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What academic research can gain from the pitch competition format

Posted on    by Kristofer Erickson

What academic research can gain from the pitch competition format

PhD Researchers Janet Burgess, Kirsty McDougall and Bettina Pahlen pitch their idea at the Early Career Research Camp 5th May 2017.

Pitch competitions are short, intense events in which teams compete to solve challenges set by organisers. They offer the possibility to explore innovative solutions in a relatively compressed time-frame and with limited resources. They have been widely used in the technology, design and business worlds to generate and rapidly prototype new ideas. How might academic researchers benefit from the pitch competition format, either as organisers or as participants ourselves? And how can these events be improved to promote interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange?

Over the past year, colleagues and I in CREATe have experimented with the pitch competition format. We have used it to engage with external communities of software developers, artists, designers and entrepreneurs. For example, in 2016 we organised the Copyright Visualisation Hackathon and the Open Innovation Design Jam events in Glasgow. We also participated as mentors in the EU Hackathon in Brussels and the Skills Development Scotland Hack Day.

Recently, we decided to use the pitch competition format as part of the Early Career Research Camp, an event focused on interdisciplinary capacity building for postgraduate students and postdocs. In this post, I will explore some of the lessons learned from our experiences working with this format and share thoughts about its potential value for academic research.

While academia shares many commonalities with the design, entrepreneurship and technology communities, pitch competitions have not been widely used in the university setting. Academics tend to work with longer deadlines and we tend to communicate ideas by publishing them in more finished form. On the other hand, many of us enjoy collaborating in groups and we all share a curiosity for new ideas. Perhaps hackathons are a good match for higher education. After all, what is a traditional academic conference if not an opportunity to showcase new ideas in development and receive input from peers?

Designing a pitch competition event

Organising a successful hackathon is a bit like throwing a party: it needs food, drink, a suitable venue and most importantly, guests. Some other helpful amenities include internet connectivity, presentation equipment, and transportation links. Wide-open spaces with modular seating and tables work best for this format. At some times, participants’ attention will be focused on presentations at the front of the room, while at other times teams will want to find a quiet corner to collaborate and work on their ideas.

There are two main groups of people that organisers must attract when designing a pitch competition. First, successful events generally require input from speakers, mentors and judges. We’ve found that interspersing the event with short presentations by experts is a good way to stimulate new ideas and provide useful content. For example, at the Tech4Justice hackathon in Glasgow, organiser Arlene McDaid brought in speakers who had previous success with using technology in their legal practice. She also provided experts to introduce specific legal challenges in friendly and accessible language. Having a range of interesting speakers is a positive draw for the second group of attendees, the competitors.

In our experience, attracting a good group of competitors is the biggest challenge in organising a successful pitch competition. This is to be expected since we are asking a lot of participants: they are the ones bringing energy and new ideas to the activity. Competitors are also being asked to give up a significant amount of time – often a day or more – to participate in a competition with an unknown probability of success. Organisers can help attract competitors by doing two important things: keeping the barriers to participation as low as possible and clearly stating the benefits of participation. Competitors are not only interested in the prize at the end; learning, networking, CV-building and fun are other important reasons for taking part.

The focus and aims of the competition should be clearly defined from the outset. This means that the challenge or problem that participants will address should be clearly articulated. In the Copyright Visualisation Hackathon, we gave competitors a choice of 3 challenges, each with a clearly defined end-goal.

Knowing beforehand what to expect will lower barriers to entry and improve sign-up rate. For example, if hackers will be asked to work with a database or digital resource, providing access ahead of time will allow them to develop familiarity with the content. One of the challenges of the Copyright Visualisation Hackathon was to work with data contained in the Copyright Evidence Wiki. Co-organiser Jesus Rodriguez Perez made sure that this dataset was available to competitors in a range of formats.

Managing the social interaction

Feedback received after our Early Career Research Camp revealed that some participants felt anxious about locating and joining a team. The two-day length of the event permitted only brief opportunities to mingle with other participants, many of whom were meeting for the first time. On Day 1, we tried a ‘research speed dating’ activity to allow individuals to meet and discuss research interests for 3 minutes at a time.

The format that we have followed in our events has been to allow teams to form organically on the first day. Generally, pitch competition organisers pursue one of two different strategies. Teams can either come pre-formed, for example from a pool of seasoned hackathon competitors, or they can form at the beginning of the organised event from those curious attendees who show up.

