ArchHacks takes WashU Student Innovation to a New Level

Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

Hackathons emerged in the late 2000s as intensive multi-day gatherings created to develop new technology solutions; today, many computer science students view the gatherings of innovators, companies and investors as critical to their college educations and job searches. Stephanie Mertz and Allen Osgood, both seniors in Computer Science at Washington University, attended MHacks at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2015 and came back inspired.

Photo courtesy of ArchHacks.
ArchHacks 2015; courtesy of ArchHacks

“There were 1,200 people there, and an insane level of energy and talent that was unique to anything I’d ever seen,” says Mertz. It was so energizing that Mertz and her classmate started planning how they could replicate it.

“We had an 8 hour drive up and back, and on the way up, we talked about what we were going to do with the weekend. On the way back, we talked about how we were going to recreate the weekend [in St. Louis],“ says Osgood.

Although the WashU chapter of UPE (Upsilon Pi Epsilon), the national computer science honorary hosted “WUHack” in the fall of 2014 (20 participants) and again in 2015 (200 participants), MHacks showed Osgood and Mertz that they could create something on a much bigger scale.

As a result of their efforts, for 48 hours, from Friday, November 4 through Sunday, November 6 in Bauer Hall on the WashU campus, ArchHacks will welcome more than 500 students and as many leading players in the health industry to solve real world problems with HealthTech.

“We have people who love to build, people who love to learn, and people who love to get employed,” says Osgood “We can bring together these three things under one roof. It’s really unique.”

But rather than just focus on WashU, they wanted to showcase the St. Louis region. They wanted students from all over the country, to attract at least 2,000 applications and for it to be interdisciplinary rather than only for computer science students. They also wanted it to be fun.

Showcasing St. Louis

The first thing Osgood and Mertz did was change the name from WUHack to ArchHacks.

“Something we found really cool about MHacks was meeting people from across the country and the world,” says Mertz. “That atmosphere of meeting new people and having traveled to this event made it really exciting. So we wanted to make this an event that was bigger than WashU but also represented St. Louis. One of the most notable symbols of St. Louis is the Arch, so we went with Arch and Hacks—ArchHacks. We also think it has a super hero connotation.“

To attract a large number of applications and a national audience, Osgood and Mertz consulted with Aaron Bobick, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University.

Typically, hackathons seek out a main sponsor and the sponsor then sets the theme as well as the technical approach, or API, for the event. Bobick suggested that they set their own theme of HealthTech before seeking sponsors.

“Through conversations with Dean Bobick and a couple of other members of the administration, we identified health as an area in which St. Louis is incredibly strong,” says Osgood. “[It’s] uniquely positioned to give students the opportunities and resources they need to create really cool things.”

Once they’d decided on the theme, Mertz and Osgood reached out to alumni, friends of the university and sent cold emails to potential sponsors in HealthTech. Express Scripts came in as the main sponsor, with Centene and Pfizer participating as well.

“The sponsors bring both mentors and prizes in a specific category so students are able to choose what project to work on based on the prizes that are offered,” says Osgood. “So the combination of how cool the prize is and how interested the students are in the topic determines what the sponsors bring rather than an API. The engineering mentors then work with the students for 48 hours to help them build the best thing that they can.”

Mertz adds, “Centene, for example, is sponsoring the prize category of hacks that address socio-economic health disparities. So it’s a way for sponsors to promote things that they really care about and have students think about innovative topics. As the students work toward these prizes, they get a lot of help with their projects while sponsors get to meet and recruit the students, to see if they might be a good fit for their companies. There are interview rooms at the event so that if sponsors are interested in overtly recruiting, they can.”

Photos courtest of ArchHacks.
Photos courtesy of ArchHacks.

Cross-Country Efforts

In addition to setting a theme up front, Osgood and Mertz also utilized their network of national hackathon experts to attract national attention to ArchHacks.

“The organizers of top hackathons from across the country have done Google hangouts with us and answered emails from us. We definitely owe a lot to them as far as things to incorporate into our budget that we might not have been thinking about, making sure there are no surprise costs, and ways to reach out to students across the country,” says Mertz. “MHacks and Hack the North, out of Waterloo, Ontario were both extremely helpful.”

Mertz and Osgood’s efforts in attracting nationwide participation have paid off. By late August, ArchHacks had received more than 1,200 applications from 45 colleges and universities across the country and the world. In addition to applicants from the University of Waterloo, they have applicants from Beijing and the National Institute in Turkey.

“We are offering travel reimbursements for students so they don’t have to pay too much out of pocket,” says Mertz. They’re also sending buses to schools with a large number of applicants. They have buses picking up students in Waterloo, in Chicago from the University of Chicago and Northwestern, at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, Purdue and Georgia Tech. They have also received applications from students at MIT, Harvard and University of California, Berkeley.

To make the event more interdisciplinary, Osgood reached out across campus to get buy-in from other disciplines.

“As the President of the WashU Chapter of UPE, I’ve been partnering with WUTE (WashU Tech Entrepreneurs) and other students around campus who are very interested in helping out with ArchHacks that might not be in that group,” says Osgood. “This is the first time we’ve been able to build a team around our hackathon that’s not strictly computer scientists. We have designers from the art school, a marketing major that is helping us build a marketing strategy and outreach, a psych major helping us with design, and a drama major helping with advertising. We’ve pulled together a multi-disciplinary group of people to bring together the best to work toward a common goal.”

Next year’s organizers of ArchHacks will emerge from this group. As seniors, both Osgood and Mertz will move on after this year’s event. Mertz said, “Since this is the third annual hackathon we’ve had at WashU, we’re working to standardize our processes and preparing the next student leaders to take over.”

As for fun, the 48-hour event will be true to hackathon culture and offer plenty of great food, coffee, industry presentations and fun distractions to keep participants engaged with the assumption that many participants will not sleep the whole time. Pi Pizza and Seoul Taco have offered significant discounts to ArchHacks organizers. In addition, participants are encouraged to form cross-institution teams using the communication tool Slack in advance of the hackathon to enhance the networking opportunities.

As for a call to action from the community, Osgood and Mertz said they are still accepting help.

“We’re really still looking for companies to be involved in terms of sponsorship, in-kind gifts are really great,” says Mertz. “There is a long list of things we’d love.”

Osgood adds,  “I think the biggest ask we have is helping to build the visibility of this event within the St. Louis region. We want to create greater awareness that this is a pretty unique opportunity for St. Louis companies to talk to and recruit some of the top engineers from the top schools across the country.”

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Tanya Yatzeck is a freelance writer for EQ STL, the Sam Fox School of Art at Washington University and a variety of entrepreneurial blogs, websites and publications. In 2014 she founded the Olin Business School EMBA Blog where she profiles EMBA students and fellow Alumni. She is also a Program Manager in IT at Enterprise Holdings.