VISITING AMERICAN TV HOST and comedian Conan O’Brien interrupts high schoolers yesterday as they take part in a nonstop, 24-hour hackathon at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum..
(photo credit: TOWER OF DAVID MUSEUM)
It’s not everyday that Conan O’Brien hangs out with a bunch of teenagers.
On Monday morning, the visiting American talk-show host interrupted high schoolers as they partook in a nonstop, 24-hour hackathon held in Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum.
“He asked us who we are, what we’re doing all night long and he joked that his son likes staying up all night too,” said Nadav Weiss, 16, an organizer of the Tomorrow JLM hackathon.
Overnight the 40 teenagers got locked in the ancient Old City citadel, designing and pitching smartphone applications for prizes worth thousands of shekels.
Sacrificing their last few days of summer vacation, the participants brainstormed and coded as to how they could improve the youth experience in Jerusalem.
Around ten adult mentors advised the hackathon.
“I always had the desire to invent things,” co-organizer Tehila Peled said. The 17-year-old spent her summer coding as part of the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, a competitive program which brings Israeli and Palestinian youth together in Jerusalem to learn business and marketing. A self-described lover of mathematics, Peled is typical of the hackathon participants.
A panel of judges working in venture capital and hi-tech whittled down the many team proposals to three finalists. The teams won NIS 4,000 for first place, NIS 2,500 for second place and NIS 1,500 for third place.
The winning team came up with a smartphone application to show where you can charge your dying cell battery. Restaurants and stores could participate and offer charging stations.
“From an innovation perspective, they were dealing with a new issue. They thought of a real problem; what am I going to do about my next phone charge,” said judge Elie Wurtman, cofounder of the venture-capital firm PICO Partners.
The teenagers batted away challenges from the judges as they intermingled in Hebrew and English, reminiscent of Israel’s argumentative start-up culture.
Wurtman, whose posture at the judge’s panel smacked of American Idol, said youth hackathons can help fill real social needs.
“The goal isn’t for kids to go out and do a start-up and make a million dollars,” he said. “It’s to apply a kid’s creativity to solving real world problems.”
Wurtman’s firm has helped fund STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – initiatives in Jerusalem schools, introducing computer coding and rudimentary robotics to some 1,500 students from orthodox, secular and Arab backgrounds.
According to Wurtman, “STEM crosses all socioeconomic and religious lines. It’s a powerful common language,” between sparring demographic groups as “everyone is interested in startups.”
Yet Monday’s event at the Tower of David museum, located in east Jerusalem, saw no Orthodox or Arab participants take part.
Devora Mason, head of the museum’s innovation lab, conceded that the ancient archeological site may not be the most natural setting for cutting-edge start-ups and technology. But the museum, which sees 400,000 annual visitors, wants to continue growing.
“We want to be a beta-site, to offer start-ups, [and] a place to test their products at the museum,” she said, whether it be augmented reality and virtual reality or gaming.
The hackathon was partially sponsored by JNext and the Jerusalem Development Authority, a publicly-funded agency that provides seed funding for different startups, along with the Tower of David Museum.
“We want to create and enable young entrepreneurs, enable them to create more start-ups in Jerusalem,” said Oded Barel-Sabag, a JDA project manager.