Media Release | Dec 1, 2013
From idea to product: ECE student wins Facebook's Hackathon
Thanks to a new app designed by students, wandering through racks of clothing may become a thing of the past. UBC student Khalid Karim and Jacob Andreou of Queen’s University designed ThinkAkili to provide a more “personalized shopping experience”—and won Facebook‘s Global Hackathon competition with their idea. ThinkAkili is an online retail analytic platform that preselects items based on the user’s online history, past purchases and social media profiles, the app then links to in-store monitors and display the choices. Taking advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the app sits on a smart phone, unopened and communicates with the store.
Karim, a third-year electrical and computer engineering student minoring in commerce, likes to combine engineering and entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship is challenging but the reward is worth it,” Karim says. “I get to work on a project I feel passionately about and I put in as much time as I can. There’s a challenge of time, of building something from idea to product. But, there’s also the challenge of setting yourself apart, what is it that makes this different?”
Karim set himself apart when he first developed a prototype of ThinkAkili for the Facebook Global Hackathon in November of 2013. Karim and Andreou won the Hackathon, beating out teams from the USA, Canada, Brazil, England and Mexico.
Hackathons are long standing traditions at Facebook. Engineers work through the night to develop an idea from concept to prototype. Ever use Facebook’s messaging app? The big “thumbs up” button was developed at one of Facebook’s internal Hackathons.
For the last few years, Facebook has hosted student Hackathons across the globe. These Hackathons tend to attract the best talent in engineering and software and often provide offers of internships with Facebook as well as a cash prize for the winners.
While the challenge is tough, the atmosphere is electric. “Everyone is super into it,” Karim said, “it is a great environment to be in. Everyone’s excited about their idea and having fun. There is lots of coffee, lots of food and everyone is focused on meeting that two o’clock deadline.”
At the end of the 24 hours, teams have to give a two minute “lightning pitch” to four judges. “It is really surprising what you are able to build in a day,” Karim said.
A range of apps were built during the Facebook Finals this year. Teams built everything from technical applications to virtual reality apps to apps that use the facial recognition software on Google Glass. Nevertheless, Karim and Andreou beat them all with ThinkAkili.
The idea for ThinkAkili didn’t come to Karim or Andreou until the eleventh hour of the competition. “We were probably one of the last groups to figure out what we wanted to create,” Karim admitted. The team was up until five the morning before the competition tossing around ideas. It wasn’t until a few hours before the competition started that they decided on an app after meeting a Facebook engineer who liked their retail analytics idea.
After the Hackathon, Karim took on another challenge. Karim is a part of this year’s Next 36, an entrepreneurship program that accepts 36 promising young Canadians each year and helps them develop a start-up. The program runs from January to August and participants attend lectures and seminars from MIT, Stanford and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, as well as receive guidance for their projects. During the program Karim will work on a start up with three other students from across Canada. While Karim will not be developing ThinkAkili with Next 36, he feels confident that this project will be as successful as his last.