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Global Blockchain Hackathons

The spinoff effect of MIT research into blockchain technology is already influencing the development of new ventures. The Blockchain Challenge (TBC), cofounded by CTO Natalie Gil SF ’17 and CEO Silvana Lopez SF ’16, was inspired by both Gil’s independent research project under MIT Sloan Professor Simon Johnson during her year in the MIT Sloan Fellows MBA program and Lopez’ desire to go beyond the hype. Launched in 2018, TBC unites global interdisciplinary teams—entrepreneurs, programmers, psychologists, economists, and others—to build the “next cool thing” in blockchain.

Natalie Gil SF ’17

“My work with Simon led me to MIT’s D-Lab and the Digital Currency Initiative,” says Gil. “As I learned about technology development ecosystems in Latin American countries, I realized that the environment was well suited to the creation of innovative blockchain applications. The combination of new digital infrastructure, good local programming talent, and rising governmental interest in tech development make Latin American countries ripe for blockchain uses cases.”

 Forty-eight hours with programmers and potato farmers
TBC has set its sights on expanding access to shared resources and creating incentives that promote more inclusive financial systems. “So far, all our use cases tie back to some form of distributed ledger,” Gil explains. “The underlying technology is fairly consistent. It’s the integration of diverse data collectors and relevant network participants that defines the distinct challenges of each case.”

Gil points to the recent TBC Peruvian Potato Challenge—an event hosted by the World Potato Congress—as an example of how blockchain technology can effectively integrate community knowledge with pioneering digital tools. The 48-hour hackathon in the Andean Mountains at Cusco, Peru brought together  agricultural engineers, agronomists, economist, biologists, and other technical experts. “Many participants have a foot in both worlds—technically trained daughters and sons who inherited ancestral knowledge from their parents,” Gil says.

The Peruvian government backed the initiative, and IBM partnered with TBC to provide technical expertise in coding and blockchain. “Because potato farming represents 13% of Peru’s GDP—and the livelihood of more than 700,000 families—the capacity of blockchain to promote inclusion could be game changing,” says Gil. Participants ultimately zeroed in on a common issue to address: how to manage plant disease outbreaks and grow crops more efficiently. Potential solutions incorporated geo-localization, image-recognition technology, machine learning, and data analytics—all supported by a blockchain platform.”

Broader lessons about blockchain
Gil emphasizes that the challenge, along with TBC’s other use cases in transportation and finance, are still in the proof-of-concept phase. “As with all responsible deployments of new technologies, we believe it is essential for strategists and developers to be thoughtful about setting expectations and managing deployment. As we learn more from our fieldwork about the promise and pitfalls of blockchain, we need to establish guidelines and regulations that protect participants and ensure the widest possible benefit from the technology.”

 


 

Thinking inside the box: Students on two continents embark on an entrepreneurial experiment

Let’s just say it’s not your typical hackathon. On Thursday, September 20, five students, each from a different discipline, will enter a glass cube on the MIT campus and spend the next four days inventing together. As soon as they convene, they will be presented with a real-world challenge that they must attempt to address. MIT’s cube will be located on the North Court between Vassar and Main Streets facing the Stata Center; passersby are encouraged to interact with the inventors inside.

InCube will take place simultaneously at MIT and in four glass cubes across Switzerland—two in Zurich, one in Bern, and one at the Crans-Montana ski resort. Each team will be presented with a different dilemma. On the final day, the five teams will present their prototypes, competing against one another to convince a jury that they have the most actionable solution and, perhaps, a viable startup. The MIT team will pitch its idea remotely to the jury in Zurich, where the Swiss teams will pitch in front of a live audience.

Conceived by the ETH Entrepreneur Club, a student association in Zurich, the event will be the second annual InCube experiment. The first took place in Zurich in 2017. The MIT team, sponsored by The MIT Innovation Initiative, will be participating for the first time. The five MIT students represent a diverse range of disciplines and experience. Undergraduates and PhD candidates alike, they come to the hackathon from the realms of computer science, economics, chemistry, biology, and medical engineering.

A glass cube is not an ivory tower

The idea behind the tiny, glass-walled think tanks is to draw the public into the process and provide a platform for interactive engagement. The transparent laboratories encourage passersby to interact with the teams, providing feedback and serving as sounding boards for ideas. Organizers say they want to foster entrepreneurship among students and the larger society but also erase boundaries—among people, disciplines, cultures, and nations.

The teams will eat, sleep, and work for four straight days in their cubes. The glass abodes are portable and don’t contain bathrooms, but facilities are available nearby. Each of the cubes is being supported by a company, institution, or foundation that will define a problem for the team to solve. Stryker, a Fortune 500 medical technology firm based in Michigan, is sponsoring the MIT cube and will devise the challenge for MIT students.

Learn more about the InCube hackathon.