One reason to insist that teams not be fixed beforehand is that it promotes networking and collaboration between people with different backgrounds. This may in turn help generate more innovative and unexpected ideas, although more time will be required for facilitating team formation.

One solution we found to promote rapid team formation was to encourage local helpers to mingle with participants, discuss ideas and bring together those with similar interests to form a team. By stipulating in the event rules that organisers may actively change the configuration of teams, this allows the possibility of placing lone participants in teams that have already formed. We used this approach at the Early Career Research Camp with positive results.

Length of event

A pitch competition can range from a few hours in length to several days or more. At Stanford University, the initiators of the design jam format have managed to compress activities into short, 15-minute steps. CREATe’s previous Copyright Visualisation Hackathon took place over 24 hours, with a break to sleep in the middle; this provided ample time to generate interesting technical prototypes. The Early Carer Research Camp was a two-day event, interspersed with expert panels with senior researchers. The actual time devoted to ideation and pitch preparation was about 5 hours.

Generally, teams need enough time to explore the ‘problem space’ outlined by the organisers, and generate creative ideas about how to address the challenge(s). Remaining time is used to refine pitch materials and come up with a compelling presentation.

A team works on their pitch materials at the Copyright Visualisation Hackathon

During the Early Career Research Camp, some participants expressed that teams did not have enough time to prepare adequately for the pitch session. This may reflect a tendency for academic researchers to want to feel comfortable in mastery of a topic before presenting in front of peers. The deliberate pace of academic work contrasts with the short, intense nature of pitch competitions where the emphasis is on speed rather than perfection.

Organisers can structure events to help reduce worry about compressed time in pitch competitions. Clearly stating the challenge and problem space will reduce the amount of time needed to start coming up with ideas. A structured brief in terms of deliverables, judging criteria and time limit will also help structure teams’ activity and focus attention on the ideas. At the Open Innovation Design Jam, we broke the day up into sections with clear objectives at each phase (e.g. work out the value proposition in your business model). If the competition is making use of an external resource, such as a publicly hosted dataset, ensuring that competitors have easy access to the resource before the start of the event will also reduce slack time.

At the Early Career Research Camp, we allowed teams 8 minutes total to pitch their ideas, and this proved ample for the judges to determine quality. A hackathon might allow slightly more time to pitch, since technical prototypes are sometimes demonstrated to the jury.

Opportunities for academic research

As pitch competition organisers, academic researchers gain many benefits. Some of the prototypes developed at hackathons have found their way directly into our research practice at CREATe. For example, these visualisations of the Copyright Evidence Wiki were made by one of the teams with seed funding provided after the competition. In fact, we have received many more great ideas this way – many more than we have resources to fund or staff time to pursue. Producing user-friendly, finished software is very time consuming and requires considerable resources to see to fruition. Hackathon organisers should be mindful that the hackathon event is only the beginning – significant further investment is required to bring prototypes to life. Besides high-quality ideas and new collaborations, another benefit of the hackathon format is that it forces us as researchers to communicate ideas as a set of clear societal challenges. In designing the Copyright Hackathon, we asked ourselves why someone would be interested in visualising our data and what they might be able to gain from doing so. Hackathons would be well suited to developing new ideas for impact and knowledge exchange activity, perhaps at the start of a large funded project.

What about placing ourselves in the role of competitors, as some 35 early career researchers bravely did at our recent event? Based on the feedback received, consensus is that the pitch competition format disrupts the ordinary temporality of academic life. This takes some adjustment, but can yield unexpected benefits. Participants expressed happiness at being taken ‘outside of their comfort zones’ and given the opportunity to work with non-traditional collaborators. I think one of the most beneficial aspects of the format is the opportunity to observe other teams’ pitches. The difference in presentation quality provides an object lesson on the best techniques for communicating research ideas to specialists and non-specialists alike.

Finally, the emphasis on rapid ideation and testing offers a new way to think about knowledge production. Maybe universities should think about providing academics and practitioners opportunities to communicate and discuss potential research directions this way (without the pressures of REF and other traditional academic structures). The examples provided from the Early Career Research Camp illustrate that much spontaneous, non-traditional and vital work may result from these opportunities.


For more information about our previous hackathons, or for help in designing your own pitch competition event, please get in touch with the author: