Startup Weekend: Creating a feeling of community at a remote hackathon

14 Apr 2020

A Startup Weekend event that took place in Dublin in January 2020. Image: Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend’s Sinéad O’Keeffe discusses pivoting to an online event and developing solutions to issues caused by Covid-19.

For the last few years, Ireland’s Startup Weekend events, which are held in association with Techstars, have been serving as an entry point for potential entrepreneurs who want to tease out ideas and solutions with a group of like-minded people.

The 54-hour events are held over the course of a weekend and offer networking opportunities to entrepreneurs, developers, designers, students and problem-solvers. They have taken place in locations across the country, but now, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the next Startup Weekend is set to take place online.

Future Human

Scheduled for the end of April, the hackathon event will also see teams focused on developing solutions to tackle challenges related to Covid-19.

A new opportunity

During a typical Startup Weekend, participants eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and get to know each other over coffee and donuts. Naturally, this won’t be the case in the remote edition of the event, but organiser Sinéad O’Keeffe told that the communication and networking aspects of the weekend won’t be lost as it moves online.

And although there are certainly limitations on hackathons in light of the current circumstances, O’Keeffe said the silver lining is that participants from across Ireland can easily come together at a single event.

“We’ve previously held Startup Weekends in different regions, such as Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Dublin. This is the first opportunity for all of Ireland to come together and build out solutions to tackle Covid-19 related issues,” she said.

“Because it’s being done remotely, this is the first time we get to bring all of the previous communities together and bring in everyone else from the counties in the midlands to join forces in a national call to action for innovation that could be put into play.”

Taking place from 24 to 26 April, the event is calling for participants from all backgrounds. O’Keeffe said that everyone is welcome, whether they are doctors, nurses, students, scientists, teachers, developers, designers, marketers or supermarket workers who have come up with an idea that could improve working life or living conditions.

“For some people, it’ll be a very new experience. It’s really about bringing people together and giving them the opportunity, support and resources to unite them in tackling issues here in Ireland, but helping them to be scalable globally,” she added.

“We want to provide the foundation and framework to enable people to find other like-minded individuals and spark their curiosity as they come out and tackle these types of issues.”

Mentors at the event will include Colin Keogh and David Pollard, the co-founders of Sapien Innovation who recently started the Open Source Ventilator project with Conall Laverty.

Adapting to the circumstances

O’Keeffe said that thanks to the support Startup Weekend receives from Techstars, the organisers have a good idea of how to provide support and resources for people who get involved.

“There’ll be no time where participants will be left frustrated or not knowing where to go next. Techstars has been doing this for just under 10 years and they’ve built out the playbook.

“They know what works and what doesn’t. The Irish team can replicate the parts that we want to bring online to create a sense of engagement and provide participants will all of the support they’ll need.”

‘We’re not expecting every idea to be a completely new innovation – we just want people to feel as though they can contribute and add to it’

With that in mind, O’Keeffe acknowledged that “some elements will have to change”. The pizza and mingling elements of a typical Startup Weekend, which are used to help participants break the ice and feel more comfortable, will need to be reimagined.

“The teams are going to be selected 24 hours before the event starts. We want to turn Friday night into the icebreaker scenario by dividing the teams up into groups of between five and eight,” she said.

“We’re going to get previous facilitators and they’ll take three or four teams and do icebreakers and create that networking environment of team and community and engagement that they would normally have if they were face-to-face.”

Maintaining communication

There will be opportunities for the different teams to interact and discuss the various challenges they are coming across in the process of building a solution. O’Keeffe said there will be regular touchpoints with facilitators to make sure everyone has an opportunity to access the resources they need.

“If a team is lacking a resource – for instance, they’ve never built a website or an app before – we’ll be able to help and have gurus on hand and the tech support to jump in and have a run through of the free resources we have to help them build a mock-up,” O’Keeffe said.

“Outside of that we’re going to have some speaker elements and three or four mentor sessions with each team on Saturday to make sure everyone has support. We’re also hoping to host maybe an exercise or meditation session, as well as a coffee break where everyone can jump on and have a community chat.

“We want to create the environment to encourage that kind of engagement online. It should be as natural as meeting person to person.”

Open to everyone

The final point O’Keeffe wanted to add was that everybody is welcome to the event, regardless of their background or previous work.

“We don’t want people to feel as if they have to come up with ideas for ventilators or something like that – that’s definitely not the case. The World Health Organization has suggested some examples they’d like to see across different areas that we want to see people drive an impact towards,” she explained.

“This includes areas like the health industry, preventative and hygiene behaviours, solutions for frontline workers, general health and mental health solutions, solutions focusing on vulnerable populations, businesses, enterprise infrastructure, communities, education, entertainment and PPE.

“We’re not expecting every idea to be a completely new innovation,” she added. “It could be a solution you saw that worked somewhere else. We just want people to feel as though they can contribute and add to it.

“It’s not just the usual designers, developers and business people. We want people who could be working in social care, people who work in food stores, people who have identified a problem wherever they work or live or who really want to take action in this time, because a lot of people have become frustrated.”

Tickets for the event are available here. The event is free but places are limited.

Updated 8:53am on Wednesday 15 April: This article was amended to reflect that David Pollard and Colin Keogh are the co-founders of Sapien Innovation.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic