge. “I’ve seen many more experienced teams pitch with more than double the time and been left wondering what problem they were attacking and how they proposed to solve it.”
All hackathon participants were Viterbi Fellows, a small group of some of the engineering schools’ brightest undergraduate students. The program focuses on creating a unique combination of opportunities and experiences, both academic and co-curricular, for the group.
USC Viterbi has invested a lot in spurring innovation and entrepreneurship, right up to building them into the curriculum, said Liu, the assistant director for the Office of Innovation Technology and Entrepreneurship.
“Programs like these really push the boundaries on what our engineers can achieve and broadens our thinking on what defines an engineer,” she said.
Trisha Palit agreed.
The 18-year-old chemical engineering major and first-time hackathon participant said she “gained an appreciation of how much could be created and how much could be learned in just 24 hours. I also gained an understanding of how a good design and a good presentation could help useful engineering ideas become a reality.”
Added Palit: “I do plan to participate in future hackathons, mostly because of this experience.”