Dubai's first tech hackathon

Inside the ideas in the AstroLabs competition
By Tamara Pupic
Sun 27 Dec 2015 10:17 AM

“They are all adults with experience. But that made us work harder,” says Rayan Ibrahim, an 18-year-old student of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), speaking about other participants of the third StartUp Weekend Dubai held recently at AstroLabs.

Along with Guyu Fan and Aleksiy Chystyakov, also NYUAD Abu Dhabi freshmen, she formed one of 18 teams who attempted to get their business idea off the ground under the watchful eye of Aya Sadder, the lead organiser of this year’s event.

“If Sheikh Mohammed built the city in few decades to be this incredible, I think that now every single day there is a new thing that can come up, and there’s a new way of thinking that has been allowed,” Sadder says to explain that fostering innovation is at the heart of the event.

Initiated by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in 2007, StartUp Weekend aims to gather developers, designers and people with business ideas at one place and help them develop a working prototype, demo or presentation as quickly as possible.

“Entrepreneurship in its definition is taking somebody from a lower level of innovation to a higher one.  So it’s about how do you take somebody to be much more productive? You give him creativity and the space to really explore what he/she wants to do,” explains Sadder.

Today, the 54-hour tech hackathon is being held in 135 countries. Complementing the initiative’s success, The Global Startup Battle was launched in 2011 to select the best start-up among all local winners on annual basis.

With AstroLabs, Uber, Stationery Inc, and SOTI Inc sponsoring the event, it was the third time that the tech hackathon was organised in Dubai.

Sadder explains that the number of 103 participants this year surpassed their expectations. With an average of 21 years old, they all spent the weekend at AstroLabs where they were offered five workshops on business related topics, advice from coaches, and various other assistance.

She says that the event serves as an educational platform, and adds: “Because they are at a very young stage, it’s really about understanding what they have to follow through, [like] their business canvas model (BCM), and also understanding who the users they are trying to capture are, and really trying to prove to the judges [that they are] going to capture this market and how.

“And, also to take into consideration some of the players that already exist and how they are going to be disruptive.”

The event ended with the 18 teams pitching their ideas to a panel of judges – Emad Ghanem from SOTI Inc, Muhammed Mekki from AstroLabs, Chantalle Dumonceaux from WOMENA, Herve Collignon from Hooks, and Joshua Rajkumar from The Sustainability Platform.

“We will be looking at practical and real ideas and whether that can be taken to market, can they implement and execute,” one of the judges, Rajkumar, told StartUp.

“And the second side of it is whether these are the right people, the team to actually make this happen. Sometimes you get an amazing idea, but the three or four people behind it either won’t quit their job or they’ll give up and won’t have the passion. So we really want to see whether they can merge that together and execute.”

Rajkumar didn’t expect many of the 18 ideas to tackle social problems since it was an event of different kind. However, the trio of NYUAD students – The Power Team – wants to raise awareness around cultural stereotypes and ‘break borders between people.’

“We are not proposing a solution but to focus society more on these topics,” explains 19-year-old Fan who moved from his native China two months ago to study at NYUAD. “We want to lead the online conversation towards a more meaningful direction.”

They plan to build an online platform to allow people to share their personal experience on related topics, but without ‘disruptions’ happening on other social media networks.

“You can’t possibly take it seriously when your posts are disrupted with pictures and videos of cats, for example,” explains Chystyakov.

Although the event is intended to be a collaborative forum for sharing, learning, building, and having fun, Sadder explains that some of the participants from previous years have actually started their own venture.

Abzal Assembekov, a 20-year-old student of Canadian University in Dubai, established Heptagon Media, a Dubai-based digital agency, after developing the idea during the first StartUp weekend held in the UAE in 2013.

“The success rate is also based on a person actually becoming an entrepreneur and starting a venture,” explains Sadder. “Heptagon Media has actually done that. He [Assembekov] has got four different investors since last year and has managed to grow his company.

“And he is now sponsoring the entire event.”

It remains to be seen whether this year’s winners will follow suit.

The teams behind the three winning tech solutions – My Car, Fitness Buddies, and wa9faat.com – took home valuable prizes including one month incubation at AstroLabs, free legal services, internships at Uber, and many more.

A special SOTI-sponsored B2B prize – an all-expenses-paid trip to the UK for a training by SOTI’s London-based team – was given to VVIP, a one-stop-shop online platform for events and parties.

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