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Why this hackathon project is still growing 18 months later

Instead of fizzling out and losing steam after the hackathon ended, like most projects do, the team continued to work on greenSTEM for a year and a half, up until it was ready to ship. Here's why and what other hackathon participants might learn from it.

The company raised $1.2 million for its smart wood stove, including the contribution from the University System of Maryland's investment fund to back startups.

Smart wood stove company MF Fire received $1.2 million in new funding in a round that includes the first investment from a venture fund created by the University System of Maryland. The Baltimore-based company received $192,500 from the Maryland Momentum Fund, which launched earlier this year. Clean tech investor Bill Clarke was also named as a participant in the round. MF Fire started in the University of Maryland College Park's fire science program. Ryan Fisher and Taylor Myers invented the company's Catalyst stove when they were graduate students in the program. They later teamed with Paul LaPorte, who is now the CEO of the company, as they further developed the stove for the commercial market. The stove is outfitted with technology that can regulate the temperature of the stove. As a result, it emits lower amounts of carbon dioxide and is safer than traditional wood stoves, the team told us earlier this year at its headquarters within the Open Works makerspace in Station North. The stove also collects data about a user's burn preferences. The team sees an opening in the market. The stove already meets federal emissions standards that are set to go into effect in 2020, and few others do. Catalysts began shipping earlier this year, and the company has plans to grow in Baltimore as production ramps up. “We are very excited to have MF Fire as the initial investment from the Momentum Fund. The company offers an efficient product based on combustion science and it emerged out of a center of excellence at the University of Maryland,” said David Wise, who was named director of the Maryland Momentum Fund earlier this year. The University System of Maryland contributed an initial $10 million to the fund, and requires outside investors to match as a condition of providing money to startups. University officials are working to raise another $15 million from outside groups.

Full disclosure: Several events referenced in this story were organized by Technical.ly Philly. This reporter was not part of those efforts, and they are specifically highlighted in the article text.

greenSTEM Network, a soil-monitoring kit designed to teach students about STEM, started like many other hackathon projects do. Someone had an idea, pitched it at a hackathon and found a team of developers to work on it.

But instead of fizzling out and losing steam after the hackathon ended, like most projects do, the team continued to work on greenSTEM for a year and a half, up until it was ready to ship. Matthew Fritch, the Water Department environmental engineer who originally presented the idea at the February 2013 TechCamp hackathon, which, full disclosure, Technical.ly Philly organized with the U.S. State Department and dev firm Jarvus, plans to install the kits at four public schools next week.

So what made greenSTEM different?

Ignoring the hackathon deadline, for one. Hackathons normally end on a Sunday afternoon with a demo session, with participants presenting their work and judges choosing a winner. But the greenSTEM team didn’t have a finished product to present the Sunday that TechCamp ended and that was fine by them, said developer and team member Kevin Clough.

It also helped that Christian Kunkel, a Jarvus team member who helped organize the hackathon, stressed that participants didn’t need to complete a project by the end of the weekend: they could keep working on it at the weekly Code for Philly hack nights that Kunkel’s team help organize. (The idea of a ‘Finish-athon’ has been touted before as a way to keep hack projects living.)

And that was exactly what the greenSTEM team did. At Tuesday’s Code for Philly night, the greenSTEM team was still hard at work. Fritch said he spent the night “battling with a Raspberry Pi,” which the team is working to configure so that students can use the single-board computer without any setup required.

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We spoke to the greenSTEM team to find out why else the project lived past the hackathon, and here’s what they said. Also, see the greenSTEM team present at Indy Hall’s Show and Tell this Thursday.

  • While most hackathon projects are run by volunteers, greenSTEM was unique because Fritch was able to make it part of his job. (He now teaches a class at Science Leadership Academy, which builds on his involvement with the project.) Later, when greenSTEM secured funding for the project, some of that money went toward paying team member Christopher Nies and Jarv.us, the web dev company where Clough works, to work on it.
  • The money was never a driving point, the developers said. There was no expectation that there would be money behind greenSTEM when they first started working on it. Still, the money helped, especially because it was a hardware project and there are equipment costs associated with that, Nies said.
  • greenSTEM had several opportunities to keep working on the project, like at the April 2013 AT&T Edutech Hackathon and weekly Code for Philly meetups. They also got to present their work at Philly Tech Week’s Switch Philly, where they won second place. (Full disclosure: Technical.ly Philly also organized both the Edutech hackathon and Switch Philly.)
  • A word of advice to hackathon teams: don’t take it personally when team members drop out or lose interest, Nies said. There was one point when the greenSTEM team was nearly a dozen people strong. Today, it’s a team of three.
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