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‘Don’t call it a hackathon’: Scenes from the inaugural XchangePgh ideathon

Pittsburgh Independent's Brian Conway attended the first major event of XchangePgh's year of innovation-focused programming. Here's a look at the strategic design ideas shared over a collaborative weekend.

XchangePgh co-organizer Adam Paulisick at the XchangeIdeas event in March 2023. (Photo by Brian Conway)
“You were at the full-stack pancake breakfast, right?”

Kit Mueller was on a roll. He was in his element, after all. Around us, at Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, about 100 people buzzed around like worker bees, perfecting pitches honed over the weekend’s strategic design event.

Mueller, the longtime Pittsburgh tech evangelist who helped bring StartUp Weekend Pittsburgh to town about a decade ago, was explaining his newest endeavor — XchangePgh.

“I think regions like ours have spent way too much time, effort and, frankly, goodwill trying to be the next anywhere else,” Mueller said. “The theme this weekend is, how do you make things more impactful on the design side? Not just the pretty design, but designing it for people.”

Xchange-ingIdeas

I was not at the pancake breakfast, but I heard tale of 300-some syrup-soaked entrepreneurs and other startup types who came out to The Shop in Homewood in early February. It was the first big post-COVID-19 event hosted by Mueller and his colleague and fellow true-believer, Adam Paulisick. The pancake breakfast was the first indication that the pair behind startup branding movement Fygment were dipping their toes back into big, generative, weekend-long hackathons for Pittsburgh entrepreneurs and innovators.

But “don’t call it a hackathon,” Paulisick said. “It’s an ideathon.” Hence the event’s name: XchangeIdeas.

Paulisick is adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon. This weekend, he’s been XchangePgh’s facilitator, timekeeper, wrangler-in-residence and overall master of ceremonies.

The event, unaffiliated with CMU, was presented by Paulisick’s maad labs, Mueller’s RustBuilt and Jay Nesbitt’s Creative Bureau. Next month, there’s XchangeInnovation, a week of events to convene the Pittsburgh tech community. There’s an XchangeValue workshop in September and an industry-led awards show in October.

But for now, we ideate. The goal: refine, reinvent and renew ideas in a three-day, collaborative seminar filled with networking, mentorship, strategy sessions, free meals, guest lectures and other assorted resources.

Baby’s first ideathon

I’d run a camera at StartupWeekend livestream once before, but never actually participated. Truth be told, I didn’t think I could stomach this sort of thing. A weekend of name tags, glad-handing and back patting. The unironic use of jargon like “brain dump” and “futurestream” (Paulisick’s word). But a colleague had reminded me I was a small business owner looking to scale, and scholarship-supported tickets to XchangeIdeas were available. Maybe I should just get over myself, and at the very least, meet some people, get feedback on my news site, Pittsburgh Independent, and a chance to plug its Patreon.

I got there Friday early evening, in time for the fish fry. We all wore name tags that had space for our names, interests, talents, and what we were seeking. I wrote “Brian” and “journalism and media,” and left the rest blank. Most people were interested in the Independent, but it was clear I needed to work on my elevator pitch; Paulisick said people make decisions about us in about half a second after they meet us, and we have about a five-second opportunity from there to get people hooked. And I have a tendency to ramble. No pressure.

We collected proto-concept posters, ecosystem collection maps, and other big worksheets for us to brainstorm on, like oversized paper placemats at a restaurant.

Saturday, inside the seminar, people made prototypes with hot glue guns and pipe cleaners, and shared moments of collective silence. Not wanting to walk into a trust fall exercise, I spent most of the afternoon engaged in one-on-one conversations.

I met Dr. Shannah Tharp-Gilliam, deputy director for the Area Agency on Aging in Allegheny County, who was there as a track expert to make sure people’s pitches were human centered. Startup guru Scot MacTaggart offered critical feedback on my pitch. A CMU founder-in-residence urged me to check out the flat monthly membership fee model used by the website Punchbowl as a template for my own, and I learned later he wasn’t participating in the event — just being friendly and supportive, which I quickly learned was the weekend’s overriding theme.

Visions of the future

On Friday, Paulisick told those in attendance that “the number one risk to innovation is homogenous thinking,” and challenged those in attendance to meet people from different backgrounds and perspectives on the problems we sought to address. This was brought to life Sunday, in a lunchtime speech by Forbes Fund CEO Fred Brown.

“The first thing I look for is those institutions and people who are willing to collaborate, because at that point you can create innovation if people are being authentic, vulnerable and fully present,” Brown said, laying the groundwork for what types of people his nonprofit-benefiting foundation will even consider working with. “No single organization can solve today’s problems by themselves. Anybody who writes us a grant stating that, I have a high degree of confidence we’re not supporting.”

It was refreshing, in a room full of entrepreneurs, to be reminded that there’s more to startups than money, and that at least for some funders, profit wasn’t the primary motivator.

After Brown’s speech, feeling appropriately centered, it was time for us to germinate what may have started as just a seed of an idea into a more fully fledged vision.

“This is the best part,” said weekend-long participant Taafor Kamara, dropping her Sharpie to the table with flair — “the mic drop.”

Kamara, a mentor and consultant with TechStarts and LifeX, said the perfectionist in her wanted to take these concept posters home, outside of the conference’s structured time constraints. But perfect is the enemy of good, and her idea for an app that connected volunteers with potential volunteering opportunities was one of the favorites of the weekend, even if it wasn’t as fully fleshed out as she would have liked it to be.

Next to her sat Tyler Andrews, who works primarily in marketing and said he also appreciated the opportunity for “structured creative thinking.” He pitched an idea for software that takes citizens’ concerns and displays them as geo-based word clouds for politicians and other decision makers to review; I shared with him the cautionary tale of former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s misuse of similar software to gauge people’s reactions to his policies on social media, which sparked a discussion about data transparency that those around us jumped in to discuss.

At the end of Sunday afternoon, participants walked around and placed stickers on the final concept posters for the ideas they liked the best. The organizers disavowed prizes and formal judging, for now, and said they hoped people would return next month for XchangeInnovation, the next in their startup series.

One who is planning to return is Cortland Mitchell. While there were no winners, his seemed, at least informally, as one of the most lauded ideas, and signaled out for praise by Tharp-Gilliam during closing remarks.

Just a CMU freshman, Mitchell, from Clearwater, Florida, lost a close friend when a boat they were navigating struck a navigation buoy whose light had burned out. He spent the weekend refining his pitch of a more reliant lighting and notification system for these channel marker buoys to prevent another tragedy like the one he and his friends experienced.

Many forms of innovation

Paulisick said he and Mueller are serious about sparking Pittsburgh’s innovation economy, and he’s proud to have provided an opportunity for hundreds to get the space and time to transform an idea into a more cohesive, grounded and, ideally, human-centric vision.

“It doesn’t need to be us,” Paulisick said. “If the ecosystem doesn’t choose us at the end of this year, we need to suck it up and advocate, not take our ball and go home.”

“But I think what we’re doing is illuminating the data, to big companies and small companies, about who’s actually investing and putting their money where their mouth is, or who’s just telling everybody else we need to improve things.”

Companies: RustBuilt / Carnegie Mellon University

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