What do you think of when you hear the word “hack”? For many, the word conjures seedy never-do-wells in dark sunglasses hunched over computer terminals flooded with endlessly scrolling code. Memorial University’s Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship knows this can be intimidating,
“We call it Ideathon,” explains Enaya AbdElGaber, the Experience Ventures Program Coordinator at the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship. “We found the word ‘hackathon’ can be scary for students who are not in computer science. They think they need to have hacking skills.”
It’s a subtle shift, but “Ideathon” opens up many possibilities. Students understand immediately they are to come up with an idea and work it out as a group rather than “hack” a program. And what better time to come up with an idea than Halloween?
The hackathon was a perfect example of what makes Experience Ventures unlike any other future-ready program. This initiative, powered by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the University of Calgary, aims to provide students with the opportunity to take the entrepreneurial thinking skills they develop and apply them to come up solutions to real-world challenges.
On Friday, October 28, 2022, 30 participants from across Memorial University came online for the kickoff of the 2022 Fall Ideathon as part of Experience Ventures. In groups of four or five, the students would tackle a unique Newfoundland problem: improving public transportation in the tiny, rural town of St. Anthony.
Most Canadians have probably never heard of St. Anthony, a town of only 4,000 people on the northern tip of Newfoundland. St. Anthony is a postcard-perfect east coast Canadian town, famous for iceberg and whale watching, and for being close to an ancient Viking landing site.
But how many postcards include city buses? Not many. For a town with a majority older population — most of St. Anthony’s residents are over the age of 45 — getting around even a small town can be a challenge.
In fact, St. Anthony is so tiny it has only one taxi. The town’s only for-hire driver, the incredibly-named Guy Strangemore, doubles as the town courier.
Christopher Mitchelmore, the Executive Director of SABRI, approached Enaya AbdElGaber and the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship team about the ideathon and Experience Ventures. SABRI stands for “St. Anthony Basin Resources Inc.” SABRI manages an allocation of shrimp that they sell to local fishers and invests the money from the sale back into the St. Anthony community.
Sam Woodford, Community Development Coordinator at SABRI, explains where the money goes. “[SABRI] built the cold storage in town and recently completed a seniors housing project. We estimate we’ve given out over $250,000 in scholarships for the community’s youth over the past 25 years. We’re into a little bit of everything.”
Like many fishery-based communities, St. Anthony has seen some hard times, with the recent closing of the cod fishery and the shrimp allotment decreasing from 3,000 tonnes in 1996 to only 600 tonnes now. Giving back to this community isn’t just of interest to SABRI. “It’s our mandate,” Woodford declares.
One of the “little bits of everything” SABRI is into this year is public transportation.
In constructing the seniors housing units, SABRI discovered many of St. Anthony’s older residents were without access to reliable transportation. Transporting goods and meals is also a challenge, and while in the wake of COVID-19, many communities large and small around the world have found solutions to this, St. Anthony has another unique element adding to the challenge: no young people.
Newfoundland is a small province. Its capital, St. John’s, has just over 100,000 people. But St. John’s has one advantage: Memorial University welcomes thousands of students from all over the world every year. SABRI knew the deep bench of diverse perspectives, experiences, and ways of thinking present in the Memorial student body would be invaluable. Hence, the St. Anthony Public Transportation Ideathon.
The hackathon (or ideathon) through Experience Ventures offers companies a structured and dynamic way to engage with students through real-world challenges. Experience Ventures enables companies needing specific input for a project or initiative to connect easily with early talent, even if they can’t commit to long-term positions for students. Working with the MCE was the perfect opportunity for SABRI to explore those options.
The Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship advertised the ideathon on their social channels since MCE followers are interested in entrepreneurial opportunities in Newfoundland.
“We encourage people to start their business in Newfoundland,” AbdElGaber says, “and stay in Newfoundland.” Advertising on the MCE socials was “the best avenue to get a lot of creative students who are looking to benefit the community in Newfoundland in general.”
The participating students did a lot of research, not only into public transportation but the town of St. Anthony. After the Friday kickoff, participants who had never heard of St. Anthony were now deeply invested in the community’s health.
“A lot of students really put in the research to know more about the region,” AbdElGaber was eager to emphasize. “How big it is, how many people there are, what they need, and how to not only cater their solution to the situation in St. Anthony but apply it to other rural communities.”
Being able to create the spaces for students to explore entrepreneurial thinking is just another thing that sets Experience Ventures apart. Entrepreneurial thinking involves taking initiative, exchanging knowledge across disciplines, being resourceful, and learning from experience.
On Saturday morning, after students had an evening to consider the problem, MCE hosted a pitching workshop emphasizing scalability.
As AbdElGaber explains, the key thing was, “Coming up with a scalable solution. They need to think about the scalability of the idea and the sustainability of it, whether it actually would be beneficial or not, and whether there are other competitors.”
Coming up with a creative solution, free from the bounds of practicality and economics, is easy. A creative solution that is actually deployable is the real challenge. The students had to consider all these factors when developing their pitches.
So was the winning solution scalable as well as creative?
“We’re actually in the process of deploying it right now!” Woodford cheerfully declares.
The winning concept is a full, seven-day-a-week on-demand ride service for the residents of St. Anthony. During rush hour, 7:30 to 9:00 a.m., on-demand rides get residents from point A to point B. After 9:00 a.m., the service adds food and package delivery until the evening rush hour starts at 4:00 p.m. On weekends, the ride service goes a little later because the St. Anthony nightlife is, in Woodford’s words, “Bigger than you’d think!”
Leveraging the diversity of thought from a major international university to solve pressing local problems is the core of the Experience Ventures hackathons — excuse me, ideathons — and shows the problem-solving potential when students come together.
Fostering that collaboration is a key piece of entrepreneurial thinking, and Experience Ventures helps students develop the critical skill of coming together as a group to solve real-world problems.
And just how late does the weekend ride service run? “As late as anybody calls,” Woodford promises.