Tel-Aviv Duo Wins $100,000 Valley Hackathon

Telecommunications companies aren't likely to endorse the sharing-economy app that bagged the $100,000 grand prize in San Jose's BattleHack finals this weekend for two Tel Aviv hackers.

 

But since they made the app during an event where coders wore pajamas and Mariachi bands played presenters off the stage, the telecoms may not have anything to worry about — yet.

 

Shai Mishali and Pavel Kaminsky, from Tel Aviv, Israel, won the BattleHack Series with a… more

Two young guys from Tel Aviv, Israel, Shai Mishali and Pavel Kaminsky, made an app called AirHop that allows people who own a phone, but don't have functioning telecom service, to temporarily leap on a stranger's carrier or Wi-Fi network for a small fee.

 

The sharing economy is built on peer-to-peer services where owners lend out property or services for small periods of time. There is usually a mutual rating system that legitimizes the viability of the users and the security of the transaction. The market for these services is on the rise, and is already huge. Last year, it was defined as a $26 billion market.

 

AirHop accepts payment through PayPal. The finals task required applications to be built with PayPal, Braintree and VenMo APIs. VenMo and Braintree are both owned by PayPal.

 

According to the Israeli team, AirHop was built using MongoDB, Node.JS and Amazon Web Services and also integrated voice and SMS features through Twilio and transactional email platform SendGrid.

 

John Lunn, Senior Global Director, Developer Network at Paypal and Braintree, said the technical aspect of the winning app was "extraordinary." He said that since the app jumps between cell phone networks or connects them to create a "mesh network" — an ad-hoc wireless network that accepts different wireless bands — means cell phone area connectivity can increase in places with low signals.

 

The app could also help kids with cell phones that lose connection on the way home from school. It could help them make a quick call to parents without asking strangers for their cell phone, or prevent them from looking for a pay phone in unsafe areas.

 

"Ultimately, the cell phone networks can't cover every single area," Lunn told me, which means this is a service that could be useful to anyone.

 

Following their win, Mishali and Kaminsky said their goal was not to cut into telecom's cellular bandwidth and illegally offer it as an alternative market. Instead, they said they wanted to offer a simple line of communication in case of emergency. Many people, after all, suffer network setbacks at inopportune times.

 

If AirHop were to be released to the public, a telecom company would probably oppose it. First, the service would allow people to use a network for which they are not paying monthly fees. Second, use of AirHop on a larger scale might affect the connection of people that are paying for it. Third, it could introduce a new middleman service profiting off its network investments.

 

Then again, a viable deal could be set up where networks can take a cut of it.

 

The BattleHack World Finals occurred over 24 hours at PayPal's San Jose headquarters. The company hosted 14 teams from all over the world, each of whom gained a place in the competition from regional BattleHack tournaments in cities including Istanbul, Moscow and Mexico City.

 

The competitors were judged based on "the quality of the idea, execution, innovation and the overall user experience of the app," according to tournament rules. Judges included ReadWrite's Editor in Chief Owen Thomas and Braintree CEO Bill Ready.

 

Over the course of 24 hectic hours, several fun and surprising things happened.

 

The hackathon team had to go to various stores in the San Jose area to pick electronics the teams needed, but hadn't anticipated. And immediately after the post-build, groups had five minutes to explain their projects, but were sung off the stage by a live Mariachi band if they didn't finish in time.

 

The competition was part of a larger effort by PayPal to celebrate developers' skills through an app platform that could benefit local communities. The team that came in second, for example, came up with an app that improved the shopping experience of blind people. The app was voice-controlled and incorporated a phone camera to identify images of store items.

 

Lunn said the most surprising thing about the hackathon was the camaraderie between competitors. "They were competing for a big prize of $100,000, but went out and helped each other [where possible]." This camaraderie extended to the mentors dinner that occurred mid-competition.

 

EBay CEO John Donahoe, as well as other company executives, sat down with several of the hackers at the dinner to discuss their ideas. Lunn said even though the purpose of the event is not to recruit, the experience does tempt coders to apply for positions at PayPal.

 

Last year, two of the winners of the hackathon ended up working for them.

 

 

This post was originally published in the Silicon Valley Business Journal