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Hack the Valley: Inside Switzerland’s largest blockchain hackathon

Sam Chadwick  Director, New Content Initiatives, Thomson Reuters

Sam Chadwick  Director, New Content Initiatives, Thomson Reuters

Bringing together corporates and startups to explore the potential for blockchain to disrupt and transform the industry.

Over the last two years, we have seen significant investments being made by our largest Financial & Risk customers in validating distributed ledger technologies, often referred to as blockchain. At the same time, our office in Canton Zug, Switzerland, has seen the arrival of many new neighbours – startups whose technology strategies are based on creating differentiation through the use of this emerging technology – so much so that the area has earned the name “Crypto Valley”.

For the most part, the worlds of the cryptographically-driven startups and the defensive market incumbents have remained separate as the immaturity of the technology meant that corporate initiatives rarely exited their in-house labs, while start-ups were either creating over-simplistic tools sold as POCs or they failed to find customers for their often altruistic products. However, during the latter half of 2016, we saw that change significantly.

The number of people engaging in local get-togethers rose significantly, and most notably, the attendees were no longer only the start-up founders and developers gathering to discuss technology break-throughs or to lament about new political, financial or regulatory obstacles being imposed across the world.

Instead, the attendees were increasingly from development teams of larger organizations. It was this change that led to the Thomson Reuters Labs team in Switzerland seeing an opportunity to further stimulate the community further to explore the potential for disrupting and transforming the industry.

Over the weekend of January 27th 2017, Thomson Reuters took the first step in that journey by hosting the largest public blockchain hackathon ever for Switzerland. “Hack the Valley” brought together three blockchain development fabrics: Ethereum, Hyperledger and IOTA, along with numerous tools from Thomson Reuters and third parties including: Thomson Reuters BlockOne ID, a Thomson Reuters hackathon Oracle, the service from Oraclize and the Ethereum Naming Service.

The details of the hackathon challenges and winning entries are available on the hackathon website but it would be fair to question: Why choose to run a hackathon?

Having run our first blockchain hackathon in London in 2016, we were surprised at the range of benefits that came from the event beyond branding, press coverage and the possibility to identify bright future talent and chose to build on those findings at scale.

For example, we actively co-innovate with our largest customers already but these interactions are typically between existing touch points between organizations.  At the Switzerland hackathon, we purposefully encouraged pre-formed corporate teams to attend in addition to the typical lone individuals. What we learned was that the corporate attendees were often not from teams we would have typically engaged with, however, they had already attained a strong knowledge of the technology despite it not being part of their daily activities.

We also discovered that hackathons are great mechanisms to acquire feedback about bleeding edge developments in tools and capabilities. At the London event, we made the newly-created BlockOne ID service available to the hackers, and their live feedback dictated much of the subsequent roadmap for our development team. At the Switzerland event, we offered the enhanced BlockOne ID, a new private network and the first access to our Smart Oracle service, where we had gone beyond the standard requests from our customers for basic market data to create access to the BOLD Solutions big data knowledge graph which was used by B9lab in the challenge targeting fraud in the supply chain. It would be too early to introduce such capabilities into customer POCs and expect any reasonable feedback, but in the environment of a hackathon, our development team was writing enhancements in real-time alongside the hackers as they integrated the service.

The last learning point was that the event gave us the ability to strengthen the development community by bringing employees from large organizations together with those from start-ups. While most event participants came with the intention of winning, we put a heavy emphasis on education. The speakers and mentors intentionally came from both large and small companies, and as such, the focus moved away from disrupting big financial institutions – which is so common among Fintech and blockchain startups – to collaborative learning and using the opportunity to experiment with new technologies and capabilities. The post-event feedback emphasized the value that the attendees associated with the opportunities for education that hackathons can provide.

So, while “Hack the Valley” is complete for 2017, the positive ripple effect through the broader community continues. Yes, that’s good news for the Thomson Reuters brand, but more importantly, the education and connections made are continuing to reinforce the exciting evolution of this very promising technology.

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