Written by Karan Magu
A hackathon is popularly defined as “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.”
When 40 student fellows from 9 nationalities, 26 fields of study, 6 prestigious universities, and 5 religious affiliations come together to brainstorm, build and pitch software in 4 days, it isn’t your typical hackathon.
As part of the Code for The Planet initiative, TavTech selects outstanding applicants from Asia, North America, South America, and Europe with academic backgrounds pursuing diverse fields such as computer science, government, psychology, earth science, philosophy and finance. The fellowship equips them with a unique cultural understanding of Israel’s economy and booming startup ecosystem while connecting them with tech leaders, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and innovative companies such as Intel Israel, Wix and SodaStream.
Most students have never coded before, but after 3 weeks of comprehensive instruction in machine learning, cybersecurity, big data, and iOS, they apply their knowledge and cultural experiences to solve real world problems with social impact applications. One fellow, a Stern undergraduate said, “The program is rigorous but extremely rewarding. We are always learning, always on the move. The week is dedicated to programming classes and talks by Venture Capitalists and the weekends to networking events, company visits or field trips.”
The hackathon during the final week encourages the fellows to get out of their comfort zone and build a product iteratively. The fellows have the freedom to focus on ideas they’re passionate about, and bring to the table their individual backgrounds to inform and inspire their product design. Examples of ideas TavTech fellows are tackling include optimal food waste redistribution, improving online research, gamifying philanthropy, and detecting skin cancer using computer vision.
It all started nearly 3 years ago with a 20-year-old, a question and a dream. “What would it take to create a community of intellectually curious students who are motivated to leverage scalable technology in solving global problems?” “What if enough funding could be raised to sponsor these students to visit the capital of the Startup Nation for an intensive month-long educational program?”
It was 2015, and Phil Hayes, then a business student at the end of his Junior year at NYU, was all set to graduate in a few months and embark upon a lucrative career as data scientist at a top social media company. While most other students in his position were planning post-graduation family trips or relaxing summer travels, Phil and his team were looking at the bigger picture and asking more ambitious questions.
Through past work experiences and a range of interactions with industry professionals, Phil was well aware of how technology had been disrupting the playing field across some of the biggest industries in the world. A fundamental knowledge of computer programming, comfort with basic enterprise software and proficiency in analyzing data sets was fast becoming a veritable prerequisite for anyone involved in a business, even in roles that were traditionally considered to be ‘non-technical’.
Phil and co-founder Ben Pleat were interning abroad in Bangalore, India, when the idea sparked their imagination. The importance of international experience was extremely clear to both, but they realized the lack of opportunity for organized, diverse, impact-driven technical education programs in tech ecosystems such as Silicon Valley, Bangalore or Tel Aviv, especially for student entrepreneurs who were not pursuing computer science degrees.
Leveraging their connections in Israel and using guidance from Rabbi Yehuda Sarna at The Bronfman Center at New York University , the team partnered up with Onward Israel to launch its idea. The first batch of 20 fellows visited Israel for a month between December 2015 and January 2016. Since then, the alumni base has actively in managed and expanded the program to twice its initial size. The team has a vision to grow this program further in scale and impact in coming years. What started out as a dream is now a successful reality, brimming with potential, optimism and a stellar vision for the future.
Authors Note: For 31 days between December 2016 and January 2017, I was part of something that inspired me. Memories, stories and visions of all the things I learned, all the people I met and all the experiences I was part of during my month in Israel through TavTech will stay with me forever in all their inspiration.