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FasTrackathon: How HighTechXL pulled off its first virtual hackathon in 9 days

This post was first published on Dispatches Europe March 31, 2020. It is reposted here with their permission You can read it here on Dispatches Europe. This FasTrackathon post is part of Dispatches’ Tech Tuesday series. Dispatches Europe is a HighTechXL partner.

For most companies, there’s a “before” the coronavirus pandemic and an “after” the coronavirus. Nowhere is that more true than at HighTechXL, where social distancing has pushed executives and teams out of their analog comfort zone and into a borderless world of connectivity.

At HighTechXL, the venture-building process has critical timelines as the Eindhoven-based accelerator identifies new technologies from the world’s most advanced research centers such as the European Space Agency and companies such as Philips, then builds teams around them in a nine-month accelerator.

FasTrackathon is one of two reverse-hackathons for 2020, crucial to bringing teams together with new technology. Teams ideally consist of dedicated CEO, CBO (Chief Business Officer) and CTO as co-founders.) Teams are supported by mentors, volunteers, experts and interns.

FasTrackathon was scheduled for 25 March. Pandemic or no, the event couldn’t be delayed; couldn’t be cancelled because executives didn’t want to delay the intense nine-month venture building program set for mid-April.

FasTrackathon had to be recreated as a virtual hackathon while keeping all the collaboration of the original – initial introductions, team familiarizations, brainstorming, business plans and, finally, the pitches that are the first step toward strangers becoming effective startup teams.

The question was, could the HighTechXL team test the available communication software available, create visual presentations and organize technology owners and potential team members in a workable schedule for FasTrackathon … in slightly more than one week?

‍“We did it,” says Guus Frericks, HighTechXL CEO. The virtual FasTrackathon produced a better quality of output “especially considering participants didn’t know one another at the start of the event,” Frericks said.

Since 2018, HighTechXL’s venture building program has produced super- startups including Incooling, Aircision, Dynaxion and Carbyon, along with a dozen other fast-growing young companies. So, as the crisis deepened, there was greater urgency to figure out Plan B.

The virtual event had to come together in a few days and it had to be close enough to perfect that the most promising talents would stick around and get involved with creating the new startups.

The four organizers were:

Toam Jaber, Nikki Schreurs, Esther Peeks and Cheryl Boyd

Fortunately, the technology was in place:

Obruza Cell Technology (CEO Tanner Carden)

Nestegg Biotech B.V. has developed the Obruza Cell System as an answer to the rising costs and high standards associated with today’s laboratories. This integrated system can automate 90% of the workflow in cell culture applications.

‍• InnoFlex (proprietary technology from Kevin Lagarde)

This technology is a superior mass production system for high quality, flexible thin film nano materials, including flexible solar panels, (OLED) displays and other flexible electronics.

‍• GIMOD (Technical University of Delft and SCALE Nanotech)

Graphene Interferometric MOdulator Display, or GIMOD for short. GIMOD is a reflective-type display, like e-paper. There is great contrast in bright environments, which means it uses less energy than standard smart phones or VR visors.

‍• inPhocal (CERN and Martijn Boerkamp)

inPhocal’s technology features a unique laser beam with a small central spot surrounded by rings. Because of its structure, it can travel without the central spot changing in size or intensity.

‍• Photonic Gyroscope (European Space Agency and Politecnico di Bari)

When you envision a gyroscope, you think of a spinning wheel inside a metal frame. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and you get a light-based gyroscope that can be implemented on a photonic chip.

‍• Aqua Pacer (Philips)

Insufficient hydration can lead to headaches, lack of concentration, performance drops and the development of diseases. Aqua Pacer uses CMUT technology for direct bladder content measurement.

Deep talent

Fortunately, the effort to recruit talent had been in place before the COVID-19 epidemic started shutting down public events. By the time FasTrackathon went digital, there were 55 participants registered including physicists and engineers. With tech experts and HighTechXL team members moderating, total participants numbered 80 people.

The expectation was that some would bail when notified the event was going digital, but drop-outs were minimal.

“People stuck with it,” said Cheryl Boyd, one of the organizers. “There were three withdrawals, one related to the coronavirus. But we had four signups the night before, so we came away with 100 percent and a far lower no-show rate than the first two FasTrackathons.

“That was the eye-opener … people really wanted to do this.”

In fact, some technologies were so popular they required multiple teams, with 10 teams forming out of six technologies, including three Aqua Pacer teams and two GIMOD teams.

Now there are two weeks of pre-program sessions online to further coalesce and flesh application areas and business propositions. Teams now have assignments on Slack for the pre-program and continue to meet online to come together as a team.

How it all worked

Microsoft Teams was chosen as the main platform, and the event opened with Guus ‘s introduction. This was only nine days after HighTechXL team members used the platform for the first time on Monday 16 March for scrum calls after the Netherlands directed people to start working from home.

In between the introduction and the pitch event, the bulk of the reverse-hackathon was spent discussing each technology with the tech owners in sessions conducted by HighTechXL room owners. Teams then generated ideas considering potential application areas and building propositions in preparation for the pitch event at the end of the day.

Teams also utilized Slack and Google Drive so they could easily upload files directly to their team folders.

“We kept both of these platforms in place and will use them to communicate during the pre-program and into the program if they want,” Cheryl said. “It’s no big deal.”

Each team had its own team folder connected on Slack. Some teams used Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts … whatever they decided to use as a group to communicate. Nestegg, for instance, used a WhatsApp group for calling along with Slack.

The biggest concern was that Microsoft Teams would crash under the weight of multiple videos, which it had been doing in Europe all week as companies switched to virtual meetings in locked-down countries.

“We had a back up plan for the back up plan,” Cheryl said. “We even had a ‘What if?’ slide.”

There was no need as the entire eight hours went off with just minor technical glitches.

Teams now move to the pre-program session, complete with deliverables on the technology, team member commitments, and further validation of their initial business proposition.

Final Selection Day is set for Friday, April 10 where teams will be formally accepted into the venture building program. The acceleration program begins Tuesday, April 14.

Important note: If people did not participate in the FasTrackathon, they can still join a team. If you are still interested you can email HighTechXL:

The reviews

The reviews are in and they’re great. Out of the feedback responses, 93 percent recommended the event, while two responded “maybe,” and there were zero “nos.”

“We really got stuff done online,” said Daniel Hatton-Johnson, who’s joined GIMOD Team 2. “I’ve done the FasTrackathon in person, and this was really, really good. Really productive.”

Daniel rated the digital version as more collaborative, spreading work out more evenly “instead of one person taking over,” he said. The event also boosted his personal network, Daniel added: “We all connected straight away on LinkedIn.”

Other random comments:

• Given the state of public health affairs across the world, I was impressed on the proactivity that HighTechXL showed by using an alternative (digital) platform to hold this event when other companies are cancelling or postponing theirs. This shows a high level of seriousness that I wish to be affiliated with in the future. It’s a good testament for the work that you do — finding a solution to a problem. Thank you for all the organisation and coordination today.

‍• It was a great event. I really liked the team work, Opportunity Navigator and online collaboration with team members worked much better than expected.

‍• We had a great time working together. The team was fully compromised and synergistic. We were together at Zoom and Google Drive environments, which surely shortened the distances. I had some connexion problems on the way which didn’t affect the end result.

“FasTrackathon was well organised. Even though it was an online session, the level of input and communication between the team was high.”

Lessons learned

HighTechXL founders have always dreamed about building an online accelerator, Guus said. The virtual FasTrackathon showed it’s not only possible for single events,

“It proved it’s possible to connect to different innovation centers around the globe.”