Silicon Valley is immersed in a startup culture where innovative ideas, backed by investors, seem to sprout up every day. Last weekend, kids from all over the Bay Area gathered at Crittenden Middle School to get a taste of that entrepreneurial spirit by developing their own new ideas at the annual Startup Weekend event.
The event sounds a little grueling at first, as 72 middle school-aged kids have to scramble to pitch an idea for a startup, work on the idea in groups and present it all within 54 hours. But to the students participating, it's anything but daunting, according to Crittenden Principal Geoffrey Chang, who said the kids didn't space out or lose interest the whole time.
"It's a little hectic, but in a positive way," Chang said.
This year's event was the second annual Startup Weekend, and included students from 10 schools, including Egan and Graham intermediate schools in Los Altos, Joaquin Miller Middle School in Cupertino and Summit Denali in Sunnyvale. Startup Weekend launched last year and was wildly popular among parents and students who came from as far away as Oakland, and well-attended beyond what Crittenden staff expected, according to Chang.
At the end of the weekend, students present their startup ideas to judges a small panel made up of people in the startup world, like Jennifer Coogan from the education technology startup Newsela, and Andrew Sutherland, founder of the educational app company Quizlet. Despite the competition from high-performing schools, Crittenden students came out on top.
The first place team, made up almost entirely of Crittenden girls, came up with an app called "Tracker Tacker" that would allow people to find things they misplace using tracking devices and their smartphones. Once the tracking devices are slapped on to an object, users would be able to see a map pinpointing its location at all times.
Second place went to a team that developed an idea where electricity-generating turbines could be installed into household water pipes, using the water flow the generate electricity.
Though women are generally underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math which are the mainstays of many startup ideas Startup Weekend continues to break that trend with high female representation. In the year prior, the winning team was entirely composed of girls from Piedmont, Crittenden and Graham. The team created a "game-ified" electronic student notebook and agenda, Chang said.
"It was really neat, and they had the cleanest and most developed product. That's why they won," he said.
The winners this year, like last year, will get a free trip to Facebook to meet high-ranking executives and check out the headquarters of the popular social media platform in Menlo Park.
Running the gambit
Startup Weekend could be seen as a crash course in how to brainstorm, start and market for a business from the ground up. Students are taught about business development, marketing and coding, and forced to think critically about what people would want to buy.
About 15 coaches helped guide students through the different fields, developing empathy maps to help figure out the customer base, brainstorming on whiteboards and even doing some programming using App Inventor. The ultimate goal is for students to find a solution to everyday problems for consumers.
"It's not good enough to just point out a problem, you have to find a way to solve it," said John Baldo, a facilitator who introduced students to the event Friday.
On Saturday, kids got to hear from local startup entrepreneur and Stevenson parent Nik Kalyani, who gave kids some first-hand insight into the startup world. He said the goal is to make a product that acts as a pain reliever rather than a vitamin, and that products designed to alleviates a problem work a whole lot better than supplementing something that works fine already. Determination is what fuels the success of new companies, he added.
Just as the kids learned new ideas about the startup world, the event itself relied on resources from a wide array of tech companies, parents and organizations in Mountain View and across the Bay Area. On top of help from the school PTA, employees from the tech company Quixey in downtown Mountain View participated in the event, and Microsoft pitched in some 3D printers for students to use.
Startup Weekend received financial support from two local dentists, Maria Fu and Sarita Wang, who underwrote the whole event.
Although it seems like a foreign idea that kids would be champing at the bit to sacrifice their weekend for an school-related activity, Chang said there's a lot of student interest in the event. Tickets to Startup Weekend were sold out in less than 36 hours.
"There is this pent-up demand for these kinds of activities," Chang said.
The appeal of Startup Weekend, he said, really comes down to letting kids do a creative exercise without too many restrictions. And while designing a new product and coming up with a business model may sound "above" what middle school students can handle, Chang said it's the perfect time for students to take on the task.
"Kids are ultimately unencumbered by reality, and that's a good thing," he said. "With startups, you have to think like a beginner."