January 06, 2017

Jump-Starting Success at the Boston Cleanweb Hackathon

Emma McGrath, Communications Fellow


When Eric Graham walked through the doors at the 2013 Boston Cleanweb Hackathon, his intentions were strictly business.

Working at the time for Next Step Living, a sponsor of the event, Graham’s role at the Hackathon was managerial and observational. He was there to ensure things ran smoothly, and to watch the area’s best innovators at work. He didn’t know that within a few hours, he’d be out there on the floor with them.

“I didn’t plan to compete,” Graham said. “It just happened.”

Graham formed a team, and together they developed an idea: use crowdsourcing and smartphone software to allow building occupants to report issues -- like cold drafts and broken light fixtures -- to the appropriate building managers in real time.

Their idea won.

The Boston Cleanweb Hackathon, an event organized by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center in partnership with Greentown Labs, is an annual technology competition where big thinkers from across the tech sector converge. The challenge: create a new, user-friendly digital application to help consumers and businesses use energy and natural resources more efficiently, and do it all in a single weekend. 

This year’s Hackathon kicks off at 6 p.m. on April 10th at WeWork South Station in Boston. The winning teams will receive cash and other prizes.

After winning the 2013 Hackathon, Graham’s team formed a company, CrowdComfort, which is now a member of MassChallenge and Greentown Labs. CrowdComfort serves big names like General Electric and Liberty Property Trusts, and ventured to the White House to participate in the 2014 Energy Datapalooza.

At the start of the 2014 Hackathon a year later, Jordan Gilmore was uncertain too. 

A policy wonk with a background in energy research, Gilmore knew the event would bring together innovators from a range of fields -- big data, business, engineering, marketing -- to find no-frills solutions for big problems.

But he didn’t have a set game plan. That’s where Dan Sterling came in.

Sterling, who had a background in network security, arrived at the Hackathon with both a problem and a potential fix. The problem: people were alienated from their residential water systems. If something was wrong -- a leak or change in water flow -- most people wouldn’t know until it wreaked havoc on their homes. The fix: a simple retrofit device, connected to a smartphone, that monitors and controls water flow with the click of a button.

Sterling had the idea, but he needed programmers, engineers and business developers. “Coming to the Hackathon was valuable to Dan,” Gilmore said. “He knew he could tap into some additional talent.”

Sterling, along with Gilmore and software engineer Mark Henderson, worked feverishly for three days to develop their product. The team placed third in the Hackathon competition, and took home first prize in the subsequent Cleanweb Haccelerator (formerly known as the Data Jam) – a program where Hackathon teams can continue developing their ideas to build actual products and launch real companies.

And with that, Water Hero was born.

Today, Water Hero is a member of Greentown Labs and is gearing up to release its first round of devices to consumers this summer. Their 2014 Kickstarter campaign exceeded its funding goal by $10,000.

Winning the Haccelerator, Gilmore said, was an attractive feat to investors. “It validates you in the tech community,” he said.  “It’s a huge marketing tool.”

Graham and Gilmore both said the time crunch of the Hackathon created an energetic, fast-paced environment for innovation. Gilmore added that the Water Hero team still keeps in touch with the teams they met last year, particularly at Greentown Labs, where several are now members.

For the participants, Graham outlined two avenues for success.

“Either come well prepared with your idea, or come with a very open mind,” he said. “With the kinds of people that are drawn to the Hackathon, the juices get flowing. You never know where it’ll take you.”

Click here to register and learn more about the 2015 Boston Cleanweb Hackathon.