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Cereal Hack III calls for competitive innovation this weekend

What happens when computer programmers, artists, designers, innovative thinkers, marketing specialists and idea-havers get together to build something cool over a 32 hour period. We call this a hackathon.

If you find yourself relating to any or all of the aforementioned roles this coming weekend you could participate in the third Cereal Hack, a hackathon put on by Sacramento’s own tech-space, The Hackerlab.

Cereal Hack III kicks off this Saturday at 10 a.m., come join a team or compete or just pop in throughout the week to witness the chaos.

These events were designed to encourage collaborative creation between computer developers, designers and business people, teams usually create an app or website, and sometimes there’s a hardware element (like an alarm clock that delivers an electric shock to get you out of bed). At the end they present what they’ve built to a panel of judges.

The word “hack” refers to exploratory programming, as opposed to criminal computer programming. Hackathons take place all over the world for different reasons. Some are to explore a certain programming language, new technology or theme. They can last anywhere from a day to a week. Some are highly competitive, while others are are highly playful.

Sacramento’s Hackerlab held the very first Cereal Hack (named for computer programmer’s affinity for cereal) in June of 2013, and since then they’ve hosted Cereal Hack 2 and a StartUp Weekend (a different brand of hackathon). Winners of previous competitions have gone on to develop their app through tech incubators in Berlin, Germany and even meet President Barack Obama.

That’s right – what starts as a fun, friendly, playful programming competition can turn into a real business with long, lucrative legs.

The winners of the first Cereal Hack, Raidarrr, took their location-based file sharing app idea to a technology incubator in Berlin. A team from Cereal Hack 2, headed by 8-year-old Nicolas Come, got their healthy eating for kids app on the app store and through a series of interviews ended up traveling to Washington to participate in the Kids of State Dinner at the White House.

So with all the fame and fortune on the line, how does a hackathon actually work?
Every hackathon is run differently, but this is what’s gone down at the past two Cereal Hacks.

On the first day participants check in and receive a sticker indicating their role: coder, designer, or business development. A successful Hackathon team is made up of a balance of business people, who help with marketing, branding, the business plan and the presentation, tech experts who actually write the code to make the product function, and creatives who make the product beautiful, with a clean and easy user experience.

“Successful teams have a balance of skill sets and three to five people,” said Hackerlab co-founder and Cereal Hack coordinator Eric Ullrich. “[You need] a good balance between technical, design and business proposition aspects."

Within the first few hours, participants begin pitching their ideas – or begging for teammates. This is where all the people with ideas get up and explain their plan for the next Facebook-meets-instagram or pinterest for firefighters with cats, or whatever disruptive, cloud-based, geo-social, photo-bombing solution they’ve dreamt up. At this point the room becomes a seething, loud, sweaty din and yet somehow, through all the madness, teams are formed and people get to work.

Once the teams are in place, they begin to program, design, strategize, develop a social media following and build the minimum viable product – all while getting help and guidance from the hackathon mentors. Junk food and cereal are available around the clock and some of the teams work through the night. At 6 p.m. it’s fingers off the keyboard as the anxious countdown to final pitches begins.

Each team has five minutes to demo what they’ve built, explain the problem they’re trying to solve and how their business solves it. Then the judges ask questions. Once every team presents, the judges go behind closed doors and select the winners.

The judges include hackers, startup founders and investors. They’ll all be looking for different aspects of a presentation – so it’s best to have a well rounded, fully-fleshed out idea.

Ullrich said they’ve lined up a healthy goody-basket of start-up essentials for the prizes this time around. Intel sponsored Cereal Hack II and the winning team received $2,000. While Intel is still a mega sponsor this time there’s no large cash prizes. Other mega sponsors include VSP, Tropo, and Apigee. Apigee is offering a free HTML5 App development course on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the hackathon to help people get the skills they need to be competitive.

The sponsors providing prizes make up a veritable potpourri of startup necessities, including:

On Sunday night one hard working team will walk away with the title of Cereal Hack champions, armfuls of useful tools to keep that momentum moving, and maybe even some seed funding to help see their idea come to market.

Stephane Come (Nicholas’ Dad) and Nicolas said they would recommend the hackathon to anyone with a vision.

“Compete, engage, participate. Don’t just sit down,” Stephane Come said. “You’ve got an 8-year-old and in six months [he went] from the Cereal Hack to the White House.”

Where will you be six months from Sunday?

Editor’s note: Every Thursday we deliver a local event guide straight to your inbox, right on time to make your weekend plans. Sign me up.

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