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Student hackathons focus on food, ag, animals, health and business services

Five hackathons this year will bring students together to solve problems and create new business ideas related to food, digital agriculture, animal health and healthcare and global business services.

The hackathons, run by Entrepreneurship at Cornell, are open to undergraduate and graduate students from any field and major and take place from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoon. Three of this year’s events are on campus and two are in New York City.

“A hackathon offers the perfect climate for the creation of innovative ideas,” said Ami Stuart, hackathon director and lecturer in the Cornell Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management. “Bringing together 150 Cornell students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds, skills and interests, I'm always amazed by the different perspectives students have when they develop solutions to the challenges we present to them.”

This year’s hackathon topics and dates are:

  • Oct. 20-22: Food, Stocking Hall, Cornell
  • Feb. 2-4: Animal health, Schurman Hall, Cornell
  • Feb. 16-18: Digital agriculture, Schurman Hall, Cornell
  • March 8-10: Health and global business services, both in New York City

Registration is open for the food hackathon. This is the first time this topic has been tackled. Students can sign up here for the event, which includes meals, workshops, mentorship and networking.

The event begins with team formation sessions on Oct. 18 and 19, giving students the chance to pitch their ideas and form teams in advance of the Friday night kick-off.

“Some students will already have an idea related to our challenges around food products, food production or food systems,” Stuart said. “But other students might just want to be part of a team. These sessions give everyone a chance to hear ideas and sign on with a team that sounds interesting to them.”

Students will be treated to a honey tasting Friday night, then start with a workshop to help teams dive into their projects. Saturday is spent working with mentors and other resources to further define ideas and then practice pitching them. Organizers have recruited 50 mentors to be on site.

On Sunday, students pitch to a live panel of judges, with the finalists taking part in a demo round Sunday afternoon. Prizes totaling $10,000 are given to winners and then everyone heads home, usually pretty exhausted, Stuart said, but excited about the experience.

The Cornell Institute for Food Systems (CIFS) is the main partner for the Food Hackathon and the National Honey Board is the lead sponsor, along with Dairy Management Inc., Schreiber Foods, the Tata-Cornell Institute, the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship and New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech.

“The great thing about these events is that students are working in interdisciplinary teams,” said Rajni Aneja, managing director of CIFS’s Industry Partnership Program. “So, whether you’re interested in food science or marketing or supply chain logistics or engineering or the nutritional aspects of new food products , you’ll find a challenge  that resonates with your entire team’s interests.”

Aneja said there’s a simple message organizers want to send to students: “If you have an idea you want to pursue, we want to help you to make it a reality.”

“This is also a chance for students to get their hands dirty in an entrepreneurial environment and test out whether they want to be an entrepreneur,” she said of the multitude of Cornell resources for entrepreneurial students. “While you’re in college, it’s a low-risk, highly-supportive environment, so it’s a good time to try out an idea.”

Keith Seiz, who works on ingredient marketing for the National Honey Board, said the non-profit usually focuses on working with major food and beverage brands.

“By partnering with Cornell for this Hackathon, we’ll be able to expose students getting ready to enter the food industry with information and inspiration on this amazing ingredient,” he said.

One of the hackathon’s themes will focus not only on honey as an ingredient, but on honeybees and their role in pollination, he said.

“Without honeybees, we wouldn’t have avocados, almonds, blackberries, garlic and more,” he said. “One theme of the hackathon will focus on developing new food or beverage products using honey using a majority of ingredients that come from honeybee pollination. It should really challenge students to think about new product development and marketing from a unique perspective.”

Other challenge themes at this October’s Food Hackathon event will include developing new dairy products with unique health and wellness benefits, flexible food manufacturing design, and food waste reduction.

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