At last fall’s HackPSU, Alex Patin traded 40 winks for first place.
“It was hardcore development for 24 hours,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think any of us slept.”
It was worth it. When it was over, his team had not only taken home the title, but had also planted the seeds for its future business. A few months later, Musical Minds LLC, which harmonizes music, mind and body using brainwave-sensing headphones, was born.
But that was last year. On Saturday, the competition will be the largest ever, with about 600 attendees expected for the 24-hour hackathon. Founded in 2013, the kickoff event for Global Entrepreneurship Week at Penn State puts a panoply of brainpower in one room and lets them have at it. With a bit of luck and a few pounds of coffee, the event may fuel more startups like Patin’s.
Events like HackPSU will occur throughout GEW at Penn State, which is in its eighth year. Running Saturday to Thursday, the week, which is organized by the Penn State Small Business Development Center, will welcome George Steinmetz, a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, and Mike Karns, whose company Marathon Live Entertainment ran social media for the Broadway hit “Hamilton.” Many more are scheduled to speak during the week.
Heather Fennessey McWhorter, the executive director for the Penn State Small Business Development Center, said it’s all about promoting innovation in the region.
“It’s grown into a very large, multidisciplinary, inclusionary event,” she said.
Yet it’s not just for the pros, said Jen Platt, HackPSU’s co-director and a senior electrical engineering major at Penn State. HackPSU, for example, is open to those looking to learn about the world of programming and application development — not just those who are startup ready.
“The best way to describe a hackathon is a rapid prototyping competition, people can work in teams of up to five, utilize their software and hardware and build a prototype that will fix some problem,” Platt said. “It can show (people) what being a ‘hacker’ is like: It’s not breaking into things; it’s not doing anything illegal. It’s building creative solutions to everyday problems.”
For the competitive teams, however, there will be 10 sponsored challenges. The Penn State EdTech Network and the Center for Online Innovation and Learning are tasking teams with building something that will improve the freshman experience on campus. IBM, another sponsor, is hosting the Nittany Watson Challenge, set to roll out in early 2017.
On Saturday, teams will have the first crack at the cloud-based technology, which can be used to recognize patterns and infer solutions from massive data sets. Already, Watson has helped navigate treatments for fighting cancer, customers find the right Nordic jacket and predict behavior from online predilections.
At Penn State, the technology may help facilitate the school’s online World Campus experience.
“The real intention behind Watson capabilities is to provide decision makers with insight so that they can make better decisions,” said Rich Prewitt, chief test engineer at IBM and on-campus IBMer at Penn State. “If you think about that in terms of fighting cancer… It can assess the information a lot faster and consume thousands of articles a week.”
The possibilities for Watson are head-spinning. The same could be said for the week ahead.
Patin’s team, for instance, may even get some sleep this time around. Since last year’s HackPSU, Musical Minds has expanded from just using workout music to finding tunes for relaxation, motivation and reducing stress.
Just what an irrepressible entrepreneur needs.
“Sixteen years ago there really weren’t the business models that there are today,” Fennessey McWhorter said. “It’s like a brand new world.”