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Building Solutions at the Distributed: Trade Hackathon

From July 22–23, BTC Media, along with co-host SixThirty, asked developers and entrepreneurs from around the country to participate in a 24-hour hackathon in anticipation of its Distributed: Trade conference in St. Louis.

The hackathon challenged participants to use blockchain technology to develop novel solutions to persistent problems facing the global trade or supply chain industries.

 “The challenge is to use blockchain technology to build the future of finance and trade networks,” Pat Riley, BTC Media’s head of product, told attendees during the event’s opening. “That is the theme of this weekend, but beyond that it is pretty loose. We welcome any creative ideas that you have.”

The event was held at T-REX, a co-working space and technology incubator in downtown St. Louis. Participants ranged in age, work experience and familiarity with distributed ledgers. Some had traveled across the country to represent their industry-leading software companies, while others had wandered over from their student housing at nearby Washington University in St. Louis.

“The bi-state St. Louis region is a massive financial services hub, home to a wide range of wealth managers, banks, payments, insurance and other institutions,” Atul Kamra, managing partner of SixThirty, told EQ. “It is a natural place to convene the best thinking on a promising technology that is emerging as a smarter, more secure and open way to verify and record value, assets, money and goods.”

Wherever they had come from, each arrived to compete for a bounty of prizes to be doled out to winning teams in cryptocurrency: $6,000 for first place, $3,000 for second and $1,000 for third, with Qtum providing a special $10,000 prize for the top team using its platform.

Thinking the Blockchain Way 

The Blockchain 101 Seminar

Following an introduction, participants who had arrived without teams were encouraged to share their project ideas or offer their skills to others. Once teams were formed, an introductory seminar on blockchain technology was held to familiarize those who had never developed applications on the platform before. 

“If this is your first time diving into blockchain technology, never fear,” Dev Bharel, regional ambassador for the Blockchain Education Network, told the audience as he led the seminar. “The big thing in the blockchain space is just learning how to think the blockchain way.”

Bharel showed his temporary students how to build a smart contract that would automatically carry out a set of protocols, creating a token that could later be redeemed for a 15-minute back massager rental. He demonstrated the basic tools that blockchain developers use, including Solidity, MetaMask and Truffle, all of which allowed participants to follow along as he built a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain. 

“If you’re working in the blockchain space and you’re a developer, most of the development will happen on Ethereum,” Bharel said.

After the tutorial resulted in a successful, massage-enabling smart contract, the newly-minted blockchain graduates were ready to begin work on their projects.

Building Applications

Building Applications

“We’re looking at doing a music streaming app where you pay the artist directly per listen and the artist has final say on how much a listen will cost,” Daniel Mangum, a software developer  and student at Washington University in St. Louis, said as his hackathon team, Jukebox, mapped out its approach. “It’s built on the Ethereum blockchain so that it’s public and you’re able to identify that the artist is being paid.”

Each member of the team had development experience, but Bharel’s tutorial was the first time they had gotten their hands on the tools necessary to build a smart contract. Well versed in pulling all-nighters, the members seemed undaunted by the task. 

“You really get into the zone,” said Ian Kitchens, a software developer with DigitalGlobe and Jukebox teammate. “But if you end up staring at your screen at one line of code, then you know it’s time to take a break.”

Beyond the applications they would pursue, some teams also strategized based on the competition judges. 

“We want to learn who the sponsors are, and based upon who they are, we extrapolate the motivation for the sponsors, what they might be looking for when they choose a winner,” said Nate Smith, a technical manager at 3M, as he discussed strategy with the rest of his team in a back office.

Smith’s team, calling itself Angel, built a prototype website that would allow users to make donations to the causes of their choice without the overhead and inefficiency that usually cuts into funds intended for charity. With blockchain technology, donations would be recorded immutably and users would have the ability to track exactly where their donations go. 

“The reason that we think this is important is that we see evidence in the world of organizations that aren’t doing this efficiently and some of the funds that are intended for recipients aren’t making it there,” Smith said. “Our goal is to be more transparent and more efficient.”

The Best of the Best

Presenting For Judges

After a long night of poring over code, the teams assembled in T-REX’s presentation room to share the solutions they had built. The 16 teams spent four minutes each outlining the need for their solutions, their potential to find networks of users and their leveraging of blockchains.

Projects ranged from a system that verified online consumer reviews to one for automated financial investments. A panel of judges rated the projects based on how difficult the problems they addressed were, their use of blockchain technology, their market readiness and the quality of the presentations.

After conferring amongst themselves, judges awarded the third-place prize to Blockscripts, which proposed to track pharmaceutical prescriptions. Second place went to Depot, a token that would enable rentals of storage space. And first place was awarded to Blockchain Express, a system that could decentralize shipping.

Finally, the project D-Rex, an exchange platform that can enable microfinanced solar energy for rural communities, took home the $10,000 Qtum prize. 

“It’s really exciting,” said D-Rex team member Rosalind Stengle, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Blockchain is really interesting. I only got into this space about four months ago.”

The D-Rex team said that its application is headed to the World Bank Group, which is interested in providing the globally distressed with affordable, renewable energy. It’s likely that the other solutions built at the hackathon will find uses around the world as well.

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