AgTech Hackathon Pivots to a Virtual Event
How Coronavirus Causes an Innovation Hub to Innovate
“This event has always been an exciting, positive, creative space with a lot of adrenaline. This year, even though we were virtual, there was still a constant flow of engagement and such a positive buzz. It was inspiring to see individuals read the guidelines, take their own initiative, get stuck in and work together from their homes. This experience proves that innovation doesn’t quit in the face of a nationwide lockdown.”
AgTech Hackathon Event Manager
“I've never been involved in a virtual Hackathon before, so I had reservations about not being able to mentor teams face-to-face. But the organisation, structure and support from AgTech Hackathon made it easy and very inclusive. It opens up the platform to a wider audience, which means we as a company get access to a broader and more varied level of innovative ideas and solutions. I'm very excited to be in a position where I can work with one of the teams to develop their solution further as part of a Zespri funded project.”
Innovation Leader, Orchard Technology
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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every facet of our lives. The AgTech Hackathon is no exception. This annual event was scheduled to occur over two days at the end of March, as part of the New Zealand AgriFood Week. But the global sheltering in place forced a swift change of plans. The AgTech Hackathon team wanted to find a way to do something that would keep the creative spirit of the hackathon alive. When a friend pointed Event Manager Johnelle Hosking to the HeroX platform, she knew she had the answer. The AgTech Hackathon Solution Challenge was created online to replicate the original hackathon structure as much as possible, using tools and templates available from the platform. The two week long virtual hackathon generated a community of over 120 individuals and 13 submissions. The AgTech Hackathon team and event partners were so pleased with the experience that they are already planning future virtual events at HeroX.
The Factory is an innovation hub, located in Palmerston North New Zealand, that nurtures entrepreneurs and start-ups by providing an ecosystem of support. They have coordinated and administered the AgTech Hackathon for the past four years. In any other year, the hackathon would bring together 60 of the most talented techies for two days of hacking, mentoring, and connecting with industry challenges related to New Zealand’s primary industries, hosted at Massey University’s engineering department. Mentors from 5 different partner organisations would work with hackathon participants to develop, build, and present solutions to specific challenges brought by each sponsor. Although the partners vary from year to year, they are all part of New Zealand’s primary sector of agriculture, horticulture, forestry etc. At the end of 2 days, the teams would demonstrate their innovative technology solutions at the Central District Field Days (a highlight at the New Zealand AgriFood Week), judges would score the teams, and winners would be announced. In addition to the development of new and innovative technologies, AgTech Hackathon goals are to introduce budding techies to the local innovation network, to facilitate new connections, and to raise awareness about the importance of primary industries to New Zealand.
The AgTech Hackathon Solution Challenge allowed participants to submit solutions to any or all of the 4 challenge topics presented by 4 different partners in the areas of: dairy, horticulture, forestry, and connected farm. (A fifth sponsor had to withdraw their challenge on water management due to COVID-19 related constraints.) Participants could enter individually or as teams. Subject matter experts picked one winner within each of the different challenge categories. These finalists each won $250 NZD, and hackathon judges chose the overall winner from the 4 finalists. The overall winner was the Beta Team from Manawatu. Their Bugkilla solution to the horticulture category provides real-time monitoring and eradication of bug infestations for fruit growers and horticulturalists. They received an additional $1000 NZD and 3 months of support from The Factory’s start-up incubator support program.
Although participants in the AgTech Hackathon Solution Challenge couldn’t build out or mock up their solutions using Massey’s engineering resources, they were still able to interact with team mates and mentors using the platform’s forum feature. This was important because active mentoring and the interaction between partners and participants is an important part of the AgTech Hackathon experience. Naturally, everyone hopes to win a prize, but the experience of learning with and from others and the development of new connections means that everyone leaves the hackathon a winner. Being able to replicate some of those key elements in the virtual hackathon helped keep it true to the spirit of in-person event.
This pivot from a live hackathon to a virtual one was so successful that Johnelle says plans are underway to hold regular virtual hackathons at the HeroX platform throughout the year, in addition to holding the flagship live event with the New Zealand AgriFood Week. Not everyone can travel to Palmerston to participate in the live event, so holding virtual hackathons allows more talented people to participate and to learn about New Zealand’s primary industries.
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