The world's largest student-run hackathon isn't at Stanford or MIT -- it's at Penn

By Erin Griffith , written on January 21, 2013

From The News Desk

I spent Sunday parked in a grand university auditorium of 350-some behoodied students, many of them curled up in their fold-down seats, fast asleep. The guy next to me was snoring.

They were sleeping because they'd just competed their version of a marathon, a sort of hacker olympics, clocking in 40 straight hours of writing code, building, and just generally being creative, disruptive, brilliant and silly. It was the tail end of the final demo presentations of PennApps, the world's largest student-run hackathon. It wasn't held at the universities you'd expect -- Stanford or MIT -- but at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Students from universities across the country and world (a Swiss team came in second) participated.

Penn, along with the city of Philadelphia, is working hard to become known as tech-friendly place. Even with the mayor's message "Take the money and don't run" -- students that pass through Drexel or Penn tend to build their companies elsewhere. Many, like Lore, Birchbox, Venmo, WantWorthy, Invite Media, Warby Parker and Custora, end up in New York. Others, like AdMob and Milo, head to California. But they get their first taste of entrepreneurship in Philadelphia, which also happens to be the first city for First Round Capital's Dorm Room Fund. It's also home to PennApps, the biggest student-run hackathon.

This weekend, PennApps hosted 450 students who submitted 119 hacks to a website called Hacker League. The top 20 projects ranged from super technical 3D graphing and an Android app that used facial recognition to view photos in 3D, to a smart bookbag that keeps track of your belongings, to a coffee pot that texts you when the coffee is brewed. Oh, and a toilet that tweets.

The message, beyond the general pro-hacking culture prevalent at any such event, was about entrepreneurship. College is merely a vocational school that prepares you to win entrance to the "real world" with a job at Microsoft or Google, declared Andrew Kortina, founder of Venmo, in a sort of anti-real world rallying cry. "It's up to the students to train you to be more creative. PennApps teaches the joy of creating." I caught a few sleepy nods of approval.

The event had one quality I hadn't witnessed at smaller hackathons. In some ways it felt like a beauty pageant. Instead of glorifying fake tans and cheesy "change the world" speeches, it glorified hackers and builders, most of whom are more likely to actually change the world than a professional beauty queen. Beyond that, there was a strange sense that everyone involved wanted something from these students -- the VCs want to lay the groundwork for future deals, once these hackers begin launching companies. Sponsors like Dropbox wanted to recruit them to join their coder armies. Other sponsors like Twilio or Kayak wanted to evangelize their APIs so the coders would build tools and apps into their ecosystems. And yes, there were probably sponsors with no ulterior motive beyond an offer of good will to the community via cash, snacks and prizes. Everyone just wanted to give them stuff. I hate to use this cliche, but events like these actually do treat coders like rock stars.

They got plenty of prizes -- see this list for a full rundown of winners.

Some of the participants I was sitting by grumbled that the hackathon's prize committee rewarded obvious choices for their novelty while ignoring some of the coolest, but perhaps understated hacks. But that's just a reality of hackathons -- especially large ones. Not every brilliant technological innovation built in a short period of time is going to translate to a "wow" moment in a two minute live demo. And with 119 hacks, not everyone at PennApps is going to get their token gold star, lollypop and pat on the head. Hardware is an obvious crowd pleaser at any hackathon. And novelty is memorable. (See again, the toilet tweeting thing.) Hackathons are about challenging oneself and being creative, and if a business springs out of it, that's awesome too.

Several developers have done just that after PennApps: Firefly, the first Dorm Room Fund investment, was built at a PennApps Hackathon. Pay Tango went on to join Y Combinator (this according to the organizers, though I couldn't confirm it). Coursegrapher is still going strong, as is one-click website builder, Snap Site. For making the leap from hack to business, Penn also advertises a "Finish-athon," an event that encourages developers to put the finishing touches on a hack they haven't completed.

This year's overall winner, Inventory, was conceived by Richie Zeng and his team on the plane ride over from UC Berkeley. It's an RFID scanner that goes onto a backpack that keeps track of your belongings, with a corresponding Android app that notifies a user when they've forgotten something. After winning, the team discussed the possibility of launching a Kickstarter campaign. For now, they'll spend their $4000 in prize money, prepare for Greylock's Hackfest or the Philly Tech Meetup, and cash in on a trip sponsored by Google to visit their office in -- where else? -- New York.

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