The 54-hour hackathon took place entirely online and we joined 21 cities across the globe to support the global movement — Techstars Startup Weekend Sustainability. The author is a member of the organizing committee, Startup Weekend Singapore.

The world has reached a tipping point in climate change and we are all painfully aware of it. The worldwide response to Covid-19 where governments, businesses, and individuals came together to rapidly develop innovative solutions and implement policies to tackle a heart-wrenching pandemic gives us hope in the power of human collaboration. Nothing, it seems, is impossible when humanity unites towards one common mission. And yet, we, human beings, are slow to react when it comes to the climate emergency our planet is facing.

The science is clear: we are headed towards an irreversible path of damage unless we act now. We need to remove 51bn tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere every year and achieve net carbon zero emissions by 2050. A couple of policy changes isn’t going to cut it — global leaders such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk are banking on technological breakthroughs to help us get there. And so are we.

We rarely go all-in on one vertical but given the urgency of the topic, it seemed like a no-brainer. We need all the hands we can to save the world and we need them now!

In the words of the former President of France, Francois Hollande:

“We have a single mission: To protect and hand on the planet to the next generation.”

We took these words to heart and joined 21 cities around the globe to support the global movement: Techstars Startup Weekend Sustainability. From April 23–25, for the first time ever, Startup Weekend Singapore hosted a sustainability-themed hackathon: Seeds of Tomorrow.

We believe that sustainability goes beyond climate change. We wanted to create a safe and inclusive place where dreamers could come together to not only build ideas to protect our planet but also solutions to create a better society and promote shared prosperity.

In line with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, our participants could choose to work on ideas under any of the following themes: Create A Better Society, Protect Our Planet, and Promote Shared Prosperity. More information about the themes is available here.

Given the niche vertical and the tight timeline, we (the organizers of Startup Weekend) originally planned for a small-scale virtual event, to the tune of 30 participants. What we hadn’t anticipated was the overwhelming interest and support we were going to receive.

We were an hour away from kickstarting the hackathon and tickets were still being purchased! We received support from our country’s leaders such as Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and Environment, and Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education and second Minister for Finance. DBS Foundation joined us as our official partner for the event.

Ten industry experts such as Saurabh Bajaj (CEO of Eat Just Inc), Karina Cady (The Operations and Investment Director of Circulate Capital), Samuel Rhee (Chairman & CIO of Endowus) joined us as mentors to provide guidance to our participants and nurture their ideas with more tangible prospects. Edwin Chow (Assistant CEO of Enterprise Singapore), Chong Siak Ching (CEO of National Gallery Singapore), and Melyvn Yeo (Co-founder of TRIREC) joined us as judges to provide invaluable feedback to our participants.

And with that, Startup Weekend’s first sustainability-themed hackathon — Seeds of Tomorrow went live!

Day 1: It all begins with an idea

164 participants came together virtually to meet a co-founder, receive mentorship from some of the biggest names in sustainability and tech, launch a startup idea in 54 hours, and plant the seeds for a better tomorrow. Our participants hailed from 15 countries including France, China, Russia, Indonesia, America, Nepal, India, German, Malaysia, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Poland, Sri Lanka, and Japan.

Over 2,500 attendees tuned in to watch the Facebook live for the kick-off as Minister Grace Fu delivered the opening speech for Seeds of Tomorrow. She stressed that “Climate change is the defining issue of our generation. It is an existential threat to the world. The potentially devastating effects of climate change respect no geographical boundaries. The battle against climate change is one that we must win together. We need all nations and all sectors of society; people, public, and private to work together.” She challenged us to lead by example with our actions and at the same time, inspire those around us to join us on this journey to sustainability.

Invigorated by Minister Fu’s speech, the participants dove straight into the hackathon to form teams and start brainstorming ideas that they would work on for the rest of the weekend.

