Mountain View startup incubator Y Combinator held a hackathon over the weekend, where a teenager beat out 400 other hackers for a chance to get his app funded.
Software developers from around the world descended on Y Combinator's Pioneer Way headquarters over the weekend to put their skills and ideas to the test. Top prize was an interview with folks at Y Combinator to potentially receive $120,000 in funding, plus support to help make the product ready for a pitch to venture capitalists. The company has funded over 700 startups this way since 2005, and the company says the successful ones are now worth a total of over $30 billion.
Starting Saturday at noon, numerous teams and individuals worked through the night -- many not sleeping at all -- to write programming code for various software hacks and applications made on the spot. The event had the feeling of a team sport, with groups of mostly 20-somethings collaborating and competing intensely to create.
Tanay Tandon, a 17-year-old Cupertino resident, won the interview with Y Combinator for his "Athelos" app. He said it will allow anyone with an iPhone to test blood for malaria. It turns the smartphone into a microscope using a $5 ball lens over its camera, and analyzes blood cells shown in the photo against known patterns for malaria. A crowd that had gathered to see presentations from finalists watched Tandon take a drop of blood from someone in the audience and place it on a slide positioned over a cardboard tube with a light underneath. Working on the cement floor, Tandon held his phone over the slide to take a picture, ran the app, and said the volunteer was malaria-free - accounting for some margin of error. Whether its accuracy can be proven remains to be seen.
"It could scale to a variety of different diseases, all on your iPhone," Tandon said. "Almost all diseases can be detected from your blood."
Tandon may have achieved what many at the event would like to do, create technology that helps people.
"I'm trying to do meaningful apps," said software developer Josh Benjamin. "I'd rather have one person email me to thank me than have thousands of users. I want it to be helpful to somebody, not just make the wheel turn a little faster. There's evolution and then there's revolution." When asked if technology could create a revolution, he replied, "It always has."
But revolutionary ideas were elusive for most. Benjamin and his girlfriend (and professional product designer) Rachel Kroft had created something more amusing than revolutionary, an app which allows you to send videos to friends and get a message back with a recording of their responses, played in sync with the original video. There are similar apps already available. The couple said it was something they would use themselves, so "at least we'll have two users," Kroft said.
With few clear winners, it appeared that the most significant value of the conference was to develop relationships with other hackers, and to realize that it is possible to make an idea come to fruition very quickly.
Dreams of success in this environment come with the risk of a big failure. Erica Douglass said she experienced such failure when her startup, MarketVibe, all but failed and was bought by another company, mostly to acquire its staff, something she called "acqui-hired." Douglass was pitching a website forum, foundersupport.net, where startup founders could talk anonymously about their struggles before depression sets in. Douglass said some founders have committed suicide.
"It's a huge issue in our community right now and there's no place for people to go," Douglass said.
There was little time to contemplate such things at the high-energy event, where everyone seemed to be high on the thrill of quick collaboration and innovation. Attendee Alexander Schtuchkin, one of many Russian software engineers in attendance, said the event was a "thrill ride" and he was exhausted from the "eye-opening" experience. "It's like any team sport, it requires both individual performance and teamwork," he said.
New technologies spurred much of weekend's innovation. Many teams sought to create apps for the soon-to-be-released Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. A number of teams had obtained an early version of the headset for software developers, including Megan and Shaohan Chen, who were working on a way for people to participate in hackathons from afar using the Oculus Rift. They said that someday such events could be filled with cameras to recreate the scene in a virtual world, in real time. Other teams were a bit less ambitious, with one creating a way to generate visuals based on whatever music you are listening to. Another team figured out how to connect the headset to a tablet computer for virtual reality game play, a demonstration which drew a crowd.
Another device seen at the event was the Myo gesture control arm band, which allows users to interact with devices using hand and arm motions. Since it senses how your arm muscle move when you make certain gestures with your fingers, a group of young game designers had figured out how to make a game of rock, paper scissors with it, while another developed a way to control a camera remotely with your hand.