How to Throw A Hackathon

Hackathon participants arrive

After I attended several hackathons in the past either as participant, mentor or team captain, I’ve had the pleasure to be one of the co-initiators of the hackathon.

Throwing a hackathon goes far beyond the stress level than participating one, especially, if you try to do this – as in our case – without a noteworthy budget.

Be specific

If you think about throwing your own hackathon, one of the first question you have to face is the same as when founding a startup: What will set you apart from other events? Or from other innovation methodologies? In case of the USP is the strong focus on the healthcare market along with some key partners as coaches, sponsors and jury members to keep the traction and motivation high. As you may have noticed, the ideation process of is relatively closed compared to more open formats, such like Startup Weekend. This is a implication of specialization: As healthcare is a very complex and restrictive market (maybe both, the most complex and most restrictive market in the world), there is a high risk of having ideas that simply do not work out or just do not align with the interests of current players, so that no one will ever support it. The latter sounds somewhat counter-intuitive: Isn’t a hackathon about innovation and thus, disruption? And now the case is not to measure with settled player too much? Yes, in health care this could be a valid objection: An outsider may not know about hidden hostility between the different parties. You can and should be disruptive during 48 hours, but please do not try to change simply everything. While tackled the risk of too trivial projects with an upfront curation of the callenges and having a team captain, who connects the participants with the “idea owner”, another possible way would be to be more selective when it comes to participants. was open for anyone, even to people with nothing but a mere curiosity for health care.

Be chummy

Finding the right partners for your hackathon is one of the most crucial things. Not only do you have to provide a high class jury and noteworthy coaches, you also have to take into account that you need advocates of your hackathon idea, not to mention those you want to provide something for free. Finding the right participants is the other important task. While we charged for participation in order to have a higher commitment, we used the same techniques to sell tickets as you would employ with any other digital products. Targeted twitter and Facebook ads along with some discount codes did work out very well. However, most participants came from personal relations to special interest groups (such as alumni groups) and through the channels of the sponsors.

Be selective

Recap what a hackathon is about: It is the complete innovation process, including team building and prototype execution drilled down to a mere 48-ish hours. So, especially when it comes to people who “interrupt” the teams in their proceedings (such like coaches or noon lecturers) be very selective with the people you chose. Otherwise their offerings may become devaluated because their –otheriwse valuable– input could distract the teams.

Be fair

A hackathon is a place where innovation could happen if done right. The only chance for innovation to happen is to set up an environment where the participants feel free. This means to not put any restrictions to technologies or methodologies into the rules, but even more importantly skip any intellectual property limitation. Do not let the feeling arise that you or any of the hackathon’s sponsors could capitalize the input from the hackers in an unfair way.


The first health care hackathon in Cologne was in different ways more successful than we thought. We managed to acquire enough participants to create skillfull teams and there are currently three companies being founded as of today. We’re currently evaluating subsequent meetups to keep the traction and the possibility to extend the hackathon into a series of events.


It was a pleasure – thank you for inviting me and Bayer to participate. […] Congratulations again on a nicely executed event. The passion and enthusiasm was evident!

Jessica Federer, CDO Bayer Healthcare

Thanks for having me and even letting me be on the panel. Kudos for running this community and event.

Dirk Schapeler, Head of Innovation hub Bayer, California

I liked the hackathon so much, I am currently evaluating the possibilities to run a hackathon on development aid

Robert Jänisch

You can download the whitepaper here.

Photo licenced under creative commons attribution share alike. By NERDHUB.