Day 2: Practice makes perfect

On Day 2, our teams were off to an early start with practical workshops on how to build a lean canvas, conduct customer validation, and perfect a pitch. Following the workshops, they got busy with 1–1 sessions with their chosen mentors where they picked their mentors’ brains and worked hard to validate the feasibility of their ideas. In the evening, the teams went through a mock pitch session. The organizers of Startup Weekend Singapore put on their investor hats and evaluated each team’s pitches and provided guidance on how to improve their pitches for the D-Day!

Day 3: The final pitch

We gave dreamers and innovators the platform to bring forth their bold dreams and aspirations, and create solutions for the world they want to live in. And bring forth their bold dreams, they did! Close to 30 ideas came out from Startup Weekend Singapore 2021: Seeds of Tomorrow, with a common goal of tackling challenges to build a better, greener, and more equal world.

The teams worked through ‘zoom fatigues’ to build prototypes and pitch decks in time for final pitches which would be held on Day 3. But wait, the organizers had planned for a ‘small scale event’, remember? So, while the teams burnt the midnight oil to incorporate feedback from mentor sessions and mock pitches, the organizers consumed a profuse amount of caffeine to rework the operational plan for the final day!

On the final day, the teams pitched their ideas to reach the final round. The top 15 teams were chosen. True to our word, we went live on Facebook sharp at 4 PM SGT for the final pitches. After 2 days of continuous coding, designing, and hustling to build the next big thing in sustainability, it all came down to this!

Minister Lawrence Wong kickstarted the final pitches with some wonderful words of encouragement and inspired our participants to “aim high and think big.”

Behind the scenes, each of the organizers held their breath and prayed that technology doesn’t give up on us. After all, facing a tech challenge while running a hackathon aimed at harnessing the power of technology to solve global issues, would be the ultimate irony. Thankfully, fate did not share this sense of humor. The top 15 teams smoothly dialed in and out of Zoom to present their ideas to our esteemed judges. The ideas ranged from using AI to tackle food wastage to leveraging technology for creating a better and equal society by increasing financial literacy.

And after much deliberation, here are the teams that emerged as winners:

  • First prize: Two Degrees Too Late — Platform to help individuals simplify the process to calculate and offset carbon footprint.
  • Second prize: Algaetronics — Autonomous algae farms on HDB rooftops to tackle excessive carbon dioxide emission and generating by-products that can be utilized for Food Tech and Biofuel.
  • Third prize: Greenie — Platform to connect food manufacturers with NGOs to reduce food wastage and resolve food access inequality.
  • Impact prize: Unplug — A one-stop mental wellness self-help platform for the rising proportion of young adults that face anxiety/depression.

Building the entrepreneurs of tomorrow

Startup Weekend is not only about who can come up with the most innovative idea but how quickly one can incorporate feedback and rework prototypes and pitch decks to build a feasible idea. The weekend is a test of not only problem-solving skills but also a test of mental agility and emotional resilience. That’s what builds the greatest entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

As a non-profit and volunteer-driven event, at Startup Weekend Singapore, we have always taken pride in enabling and empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Durwin Ho, our Director, opines that “The ideas generated out of Startup Weekend are reflections of what the community believes are the most pressing challenges facing today’s world. We merely amplify the voice of our community.” To this extent, we were overwhelmed to see the interest in our first sustainability-themed hackathon. It gives us hope and reminds us that together, nothing is impossible. We, human beings, created the climate problem and now, we are building the solutions to save our planet. And we will continue on this endeavor because there is no planet B. In the words of Christine Lagarde, the President of the European Central Bank, “It’s a collective endeavor, it’s collective accountability, and it may not be too late.”

P.S: Want to catch a glimpse of what went down at Seeds of Tomorrow? Check out our Youtube channel where our mentors share valuable advice for founders, our winning teams share their journey at Seeds of Tomorrow, and so much more!

This event recap was originally published on the Startup Weekend Singapore Medium and was submitted by the organizing team as a contribution.

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We need contextualized solutions to address sustainability challenges across Southeast Asia [Q&A with Durwin Ho for Startup Weekend Singapore 2021]