Why Hackathons are Innovation Playgrounds πŸ’‘

New ideas can come from anywhere. Hackathons have emerged as one of the most popular and effective ways to drive innovation and generate new solutions to real problems. These high-energy events typically bring together a diverse and cross-functional group of participants, including students, developers, entrepreneurs, and subject matter experts, to collaborate on new projects and brainstorm real-world problems in a short period of time.

Since RBC and Borealis AI have been actively involved in sponsoring and organizing hackathons, this type of support has presented us with opportunities to mentor, judge and volunteer at many such events.

As judges at several recent hackathons, we were delighted to witness the exceptional and innovative projects developed by the student teams, whose fresh perspectives and creative thinking can often lead to unique solutions and innovative ideas. By encouraging students to explore new ideas and take risks, we aim to develop their skills and capabilities that will benefit their own careers and help them appreciate the importance of critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving in every aspect of their lives – and benefitting society.

The level of innovation, creativity and technical prowess displayed at hackathons can be truly impressive

When we judged at recent hackathons, it was evident that emerging technologies, like Generative AI, were the go-to tools for most participants. This is hardly surprising, given the immense potential of these technologies to revolutionize industries and transform the way we live and work. However, it is important to note that the value of these tools lies not just in their technical capabilities but also in the impact they can have on people’s lives. As judges, we were particularly impressed by projects that not only demonstrated technical prowess but also addressed pressing societal issues and had a tangible impact on communities.

It is worth noting that many of the projects we reviewed involved some form of ChatGPT or predictive modeling. This is a testament to the growing importance of data-driven decision-making and the role of AI in modern problem-solving.

Judging Hackathons: How to Evaluate Projects.

Hackathons are not just about technical proficiency and coding skills. Evaluating hackathon projects is a multi-dimensional process that involves considering various factors such as novelty, innovation category, technical complexity, and potential business impact. While technical code is certainly an important aspect of the solution, by evaluating solutions across several parameters, judges can more easily identify the most promising projects that have the potential to make a significant impact in the real world. As judges, here are four main criteria we use to evaluate projects:


1. Novelty. Novelty refers to the uniqueness of the idea or the approach taken to solve a particular problem. We value ideas that are original, and fresh, and offer a new perspective on existing problems.

  • Does the solution already exist?
  • Was the solution original and creative?
  • Were you able to complete the project?
  • What were some of the challenges faced while working on this project?
  • How did the team overcome them?
  • What are the next steps for the project?


2. Innovation Factor. The innovation factor refers to the specific industry or domain that the solution may be targeting, and hackathon judges may evaluate how well the solution fits into that space.

  • What challenge is the solution solving?
  • Does something like this already exist in the space?
  • If implemented, would it be impactful in its specific domain?


3. Technical Complexity. Complexity refers to the level of difficulty involved in implementing the solution and the technical skills required to achieve the desired outcome.

  • How technically impressive is the solution [backend + frontend + UI/UX]?
  • Your prior experience with the technology stack?
  • Since a lot of hackathons use AI/ML, was the data science component novel or an out-of-box solution?


4. Business Impact. The potential business impact of a solution is perhaps the most crucial factor we consider in our assessment.

  • It’s not enough to have a technically sound solution. Judges look for projects that can offer a tangible and significant impact on society and the economy.
  • A straightforward, high-impact project is often preferred over a complex yet low-impact one.
  • What to aim for: Solutions that can solve real-world problems, provide new opportunities, or transform the way things are done.

Often, several hackathon projects end up with the same top scores, which makes it hard to achieve consensus on the final winners. When this happened at one of the hackathons we have supported and sponsored recently, the organizing team had judges debate and make a case for the projects they thought should win. As part of this debate, we realized that it was easiest to achieve consensus on projects that did well on multiple fronts, including technical novelty, originality of the idea, impact, user experience, business impact potential, and presentation/demo.

πŸ’¬ It is crucial to recognize that the ability to effectively communicate and articulate your idea is just as essential as its development.

Simply coming up with a great idea is not enough. The winning teams typically can convey their ideas and solutions clearly and persuasively. These are the projects that ultimately gain support, and funding, and get to develop the solution into a product, taking it from idea to launch.

Hackathons – despite being intense and chaotic – inspire everyone who participates to think deeply about problems in various domains, find new ways of thinking and looking at challenges, collaborate across functions and skill sets, and develop solutions that are technically interesting and meaningful. As judges, we take pride in participating in and supporting these events! Stay tuned for updates on various hackathons the team will be supporting in 2023, and consider exploring open roles on engineering teams at Borealis AI and RBC.