By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
HIGHLAND — Like ever-changing technology, the second annual Highland Gigabit Challenge is evolving with the times, this year focusing on what will become Southwestern Illinois’ first “hackathon.”
Last year’s inaugural event, which honored three start-ups, involved a business plan competition. This year’s has taken a few twists on the road to a new goal — enlisting hackers who can help businesses solve their complex tech problems.
Events will culminate this spring when competitors will gather for a single weekend to solve problems posed by participating sponsors.
Sponsors are still being lined up, but one of last year’s winners, Squarefruit Labs, has agreed to be a sponsor and provide technical assistance — as well as one of its “persona robots” as a prize.
The company is focused on developing, implementing and deploying next generation 3-D printers and integrating them with robotic technology.
The competition calls for sponsor businesses to comes up with a “problem statement” for which they need a solution, such as security or app building, and they assign a dollar amount of what that solution would cost them. The idea is that the sponsor businesses can get a better, more tailor-made product for a less-expensive cost than if they went to a traditional vendor.
The competition is particularly aimed at coders and programmers who can make use of Highland’s gigabit level Internet service. The reward for winners will be partly what the sponsor agrees to pay them for solving their problem, and partly the recognition of having solved it — a reputation builder for entrepreneurs.
“One of the goals is to bring more (tech) businesses outside of Highland into Highland,” said Chico Weber, the chief executive officer of Squarefruit.
The event will take place in Highland next spring, at 2491 Industrial Drive, the former Tri-Onics site.
The city of Highland stages the competition, along with the Highland Chamber of Commerce, and is seeking sponsors to get behind it. The idea is to reach out to coders, programmers, entrepreneurs, graphic designers and other interested parties to participate in coming up with creative solutions to the problem statements posed by the sponsors.
“Highland staged a successful business plan competition last year with the 2014 Highland Gigabit Challenge. This year, the city wanted to conduct another Challenge event that would be relevant to the technology scene, but with a different twist,” stated Lisa Peck, community and economic director for the city of Highland. “A ‘hackathon’ is a fun, different way to reach entrepreneurs in the technology field and it will be the first one held in the Metro East.
“The city, with its gigabit, high-speed data service and progressive business climate is leading the way in the Metro East in attracting new development in the technology sector,” Peck added, “and we should pull people from the Metro East into the tech/startup ecosystem evolving in our area. We want to help broaden and contribute to the story of tech in the St. Louis area.”
Highland is the only Gigabit City in the state of Illinois and in the St. Louis metro area.
Several hackathons have been staged on the St. Louis side.
B.K. Bolisetty, the chief technology officer for Squarefruit, describes the competition as made up of “small teams unhindered by management.” The competitors are judged on their ability to see the problem through to the end, without revisiting the process several times.
Participating businesses do not have to shut down their systems. “It is designed so there is no down time. No one has to shut down anything,” Bolisetty said.
The winners will be chosen by sponsors who will choose who they believe has offered the best solution.
Programs like Launchcode have changed the perception that one must have a college degree in order to get an IT job, Peck said. Companies like Yahoo and Google are now using employee recruitment techniques like hackathons in order to find qualified talent.
“As the traditional pathways to success shift, we must consider alternative ways to develop our own workforce to meet the job demands of the expanding tech sector,” she said.
The “legal” hacking community is said to be widespread in St. Louis, with many enthusiasts getting together to practice their skills just for fun.
“It’s knowledge sharing,” Bolisetty said. “They like to learn.”
The inaugural Gigabit Challenge received more than 20 submissions with some coming from as far away as India and Africa thanks to publicity.