UW & Laurier students show why Waterloo is Canada’s tech hub at #WaterlooHacks

#WaterlooHacks

The inaugural Waterloo Hacks, organized this weekend by Communitech and powered by Google Developers, brought over 150 students together from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University for a 46-hour hackathon.

Waterloo Hacks kicked off with registrations at the newly opened Velocity Start, the newest space for UW’s Velocity program, where students can discover entrepreneurship. It opened its doors on January 20 and was the designated hacking grounds for the weekend.

After registering, the bright-eyed hackers made their way to Communitech for a touchable tech showcase to check out some of the awesome things companies in the Waterloo Region have been working on. This was the first visit to the Tannery Building for many students and everyone shared in the amazement of the exciting projects Manulife RED Lab, TD Innovation Labs, and others have been working on.

The touchable tech showcase was followed by the cleverly dubbed “Teds Talk” or “Ted 2 Ted” fireside chat with Ted Livingston, CEO of Kik Interactive, Ted Hastings, President of Perk, and their emcee Lauren Lake, co-founder of Bridgit. Livingston is an alumni of the University of Waterloo and Hastings is an alumni at Wilfrid Laurier University – the two schools invited to attend Waterloo Hacks.

During the fireside chat, the Teds talked about Livingston’s history as a student at the University of Waterloo, Kik’s battle with BlackBerry, their recent Series D financing with Tencent, and what’s in store for the newest member of the billion-dollar unicorn club. If you’re interested in reading more about the Teds Talk, our friends at Communitech have posted a regaling recount of it.

“The biggest problem Waterloo has is getting people to realize just how amazing it is.”
– Ted Livingston, CEO at Kik

With many tweet-worthy quotes delivered throughout the talk, this one to the left stands out the most to me.

For those of us building companies in Waterloo Region, it’s a problem we are all well aware of. Whether this is getting students, ex-pats, or foreign investors to realize the greatness of this region, these are things Communitech and the rest of the community here are committed to addressing.

#WaterlooHacks

Engineers from Google Canada demoing the Google Tabletop to hackers at the Tannery Building.

Fortunately, we’re not alone in our efforts.

Friday’s events at the Tannery Building exposed students to local technology, innovation, and leaders and was part of a greater strategy set in place by Communitech and their Talent Program Manager, Andrea Gilbrook, to expose students to the greatness of the Waterloo Region.

“It’s all about exposing students to the choices that are here.”
– Andrea Gilbrook, Talent Program Manager at Communitech

When students realize that they no longer have to look to places like Silicon Valley and can simply look to their own backyard or city to find great companies, this will benefit us all as Canadians.

A week after Prime Minister Trudeau visited the University of Waterloo, he praised the school and the region for its diversity and innovation on the world stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Waterloo Region, the University of Waterloo, and Waterloo Hacks are all very familiar with this reputation for diversity and innovation.

Kristin Flannigan, a hackathon event specialist at Communitech and one of Waterloo Hack’s organizers, mentioned that there was an emphasis on diversity. Its attendees ranged from first-timers to seasoned hackers, computer science to the arts, and were both male and female. In fact, 20% of the hackers were female – 10% higher than the average collegiate hackathon.

The venue for Waterloo Hacks was also strategically chosen by Flannigan and the Communitech team. The goal was to provide the students with everything they would need to continue their hack beyond Waterloo Hacks and turn it into a full-fledged company. They accomplished just that as Velocity Start embodied the very spirit of Waterloo Hacks.

#WaterlooHacks

Velocity Start’s bright yellow sign welcoming hackers to the space. Taken by Karel Vuong.

“At Velocity Start, you will find the mentorship, tools, and collaborative environment to discover entrepreneurship and drive your entrepreneurial journey.”

The mentorship was present in the form of community mentors. The tools were made available through hackable hardware and products like the Pebble Smartwatch and Thomson Reuters Eikon. The collaborative environment surrounded the hackers in the Velocity Start coworking space. And the drive for entrepreneurship, the drive to build something amazing, was expressed by the hackers through the long days and long nights spent coding and creating.

