Photo by Garage48. Minutes before we would do the final pitch.

Testing ideas: from hackathon to the Proof of Concept lab

How can your idea be truly put to the test without a prototype?

Last month I attended Garage48’s Hackathon for the Future of Mobility in Riga. Focused on innovating the future of mobility, we were asked to look at alternative mobility, traffic data and smart urban logistics, among others. Teams were formed and coffee was had, before getting down to business. You might have seen my posts on LinkedIn. A Hackathon Mentor, I joined Team #Urbanomics — declaring that the future of mobility lies in more data, not more asphalt!

I’m happy to report that we won ‘best validated idea’ and as a prize, we’ll go to Latitude59, a tech festival in Tallinn, Estonia, in May. Also got to meet Dutch Director General of Mobility Mark Frequin and the Latvian minister of Transport Tālis Linkaits.

Photo by Garage48: Viesturs Laurs, Dmitrijs Orlovs, Kaspars Lakševics and myself

12 hours in, I was struck by the similarities between Garage48’s hackathon concept and my 24 hour proof of concept lab, currently coming together at JADS.

  • Mindset is more important than skill set
  • Testing ideas is key
  • No prototype, no meeting — an important motto at IDEO.

Mindset over skill set

The hackathon was open to people from all number of backgrounds and skill sets — from data scientists, to marketers and business visionaries. There’s real value in bringing together a diversity of people around an idea or problem. You need those close to the industry of focus — in the case of the hackathon, the mobility space. In the case of my lab, we’ll be focused on data science and business in several industries — specifically in the agriculture, energy and mobility space. All things datafood and agrifood technology, decentralized energy trading, transport and logistics.

“There’s real value in bringing together a diversity of people around an idea or problem.”

I spoke with Garage48’s CEO Mari Hanikat on the value of diversity.

“Most people attend our hackathons with the mindset of ‘getting shit done’. Regardless of profession or industry. They recognise that progress can be made in a short timeframe with a small budget,” Mari says.

“About 20 percent of people keep coming back to our events. The network of people you meet at a hackathon is so valuable, and you can imagine, 48 hours brings you closer quickly.

“Even if nothing comes of the ideas presented, many people find they meet future co-workers or collaborators in this environment. It’s like a party but everyone is still working.”

Team Urbanomics consisted of an urban planning expert and economist, a transport planner, a technology and marketing expert with startup experience, and myself, the data entrepreneur.

Together, laptops, chargers, and sleeping-bags in tow, we defined our problem — waste in mobility, from wasted time, various emissions, inefficient infrastructure spending and more — and set to work on developing a solution. Including a revenue model, and a plan for our minimal viable product. Similarly, in a 24 hour PoC lab scenario, there’d be time set aside to streamline our clients idea, with the help of industry experts alongside data scientists and others needed to validate the business and implementation prospects of any idea.

After 24 hours I got some well deserved shut-eye.

Testable ideas

Next up, the hackathon, much like a PoC lab, invited teams to test their ideas. That starts with putting time and energy into developing a testable idea, beyond simply defining and redefining a ‘good’ or even ‘great’ idea in theory. Indeed, a testable idea is better than a good idea.

This was where Urbanomics got creative. We ran an initial analysis of a traffic junction — a world first created by our urban planning expert. We tested whether cities were likely to buy our products and services (which included a mobility management system, data-driven insights and visualisations, like heat maps, and more), by calling them and showing them calculations and a mockup analytics suite for urban planning.

A first mockup of (part of) our product.

“ Testing is what the PoC lab is all about. Has the idea got legs?”

Testing is key

Testing is what the PoC lab is all about. Has the idea got legs? The testing process itself could vary, depending on the idea. If you’re a wine producer in the agrifood industry trying to create low sulfate wine, we might test by installing sulfate sensors somewhere in the process. If you’re a dairy farmer that wants to make money and ensure your cows live a humane life, we could test by making them wear fitbits and see when they injure themselves (by monitoring their movements).

Mari reiterated the necessity of testable ideas at a hackathon.

“I’ve been in the startup space for many years now, and I’ve seen a crazy number of startups building a product before they’ve validated it, before they’ve tested if there is a market for it,” she says.

“Regardless of whether you’ve got the money and resources to bring an idea to life, it needs to be thought through. We emphasise this strongly at our hackathons — make phone calls, talk to people, validate your idea with as many as you can. This is why so many ideas born at hackathons are successful.”

Experimentation guru Anders Toxboe sporting our favorite motto in the atrium of JADS

No prototype, no meeting

Lastly, each team had to give a 180-second elevator pitch of their idea at the hackathon. And the rule was… there are no powerpoints! After all, Garage48 is about bringing ideas to prototype — they expected a live demo of all products. In our case, our demo was in the form of an existing machine vision/camera system outside the LMT building that tracked vehicles on the junction, and showing the value of that data in our mockup tool. But others delivered in the form of an app to have robots delivering products and a multimodal data set of transport movement in Latvia. Point is, your prototype might not be tangible.

“How can your idea be truly put to the test without a prototype?”

Hosts and audience members were then allowed to ask questions, pointing out any possible holes, and prompting us to plug them. This feedback process is key. How can your idea be truly put to the test without a prototype?

In the PoC lab, the aim will be to leave with a prototype — taking your idea that next step towards investors, collaborators, and becoming an MVP. In the case of our dairy farmer above, testing willingness to pay for the data is key, and next steps might be developing the right sensor to get that data.

Discussing prototypes with the CEO of Garage48: Mari Hanikat.

Enough hours in the day

Garage48 gets asked if 48 hours is enough. They say yes, and no. “48 hours is enough to validate an idea and build an initial prototype, depending on the complexity of the project. But real-life environment and what happens with the team after the event, is super hard to predict,” Mari says.

“Our experience shows that teams that commit their time to moving an idea forward after a hackathon (even if it’s only 4–5 hours a week), who make use of our follow-up mentoring and are still together three months after the hackathon, are more likely to build a real startup out of their prototypes.”

So where does 24 hours get you, you ask?

“When you focus on mindset over skill set, on testable ideas rather than just ideas, magical things happen”

Much like a hackathon… when you focus on mindset over skill set, on testable ideas rather than just ideas, magical things happen. While going from strategic to concrete, you will be pushing the boundaries of what is feasible and financially viable. In 24 hours, with the right focus, you get to taste the future.

This article is written in collaboration with Jai Morton.

Life is beautiful. Personally I think moderation is key. Also with Twitter. I hardly ever read my dms. he/him — @seldondigital @jadatascience @vaartsoftware