"Building Brilliant” is the theme of the day-long hackathon now culminating in what was supposed to be a rooftop cocktail party, but is now a modest meet and greet, because there is a war going on. But the participants are chill. “When the siren sounds we go and code in the shelter, and then we just move on,” says Kevin, a software engineering student from Montevideo with a shrug.
Resilient, entrepreneurial words from one of around 20 young superstars handpicked from hundreds of applicants to join the third cohort of Tech Challenge Experience. Participants hail from universities such as Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, and Oxford, and companies such as Siemens and Facebook. These are serious programmers, but it feels like hanging out with a bunch of regular kids, because participants are also required to be socially engaged; the program is serious about building real entrepreneurs who can make it in the world.
Tech Challenge Experience is one of three tracks in an exciting new program set to disrupt the world of Israel engagement, Jewish innovation, and professional networking in the hi-tech space -- Israel Tech Challenge, a cooperation with The Jewish Agency, the Prime Minister’s Office, and private / corporate donors. The Challenge is an expert driven continuum of Israel experiences connecting Jewish students and young professionals with the skills and networks – in Israel, with Israeli mentors – meant to enrich or launch their careers in the computer science industry.
It started in December: 25 of the world’s best and brightest young programmers hiked Israel together before visiting top tier companies, meeting with industry luminaries, and then creating some insanely innovative products in a 36 hour hackathon – including wearable sonar for the blind, 3D perspectives for honest social media reporting, and an app for personal security awareness.
Summer 2014, war or no war, saw not only the arrival of two different Tech Challenge Experience Cohorts, but also the launch of Tech Challenge Interns (in conjunction with Onward Israel), a 6-week program placing tech superstars at top Israeli and international companies, like Checkpoint, IBM, PayPal, WIX, and Google. Participants are truly global, hailing from the US, Argentina, Uruguay, France, Brazil, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland.
The current hackathon includes participants from the third Experience cohort and the Interns program, and has a very clear mandate: Sustainable living and community building in urban settings. One group created (yes, in a day) a prototype of a trash receptacle which “knows” via sensors what type of garbage you’ve thrown out and sorts it accordingly for recycling. A feedback mechanism can tell you, at the end of a week, different, concrete ways in which you’ve saved the planet with your green efforts.
Another product gamed that favorite Jewish pastime of worrying in an amusing app that can tell users who is worried about what and where, giving municipalities an idea of how they can act to alleviate residents’ local concerns.
The event’s winning app, TrafficLite, would place cameras at intersections to control traffic signals on the basis of real traffic and pedestrian data, virtually eliminating both waiting for no reason and traffic congestion.
It is clear that there is every possibility that one of the people in the room could be the next Iron Dome inventor, and that their time in Israel has made them even more connected to the possibility of doing something big. Says Nazar, 28, of Seattle (born in Ukraine): “This was much different than my Birthright trip because it was an Israel experience in a way that was professionally relevant for me. Israel is a really easy ground for new ideas. There are a lot of different kinds of people from all over the place -- it’s like a melting pot for growth, with a network of Jewish synergies. And with no natural resources, people know that human ingenuity is all you have here. In the desert, you artificially create life. That’s very motivating. That’s part of the culture.”
And about that war? Kevin says he could not have sat it out back home. “I wouldn’t want to watch it from Uruguay. It is much better to be here together with Israel.”