Celebrating 10 years of Hack the North

Canada’s biggest student hackathon, hosted by Waterloo Engineering, grows bigger and better with every year.

By Charlotte Danby Faculty of Engineering Hack the North , the largest collegiate hackathon in Canada, celebrated its 10 anniversary at the University of Waterloo with more than 1,000 students from around the world.

Organized by students for students, the annual event involves participants converging on campus to spend 36 intense hours creating innovative technologies through collaboration and mentorship.

Engineering an epic event

Hack the North was founded in 2013 by three Waterloo students Kartik Talwar (BSc ’16, astrophysics), former computer science student Liam Horne and Kevin Lau (BASc ’17, systems design engineering) from three different faculties - science, mathematics and engineering.

In 2012, the trio attended some of the very first collegiate hackathons in the USA and were enthralled. But, as fun as those events were, they were also far away and disorganized.  

"The Wi-Fi would drop, food would run out, something was always glitching," says Talwar, partner at a_capital. "Also, the Waterloo students’ hacks would often win. We decided to create our own world-class event in Canada and run it like a startup."

As any entrepreneur knows, turning an idea into a reality is challenging. Hack the North needed a large physical space, logistical support and industry networks to get off the ground - all of which the then dean of Waterloo Engineering, Dr. Pearl Sullivan, happily provided.

"We leveraged the University’s reputation and connections to convince top-tier sponsors, mentors and speakers to fly to Waterloo for this new kid on the block called Hack the North," says Lau, founding product manager at Tome. "We had 1,000 student hackers attend that first event and the numbers haven’t waned since."

Passing the torch

Hack the North owes a lot of its success to being run like a company. There is a very selective hiring process and a strong culture of training and succession planning. Team leaders need to commit to at least two years with organization - the first year they learn the ropes, the second year they teach the next person.

Oana Binder, third year systems design engineering student at Waterloo and co-director of the Hack the North 2023 organizing team, got involved with the event in 2021 and has loved every second. Having worked on the inside, she’s not surprised by the event’s ongoing success.

"Ten years is a long time for such an event but there’s still so much excitement and interest," says Binder. "It’s testament to the organization’s strong focus on community. The team members change but the team’s passion and dedication doesn’t."

The founding trio are an example of the many alumni still closely connected to the event. People often stay involved in advisory roles which helps preserve and improve on institutional knowledge, culture and best practices year after year.

"Every year we get to connect with the next generation of organizers and every year we are bowled over by the continued momentum," says Horne, co-founder of ETHGlobal.

"With every passing of the torch, the community grows and so too does Hack the North’s status. It gives us such delight to see its success and we applaud everyone’s hard work that we know goes into making it happen."

Judging the hacks

Hack the North encourages hackers to be creative, to have fun and to just build something. The judges are not looking for the most profound ideas or even those with the most real-world applicability.

"We got rid of the traditional competition setup so there’s no first, second and third place winners," says Talwar. "Teams of up to four people are encouraged to submit their projects for judging as it provides them with a great chance to meet a potential investor or mentor. This year there were 12 standout submissions from a pool of 250."

One of the finalist teams this year was Waterloo’s very own student design team UW Orbital. The team pulled a child-sized car from the trash and reconfigured it to drive using mind control. Another winning team called PearPiano , also from Waterloo, developed an augmented reality (AR) program for composing, playing and recording piano music.

Velocity’s director of deep tech and Waterloo Engineering alum Alroy Almeida (BASc ’13, mechatronics engineering) is a seasoned entrepreneur on the Hack the North judging panel.

As the CEO and co-founder of Velocity company Voltera, a fourth-year design project turned thriving startup, Almeida emphasizes the important distinction between idea and execution.

"It was exciting to see students develop their entrepreneurship skills at Hack the North," Almeida said.

"They really pushed themselves to find interesting solutions with limited time and resources. The skills they built over a few days will serve them well if they choose to pursue building a company in the future."

Tinkering with tech

Binder believes that events like Hack the North remind students to play and that this is an important counter to all the career pressures they face.

"Working on Hack the North pushed me to reflect on my own values and think about what, as tech students, we should be focusing on," says Binder. "I really care about the student community and want to find more ways for us to enjoy what we do, to feel happy about what we create.

" Chances are most of us will find secure employment, b our careers feed our curiosity and give us real enjoyment too. Hack the North encourages us to tinker and play with technologies , to get excited about our work - and we should never lose that."  

More than 15,000 students have attended Hack the North from 80 plus countries around the world since the first event in 2013. Over the past 10 years, students have created more than 4000 projects in total and won over $500,000 in prizes. Hack the North has collectively reimbursed more than $1M in travel costs to bring in the smartest developers in the world to campus.

Feature image: Kartik Talwar, Kevin Lau and Liam Horne onstage at Hack the North 2023. Photo by: Erica Clement-Goudy.