Like most hackathons, Waterloo Hacks took place over the weekend. The once bright-eyed hackers turned droopy-eyed as they worked away on their projects through the night. Fortunately, there was more than enough coffee to tide the fatigue, though with some side effects.

The hackers weren’t alone in this, though. Mentors from companies across Waterloo Region graciously made themselves available throughout the two days and two nights to assist the hackers in any way they could.

#WaterlooHacks

If you needed help with coding or guidance with your project, all you needed to do was consult this wall of community mentors and volunteers for assistance.

To give hackers a break and a chance to learn something new, workshops on a variety of topics like big data, design, and iOS development were offered.

The food was also a major highlight for everyone at Waterloo Hacks. Communitech made sure to bring in a variety of healthy food catered by local businesses ranging from Indian and burritos to sushi and Korean. Hackers were extremely impressed and commented that it was the best food they have ever had at a hackathon. Some of these students have been to as many as 8 collegiate, 36-hour hackathons… so that’s saying something!

After 46 hours, the hacking came to an end on Sunday morning.

The students were both anxious and excited to show off their hard work. In addition to their hack, students also had to prepare a quick 90-second pitch to the judges – an accelerated version of the Velocity Fund Finals where pitches have 3 minutes to talk about their project.

The esteemed judges tasked with listening to all of the pitches and selecting the best 10 hackathon teams were Wes Worsfold (Associate Director of UW Velocity), April Blaylock (Senior Engineer at Aeryon Labs), and Liam Horne (Co-Founder of Hack the North & CTO of PiinPoint).

After the first round of judging, the students arrived back at Velocity Start to await the awards and closing ceremony. While tired and sleep-deprived, the hackers still exuded the same excitement and energy as the very first day.

Moments later, the top 10 picks for Waterloo Hacks were announced.

  • Hack Attack: A two player pattern cracking game developed on Google Tabletop.
  • Zenotify: An app that notifies you when you’re getting stressed and offers a solution to improve your health and relaxation levels.
  • Way to Go: A day planner to quickly plot out routes and review times for different methods of travel: walking, biking, public transit, and driving.
  • Viral Hash: An app that gamifies your hashtag by turning Twitter posts into Map Twitter tweets to key commands. Think Twitch Plays Pokemon but Twitter!
  • KACH Deals: An app that catches offers and deals in real-time based on your location.
  • Shakespere NLP: An Android Application that uses Google’s Speech API to process a unified speech language into scripts.
  • Memble: An app for caretakers to use to look after and better communicate with patients with brain deterioration (like Alzheimer’s disease).
  • Sportspartner: A social app that assists in finding partners of similar skill levels to play sports with.
  • CloudWalk: A network of healthier people made through gamifying exercise to earn “$teps” that can be spent to tether to each other’s hotspots.
  • Group 536: An app that helps you live a healthier lifestyle by selecting songs that match the speed of your motion.

Unfortunately, the judges still needed to narrow this list down to 3. An impossible task given the creativity, innovation, and calibre of these first round picks.

In the end, after careful deliberation, Memble took third, Shakespeare NLP took second, and Group 536 took first place. Though, every single hack conceived this weekend should be commended for the amount of hard work put into them. To take a look at all of the hack submissions, you can check out Waterloo Hacks on Devpost!

Worsfold took the stage to say that Waterloo Hacks was the first major event to ever use the space since opening on the 20th. While it was conducted as a bit of an experiment, it’s safe to say that it passed with flying colours. As a space for students, Velocity Start will be accessible 24/7 to allow anyone wanting to learn, talk about, and build cool things. Just like they did this weekend.

To all the hackers, Communitech-ers, and members of the tech community in the Waterloo Region who came out to this, thank you for the great company, amazing hacks, and a fantastic event to kick-off the new year.

This is going to be a hard one to beat.

Karel Vuong

Karel Vuong

Karel is BetaKit's correspondent in Waterloo Region. After a stint in Silicon Valley, Karel wasn’t convinced by its appeal and returned to the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor. He is currently a designer at Vidyard and the founder of Spaces, the place to go to discover where Canadian tech and innovation comes to life. If you have a space you’d like to show off, he’d love to talk.