Feeding the Future Hackathon: HARA

A little over 48 hours ago, I waited in anticipation for FoodTechies Finland to commence Feeding the Future, their first online hackathon. Having assembled an enthusiastic team with Hyewon Lee, Ashley Chang, and Annie Wong, I was nervous and excited to tackle our challenge: Reducing Restaurants’ Carbon “Food”Print.

With myself as Project Manager and UI Designer, Hyewon as Research Lead, and Annie and Ashley as Co-Developers, we created HARA — an app that uses machine learning to help restaurants make big steps towards having a small carbon footprint. After innovating for hours, we presented a pitch with meticulous consideration of business model, design implementation, and technological development. I’m delighted to announce that HARA won, receiving the grand prize of 2500 EUR and invitation to compete for a pilot program!

UPDATE: Read HARA: From One Spark to Four Trailblazers—the transcript of our team’s interview with Anja of FoodTechies Finland!

As of October 2020, HARA has been accepted into Berkeley SkyDeck’s HotDesk incubator program!

The Hackathon

FoodTechies Finland’s Feeding the Future Hackathon aimed to solve four challenges: Sustainable Farm2Fork Solutions, Reducing Carbon “Food” print, Innovating New Baltic Herring Food Products, and Increasing the Finnish-African Food Trade. My team competed in the second track, Reducing Carbon “Food” print.

This challenge focused on the City of Helsinki, which strives to create urban futures and better services, thus setting carbon neutrality goals in the restaurant and food industry. The ultimate goal was to develop a technological solution that could not only reducing carbon “food”print in the restaurant sector—which is primarily achieved through less food waste, better energy efficiency, and low-impact sourcing of food—and also act as the go-to tool to measure production of metrics contributing to carbon footprint.

Additionally, the challenge prompt encouraged participants to develop digital tools, metrics and indicators to help promote resource-efficient business choices in regard to ingredient purchases, energy solutions, recipe development, and more.

The Team

I’d originally discovered the hackathon while browsing Google for “food tech opportunities”. After clicking through several pages of search results, I stumbled upon the Feeding the Future Hackathon’s Eventbrite page and was immediately fascinated. Although I had basically no prior hackathon experience, I could feel the competitive spirit welling up in me—after all, what did I have to lose?

Knowing that I couldn’t do this alone, I turned to my network to build a team. I reached out to the Berkeley Alternative Protein Project, for which I was a Data Analyst at the time and now a Business Development Consultant, and received a response from fellow club member Hyewon. Although she‘d never entered a hackathon before, she was eager to explore the experience and reached out to her own connections as well. We thus brought on Ashley, who also introduced her friend Annie to us—and our team of four was formed.

The Collaboration

Winning the hackathon wasn’t our initial goal whatsoever—with our lack of experience, our first concern was to familiarize ourselves with each other’s working style. We’d actually only finalized our team the day before the hackathon, but nevertheless dove wholeheartedly into this collaboration-heavy project.

As a naturally management-minded person, I relied heavily on detailed note-taking and scheduling across Google Docs and similar tools to keep our team in sync despite geographical restrictions and the COVID-19 pandemic. We also used regular Zoom meetings to collaborate on our work and give progress updates. Throughout the entire process, I led the structuring and design of our pitch deck—all 35 slides of content!

An example of the planning I did to to help our team navigate the 10-hour time difference with Finland

Over the 48 hours, I kept Facebook Messenger open at all times, making sure to facilitate discussions and schedule check-in group calls periodically over the weekend. I also touch-based individually with my teammates, giving them feedback from myself or from mentors and guiding them through different problems. I still remember having 5 calls with Annie in the span of 3 hours to iron out the UX of our Android Studio prototype!

The Grind

One slide of the website prototype I designed for HARA’s consumer-facing review platform

As the eldest member and the designated Project Manager/Leader, I felt a sense of responsibility to take care of my teammates and boost team morale. Over the 48-hour hackathon, I stayed up until 6:00 AM Pacific Time (4:00 PM in Finland) both days to keep the HARA team informed and on the same page. Most importantly, I took the time from after midnight to 6:00AM to network with all of the available mentors in our challenge track for 30 minutes to 1 hour, asking for constructive ideas and feedback.

