VandyHacks draws 450 from across country for 36-hour invention marathon

The hundreds of students beckoning passers-by to listen to invention pitches Sunday didn’t look as tired as one might have predicted.

After all, they’d survived 36 hours of the VandyHacks invention marathon, teaming up to produce new apps, devices and other tech in a weekend. They grabbed naps on the floor of a quiet room and took turns showering at the gym, but otherwise, their faces were lit by laptop screens as they scrambled to finish projects right up until Sunday’s expo.

It was the third time the Vanderbilt student organization hosted the event, this time in the new Wond’ry makerspace and the Engineering and Science Building. It attracted about 450 participants and volunteers from more than 30 schools across the country, with many students taking day-long bus rides to participate.

“We’ve been impressed by the dedication of people to get here,” said Harrison Stall (CS and Math, ’18), VandyHacks co-president. “At the end of the day, we’re a completely student-run organization, and a lot of people have put a lot of faith in us for this hackathon.

“I’ve judged everything from a virtual reality, augmented reality combination map where different parts of the globe are marked with icons that represent them to a bidding site that allows you buy a percentage chance of winning the items instead of bidding it up.”

The latter project, called Spinthrift, ultimately won third place in the competition. Second place went to Visage, a Google Chrome extension that makes your face your password, and first to Stucklist, an app that works with Alexa to automatically reorder groceries based on usage.

And then there was Boi, an app that allows users to participate in “longest yeah boy” contests by holding down on a screen. It’s based on a viral video of the same name and was written by two freshmen, one of them Vanderbilt’s Liam Kelly (CS’20) and the other his high school friend who is attending Purdue University.

It didn’t win an XBox game system or 3D printer, but Kelly said he learned a lot, fast.

“There was supposed to be another person on our team, but he got sick, so we were trying to think of ideas we could do with two people,” he said. “I’d never been to a hackathon before, so being around people doing all these crazy things — it was cool to see everything everyone was working on, and everyone is open to letting you see how it works so you can learn.”

The Dylan's Bad Day team, from left: Will Cox (Math'17), Riley Stewart (CS'17), Jordan Pittman (MHS'17) and Heather Jackson (Eng'17).

The event attracted non-STEM majors as well. Heather Jackson, a senior English major at Vanderbilt, pitched Dylan’s Bad Day to expo visitors. It’s a game aimed at helping people with depression feel good about themselves by taking small steps toward productivity.

“We wanted to make it heroic for student to overcome their own mental health challenges,” she said. The best part?  The game is impossible to lose.

Vanderbilt alumnus Jeff Rothschild, vice chairman-elect of the Board of Trust, delivered the opening keynote on Friday. Facebook employed 10 people when it recruited Rothschild to be its vice president for infrastructure software in 2005, relying on the already successful entrepreneur to set up engineering teams to support the burgeoning platform. Rothschild thought he might stay a few weeks, but he stayed 10 years, convinced by the constant positive feedback from users – “love letters,” he called those messages.

He told VandyHacks participants that he could only share perspective from his own experience – they would go out, create their own accomplishments and form their own opinions that may be different.

But, for him, execution is everything.

“We’ve all had the experience of seeing a product enter the market and thinking, ‘I had that idea,’” he said. “Take a step back and consider why you didn’t do it. Maybe you had good reasons.

“But if you have the skills and ability and don’t do it, and you are trying to get someone to invest in you, it says something. It says something if someone shows a PowerPoint instead of a prototype.”

And they should realize that the best work comes from a collective of minds, not just one person. That’s why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once suspended certain project and dedicated the engineers on it to developing a platform that allowed anyone to submit Facebook apps, Rothschild said.

Rothschild began his education at Vanderbilt as a psychology major, showing the audience a photograph of himself being interviewed by young Nashville reporter Oprah Winfrey about a controversial psychology class he took. A course on Fortran coding caused him to shift gears, and Rothschild ultimately earned two degrees from Vanderbilt, a bachelor of arts in 1977 and a master’s in computer science in 1979.

Prior to joining Facebook, he co-founded Veritas Software and Mpath Interactive. Today, Rothschild, of Palo Alto, California, is a venture development consultant with Accel Partners, a privately held international venture capital firm that invests in technology companies.

Founded in the spring of 2015, VandyHacks was the first collegiate hackathon to call Nashville home. The Nov. 11-13 event wrapped up Sunday afternoon with an awards ceremony and closing speech from MicroStrategy Chief Technology Officer Tim Lang.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering