The inside story of the star-studded Sundance hackathon you never heard about

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 19, 2014

From The News Desk

Adrien Grenier at Hackdance

This year at the Sundance Film Festival, as the rest of the attendees party-hopped and attended screenings, a handful of celebrities cloistered away in the Deer Valley resort. They had a slightly different festival mission in mind: They were there to hack.

Alex Ebert (frontman of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros), Adrian Grenier ("Entourage"), Mekhi Phifer ("ER," "8 Mile"), Waka Flocka Flame (Atlantic Records), Fabien Cousteau (Mission 31), and Sarah Austin ("Start-­Ups: Silicon Valley" on Bravo) all came up with ideas for social change apps.

They pitched their concepts to a room of 25 programmers, who split up and decided which team to join. Then on and off for the next 48 hours, the celebrities worked alongside the hackers to build their visions out of thin air. The stars came and went from panels and events they had to attend, returning to check in on their engineering team and prepare presentations for the final demo.

This was Hackdance -- the first ever Sundance hackathon. It flew under the radar despite being a star-studded event. The teams and celebrities were there to build products, not make PR statements.

Laurendine and Grenier pose with hackers Laurendine and Grenier pose with hackers

Hackdance was organized by soap opera actress-cum-founder Cooper Harris, AT&T hack organizer Alex Donn, and Travis Laurendine, the flaming-haired mastermind behind the Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and upcoming SXSW hackathons. Like Donn, Laurendine has made hackathons his current life work, finding new ways to incorporate them alongside events where hackathons never existed before.

Cooper Harris is a member of the Collective, a group at Sundance that runs tech and entrepreneurship events alongside the film festival itself. With the Collective's backing, the trio started recruiting celebrities to lead teams of hackers.

"A lot of celebrities have causes or non-profits they're trying to help," Laurendine says. "So my pitch to celebrities was, 'Why don't you let these guys build something for your cause, and then it will be your job to go get the word out afterwards.'" In that way, the Hackdance founders hoped that the products created would have a life beyond the hackathon itself.

Alex Ebert, lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, was an old friend of Laurendine's who was easy to convince. Ebert was going to be at Sundance anyways -- he had just won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score on the film "All is Lost."

Alex Ebert works with his Hackdance team Alex Ebert works with his Hackdance team

"He's been telling me about these hackathons for awhile and I didn't know what the hell he was talking about," Ebert says. But Ebert had been developing an idea for a social good gaming platform for awhile, and had even bought a domain name -- Laurendine persuaded him a hackathon would help him get a minimum viable product off the ground.

"It was the perfect opportunity to hang out in a beautiful town working on something I cared about," Ebert says.

Adrien Grenier was another easy sell, since he was a keynote speaker during The Collective's 2014 Sundance lineup.

Hackdance put out the call for local hacker applications. "That's when we were amazed at how many awesome developers there were in Utah," Laurendine remembers. They received 125 applicants and hand-selected 25. "We didn't want to open it up to the public because celebrities would be putting their personal brands on the line for this."

At the last second, one star who was supposed to lead a hacker team fell through and Laurendine was on the hunt for someone to fill his place. It was the morning of the event, and he was stressing out. He wandered into the hotel lobby to track down breakfast, and wound up seeing rapper Waka Flocka, who was performing at the festival. The two bonded over a quest to hunt down some oatmeal, and Laurendine convinced Waka Flocka to become one of the hackathon leads.

When it came time for the celebrities to pitch their app ideas, "Waka Flocka just went super deep on us," Laurendine remembers. "He laid it down in raw terms about how hard people have it growing up in the neighborhood where he's from. People don't understand how underprivileged some people are."

His idea for his hackathon product was an app to help his mother's non-profit, Rah Rah’s Tech Truck. The truck, named after Waka Flocka's younger brother who was killed after being hit by a car, brings new technologies to underprivileged areas, so children can experience them.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 1.39.17 PM Waka Flocka performing alongside his Hackdance team

The night that Waka Flocka performed at Sundance, he stopped the whole show to give a shoutout to his hackathon team, inviting them up on stage alongside him. According to Laurendine, it was a magical moment. Waka Flocka told the crowd, "I've done Sundance before but nothing has meant as much to me as working with these people on this app for my mom's non-profit. I just want to thank you guys."

Laurendine, Donn, and Harris had a dream for Hackdance. They didn't want it to end and all the hackers to go their separate ways back to the real world, leaving their hack product forgotten with no steps for turning it into reality. They wanted the winners of the hackathon -- celebrities and coders alike -- to have a clear path to building a viable business.

Hackdance teamed up with the Sorenson Global Impact Investing Center, which is a research institute on investing for social change for MBA students and faculty out of The University of Utah. The Center would incubate the winners of the hackathon, drawing up a detailed business plan for their future and making recommendations on a network of investors to pitch it to.

After two days of nearly non stop hacking, two celebrity teams took home the grand prizes of $5000 in cash and business incubation from Sorenson.

Sarah Austin's (Start-Ups: Silicon Valley) team won the impact award, for building a cyber-bullying plugin that would comb Internet activity, do sentiment analysis, and alert parents if their kids were being cyber bullied.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert presenting with his Hackdance team Alex Ebert presenting with his Hackdance team

Ebert's team won the innovation award, for the Second City-like virtual world "Second Government." The game would allow users to run for office, and for others to vote them in on certain platforms. Users could also suggest new bills, or allocate their fake tax money to certain causes. The idea was to give citizens a parallel world to experiment with new forms of government.

Ebert told Laurendine that in some ways, winning Hackdance felt better than winning a Golden Globe because his team built something he hoped could help change the world for the better.

"The great thing about hackathons is they provide a burst of inertia," Ebert tells me. "They can be amazing catalysts to just about anything. It's a really potent way to start something."

[Image courtesy: Sarah Austin and Hackdance Instagram]