Despite the excruciating hours, I didn’t even feel tired—I felt energized by the adrenaline rush of the hackathon. My networking paid off as well—by interfacing with mentors from countries all around the world, I learned about the machine learning concept of collaborative filtering, which we used to develop the algorithm for HARA’s carbon footprint scoring and restaurant review features. I also gained insights into next steps for our development beyond the hackathon, such as utilizing MongoDB and Amazon Web Services to create a functional application.

Our collaborative filtering model

As I later learned from the co-developers of HARA, Annie and Ashley expressed that they had a positive experience since they were able to synchronize their working pace together effectively. Annie is an early bird, while Ashley is a night owl—so they took turns working on app programming, then conferenced in the afternoon to tackle any problems that they couldn’t solve on their own. This inverted schedule helped them prevent burnout during the intense hackathon period.

Being the team lead, I also encouraged periodic breaks and worked with each member when they had conflicts throughout the day to keep us efficient even if we were working asynchronously. I’m happy to say that mine and my teammates’ efforts shaped us into a well-oiled machine!

The Learning

We all know that teamwork, risk-taking, taking initiative, friendship, and trust are great things—but knowing and doing are two different things. By taking a chance and leading a new venture into the world of hackathons, I truly experienced what collaborative innovation and design thinking are all about, as well as how to take a challenge by the reins and make something meaningful.

Teamwork truly was the key for HARA to achieve the unexpected—we filled in each other’s gaps by stepping up if someone else was busy or taking a break. By fostering a culture of flexibility, I was able to help us quickly develop trust in one another. It was a delight to hear Hyewon mention in an interview that I’d fulfilled my team leader role well and kept everyone synchronized during the competition; we had definitely been daunted by the gap between UTC -7 (California) and UTC +3 (Finland). But now, I’ve come to realize that no obstacle is too big if you trust the process and let the adrenaline rush propel you forward!

This hackathon was also an amazing experience to meet others and share personal knowledge. FoodTechies Finland’s interview with Christabel, one of the mentors I worked with, sums everything up perfectly in her recount of meeting team HARA:

Meeting individuals from eclectic backgrounds was an invigorating occasion. While jumping from table to table on the Remo platform talking to people, I stumbled upon this talented team from California and they were engrossed in a dynamically educational talk with one of the mentors about carbon footprint. I got reminded of my ruminant methane gas emissions research paper in business school and started to chip in. Then I said, “Wait, how can my formula to calculate global cow farts sound sensible?” As lighthearted as that might sound, everybody has a specific role and veritably an extensive professional history in their craft whether in IT, sustainability, marketing, business, management, innovation, sciences — you name it. It shifts you into an analytical articulation where you try to figure out what the others are thinking as well. Barriers between diverse trades were broken down and everyone was brought together in congruence with pursuing a common goal. A collaboration like this brings about brilliant perspectives from myriad locations. There will always be salient topics that you’ll be able to deliberate about.

The Future

Looking towards the future, I’m looking forward to implementing my business idea with the rest of the team. We’re pursuing incubator opportunities while working on app development, and hope to officially launch by the end of 2020. We couldn’t be more excited for the invitation we won to participate in Forum Virium Helsinki’s pilot program!

Of course, there are still many things that we’d like to develop their knowledge on. We hope to gain enough insights and knowledge to propel our project forward in Finland as well as expand to other locations, hopefully starting with Berkeley or a similar city. As female founders, we also hope to channel the theme of empowerment and equity in everything we do.

I can’t thank my lovely teammates enough for working in such synergy with me. Our resilience enabled us to rise above all obstacles and deliver a pitch rivalling startups that had been in existence for much longer than merely 48 hours!

Many thanks to the amazing organizers, mentors, and Forum Virium Helsinki for kickstarting the HARA team’s entrepreneurial success!

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Rachael Deng

Rachael Deng

Is loving writing a personality trait?… I'm a designer and startup founder, makeup/skincare junkie, foodie, and published poet! Almost always smiling :)