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#SBHACK19 Hackathons: an antidote to Swiss risk aversion?

People in hammocks using computers

Hackathons around the world, like this one in the Netherlands, typically adopt an unorthodox approach.

(Keystone / Fred Ernst)

Jelena Jakovleva came to Switzerland in 2017 armed with a suitcase and a head full of ideas. The Estonian now has two Swiss start-ups under her belt and credits hackathons high-octane events that challenge participants to solve problems in a short timeframe for fuelling her entrepreneurial dreams.

Hackathons are injecting a dose of garage start-up mentality among Swiss entrepreneurs, seen by some as a vital missing ingredient in the country’s innovation scene. While Switzerland wins many accolades for innovation, when looking at criteria such as patents filed, it also attracts negative comments for its conservative, risk-averse culture.

From June 21-24, some 200 participants are expected at the Swiss Blockchain Hackathonexternal link in Zurich, aimed at jump-starting innovations around the open ledger technology. The blockchain hub Trust Squareexternal link is billing it as one of the largest events of its kind in the country. Challengers as diverse as the Swiss stock exchange, Accenture and the canton of Zurich will ask hackathon participants to come up with blockchain innovations in the fields of finance, transport, logistics, e-voting and agriculture.

Participants will have 72 hours to come up with a workable proposal to claim prizes worth CHF350,000 ($346,000). It might sound like throwing darts blindfolded, but participants at previous hackathons insist this is the best way for innovation to blossom.

Stress breeds creativity

Jakovleva met her business partner at the 2017 hackathon, organized by the Swiss stock exchange operator SIX Group, and later went on to start-up the fintech companies Riskifierexternal link and CryptoProfilerexternal link in Switzerland.

“I was working for a bank where everyone was straight-laced and operated in uncommunicative siloes,” she told of the hackathon experience. “There were coders, business people, academics and lawyers, all wearing t-shirts and hoodies, brainstorming together.”

“We were presented with different problems and formed into groups to solve them. There was a competitive edge that forced everyone to challenge themselves. Personally, I find it easier to be creative in a stressful environment.”

Participants must convince business professionals that their ideas are tangible and practical in the real world, says João Pedro Monteiro, who attended the 2015 SIX hackathon.

“The time pressure makes you focus on what’s really important and to get right to the core of the problem,” Monteiro, co-founder of the artificial intelligence start-up Veezooexternal link, told “There’s no time to waste on flashy bells and whistles. You have to present something workable to the judges, not just some empty PowerPoint presentation.”

Late to the game?

Monteiro was also impressed by the international flavor of the participants, a feature of many hackathons that attract talent from around the world. “It gave us the opportunity to interact with a broad range of people from other countries.”

The Zurich Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) graduate says the ideas generated at the hackathon created the foundations for his company. “Without it, Veezoo would not be here,” he said.

Hackathons (a combination of the words hacking and marathon) are hardly new, having been a feature in many countries for more than a decade. They came to Switzerland relatively late compared to North America and some other Asian and European countries.

Indeed, it might be a stretch to hope that they alone can transform the innovation culture in Switzerland. But they might be just the tonic to add a little fizz to the entrepreneurial scene.

Swiss hackathon scene

There are now several hackathon events a year in Switzerland. Some are organised by companies to solve specific problems within their industry, but others are run by non-commercial entities, such as academic institutions, and cover a broad palette of themes.

Among the best known are:

The F10 (formerly SIX) hackathonexternal link that welcomed 142 participants from 35 countries during its fifth edition in March.

#HackZurichexternal link that bills itself as one of the largest in Europe since expanding from its origins in 2014 to attract more than 500 hackers.

THE Portexternal link hackathon that since 2014 has teamed CERN scientists with non-profit organisations to work on “humanitarian technology related benefits to society”.

The START Hackexternal link collaboration between the University of St Gallen, Microsoft and other partners from the business and non-profit world.

Students at Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) have run the annual LauzHackexternal link event since 2016.

While it may not strictly be classified as a hackathon, the digitalswitzerland challengeexternal link asks participants to solve multiple problems with technology while allowing them to develop their solutions in a one to two year timeframe. Participants regularly get together at events to highlight their progress and submit them to a jury.

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