Merck Hackathon Returns to Tel-Aviv

Merck Hackathon

May 18 – 19, 2017, Tel Aviv

How would you automate bacterial colony counting in petri dishes, and get reliable results? How can you demonstrate the unique visual attributes of an effect pigment to a potential customer through a flat digital screen? How would you leverage the Amazon Alexa intelligent personal assistant to improve work processes and customer service?

Challenges

These were three of six challenges presented to participants of the “Merck Hackathon Tel Aviv 2017”, held on May 18-19. The Hackathon was a follow-up to the first Hackathon in Israel last year.

“Last year’s Hackathon here was a big success”, says Marc Feiglin, Head of Technology Scouting & Partnerships in Israel and one of the event’s organizers, “The students went back to the universities and talked about the program, the word trickled up and we got great feedback from their professors and TTO’s (Technology Transfer Officers). It also helped raise attention within Merck to projects and partnership opportunities in Israel”.

Over 50 students arrived at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on Thursday noon, all excited to meet new people and engage in some exhilarating problem solving for the next 24 hours. Along with new faces, there were also students who participated in last year’s Hackathon and came back. “I came here again because I really enjoyed last year’s event. I met good people here, people I learned a lot from”, says Dudi Ben Shlomo, a Chemical Engineering student from Ben-Gurion University, “Last year my team won 3rd place with an application for sensor-controlled liquid crystal-based lighting lenses. Our mentor actually invited us to Merck’s incubator in Germany to further develop the concept, but I couldn’t go due to prior commitments”.

After the students consumed some healthy snacks and drinks and after Merck executives gave few opening words, the mentors unveiled the challenges. Like with all of Merck’s Hackathons, the challenges for this event came from Merck’s employees, based on real problems or ideas from their everyday work across Merck’s three business sectors – Healthcare, Life Science and Performance Materials. In addition to the challenges previously mentioned, the students were challenged to create a smart system for managing inventory and supply of chemicals in production sites and research labs, to design a smartphone app that will increase patient adherence to prescribed medication, and “use the force” of the latest cutting-edge sensing technologies in an innovative and beneficial way.

After each student chose his preferred challenges with the event’s mobile app, Eli Itin, former Head of Innovation at Amdocs and Senior Consultant at North Star Innovation, gave an entertaining keynote speech, featuring examples of innovative solutions from around the world, including a cross-country Chinese train that manages to pick up and drop passengers safely at their stations without ever stopping.

The teams were as diverse as it gets. In one team, for example, you could find an electrical engineer, an immunologist, a chemist and an architect, working together to solve a performance materials marketing problem.

Andreas Schindler, Director of Ideation & Innovation Technology Foresight at Merck KGaA, shares his observations on the Hackathon: “The students are going through an amazing process here. In the course of only 15 hours they are assigned with a new team, they get a new challenge, they brainstorm it together, they develop a concept, sometimes they realize their concept doesn’t work and go back to square one, and finally they come up with a solution and present it. A process like that usually takes 3 to 6 months in the real world”.

Another mentor, Owen Lozman, who works at Merck’s Southampton site in the UK as Global Platform R&D Director, compliments the students for being good sports: “What I loved seeing in this Hackathon is how different teams, working on different challenges, cooperated. They saw what the other team is doing and said: ‘hey, I can use that in my project!’, and rather than be over-protective of their ideas, they really helped each other”.

But the mentors did not only guide the students in hacking the challenges. They also answered numerous questions that the curious students asked them about the industry and Merck. “The Hackathon was a great opportunity to get to know Merck people and feel the vibe of the company”, says Nataly Mirlas-Neisberg, a Bio-Molecular Sciences Ph.D. student from the Weizmann Institute of Science, “As a researcher I am familiar with R&D processes but know less about actual production in Big Pharma. Merck people gave us an inside look on real industry production and inspection processes”.

And then came the results

3rd place went to a team who offered to attach the Amazon Alexa to every hospitalized patient, providing the medical staff with important information regarding the patient while keeping their hands free for safe and precise treatment, entertaining the patient with his favorite music or audio-books, and even assessing the patient’s mood and supporting him mentally in moments of melancholy.

2nd place went to a team who developed a concept for an online interactive database that uses 360° camera combined with steerable lights for a digital display off effect pigments, transferring each pigment’s unique color, sparkle, gloss and glitter to the eye of the viewer.

1st place went to a team who designed a prototype of a machine that uses multiple light sources to count bacterial colonies in petri dishes. The team showed how they tested the prototype with an infected dish and it seemed to get perfect results. “In the procedure of colony counting, the human eye is more reliable than existing automated machines”, says Max Kushnir, Immunology Masters student from the Weizmann Institute of Science and a member of the winning team. “We tried to create a new, simple mechanism that will count the colonies more efficiently than but as accurately as lab workers”.

Harold Weiner, Managing Partner at Terra Venture Partners and one of the judges, shares the judges’ reasons for picking the winning team: “They tackled a familiar and difficult problem with a simple, clever and applicable solution, and we could see how the solution was built with multi-disciplinary tools”. All three winning teams were awarded cash prizes.

Regine Shevach, Managing Director at Merck’s R&D center in Israel, says: “The encounter between Merck, with its massive global infrastructure, and the students, with their fresh and innovative ideas, can lead to the realization of these ideas in ways that benefit both sides. I have seen it happen”.

Dr. Michael Meier, Head of Performance Materials Partnerships at Merck, who attended the Hackathon, concludes: “I really liked the location and the design of the event. It was gorgeous. And seeing these young students dive into their challenges, committed to work together and innovate, you feel the energy of creativity in the air and it inspires you”.

Congratulations!