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Innovation by The Pool

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Published on
September 29, 2023

AI+MUNICH and Digital Product School join forces for “surprisingly amazing” hackathon

What started as a spontaneous experiment turned out to be a striking success. For two weeks, The Pool ideation hackathon enabled experienced tech experts, business people and designers with an entrepreneurial mindset to connect, innovate and receive guidance and feedback on their projects. In a jury vote by influential members of Munich’s ecosystem for innovation, the winning team will be invited to compete for prototype funding of up to € 25,000.

Filling a gap in Munich’s startup scene

The event was initiated by Dr. Fabian Heil (AI+MUNICH) and Philip Prestele (DPS) to fill a gap in the Munich startup scene. While there are many programs for aspiring founders, there is little support for alumni and people who have been involved in startups in the past. For Philip Prestele , this means a lot of wasted potential: “Successful entrepreneurs try several times with different teams and different ideas.” Therefore, the duo decided to team up and to build on the existing structures in the overarching network of university entrepreneurship initiatives in Munich that is the MUNICH INNOVATION ECOSYSTEM. Thus, The Pool was powered by all of Munich’s entreprenurial powerhouses such as UnternehmerTUM (TUM), StraschegCenter for Entrepreneurship (HM), founders@unibw (Universität der Bundeswehr München), Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (LMU), Wavelab (HMTM), Munich Business School, and many more. Together, they leveraged the DPS’s experience in digital product development, the free space at the Munich Urban Colab during the summer break, and mobilized an entire ecosystem of expertise for this event.

“Everything could be planned on the fly,” says Fabian Heil. “Participation was free; anyone could just sign up and show up”. Even with very little advertising, there was a strong response with more than 140  applicants. Participants were screened and hand selected to form four balanced, and consecutive batches, which not only allowed working professionals to attend the hackathon over the weekend, but also encouraged participants to extend their stay by attending multiple batches. 

 Ambitious projects by diverse participants

Participants joined the hackathon for a variety of reasons. Some sought to validate their startup ideas, others wanted to expand their professional network, and a few were looking for partners for their existing projects. Similarly, the participants came from very diverse backgrounds: “We have a very broad spectrum, from seasoned startup founders to high school students from the Young Founders Program,” explains Fabian Heil.

Among the first group is Jose “Pepe” Araya, who has worked in healthcare for more than seven years and has founded multiple startups in that area. He joined The Pool looking for co-founders for his startup SqrPop and quickly found two partners. Together, the team develops a scheduling tool for hospitals. “When I was working in healthcare, I found it incredible difficult to talk to nurses. They were always late as they were so busy putting out fires,” Jose Araya says. He figured out that one of the main stress factors which makes nurses burn out is the inefficient shift scheduling system. Already in 2017, he started to work on an alternative and has now committed full time to his project, an AI-powered matching tool which takes into consideration the preferences of the nurses.

Tailored coaching and creative freedom

At The Pool, team SqrPop made significant progress: “We started with an idea that was very different from what we are doing now”, Jose Araya remembers. “I really value the honest feedback I’ve been getting here. It is better to become aware of the flaws of your product here than when you are pitching it to a potential client.”

That competent feedback was made possible by inviting more than 30 mentors in total with specific domain knowledge. Building on the expertise present at the Munich Urban Colab, the mentors were invited according to the specific needs of the participants. Andreas Schwersens, founder of the healthcare startup Iako, was especially intrigued by SqrPop: “I think our healthcare system needs a major overhaul and this could be an important contribution.” His insights into the healthcare system proved to be valuable for Jose Araya: “Andreas told us that our tool doesn’t work for a field that is that broad and complex. He then helped us to narrow it down.”

This coaching process was enabled by daily pitch training with the mentors. Apart from that, The Pool set very little guidelines. Participants worked in their groups, discussed their ideas with the mentors, or networked while enjoying the free food. Initiator Philip Prestele explains the rationale behind that approach: “People here already know what it takes to create a startup; we give them a structured way of collaborating. We let them do their thing, work their magic.” This resulted in projects developing AI based solutions for a variety of fields, including tools for enhanced replayability of boardgames, for energy consulting of hotels, as well as AI generated VR environments for the treatment of phobias.

The pitches were closely watched by Prof. Amy Zhao-Ding, Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at TU Munich. She joined the hackathon as a researcher interested in the formation of ideas and the interpretation of feedback by decision makers. “This setting is a great opportunity for me to examine my research questions”, she explains. “To me, this event is unique, because everyone here has experience in entrepreneurship already, people come from a variety of different backgrounds, and they have the freedom to work on their own ideas.”

An event that is here to stay

The suspense is tangible in the room as the jury retires to pick their winner. Five days after the hackathon has ended, the grand finale of the event is in full swing. Ten teams that have formed during The Pool are invited to pitch their projects in front of the Munich startup community. The winner secures the first step to turn their idea into reality by joining the AI+MUNICH program with a funding of up to €25,000 to further develop their prototypes. The Jury enters the stage and begins with an honorable mention of the team Hivemind which developed tools for the detection of infestations in beehives as well as team N-Eat for healthy meal planning. The jury then highlights the winning team’s expertise in their field and the project’s usability for a greater benefit: It is SqrPop!

Later that evening, winner Jose Araya stresses the importance of The Pool for his success: “There are not enough programs like this. I had the idea, I had the contacts, I even had investors. But I didn’t have the team I needed . For that, the event was incredibly useful.” As the next steps, SqrPop will now be talking to potential investors and are looking for a paid pilot.

Organizer Fabian Heil has received similar positive feedback from many other participants, who valued the exchange with the mentors, the inspiring environment as well as the opportunity to develop an idea without constraints. “It was a trial run if our ecosystem would embrace an event like this and it went unexpectedly amazing”, Fabian Heil says. From now on, he and Philip Prestele want to bring together Munich’s innovation ecosystem again and repeat the event multiple times a year, with the next iteration already coming up this winter.

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