24 hours in Shenzhen: Hardware town takes on blockchain hackathon challenge

(Image Credit: TechCrunch 中国)

At its core, Shenzhen is a hardware town. But over the weekend, members of the southern Chinese city’s tech community embraced a new challenge—to create innovative applications for a variety of blockchain platforms.

That was the task at the center of the 24-hour TechCrunch Shenzhen Ontology hackathon, which took place in the run-up to TechCrunch Shenzhen 2018 conference. By the time it finished on Sunday, teams had come up with several new applications related to verification of intellectual property rights, vaccinations, and digital medical records.

“I guess I wanted to do a project in just one day,” said Yue Xuming, who moved to Shenzhen after he graduated from Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology in eastern China. “I thought that would be pretty cool,” he said, adding that he had no prior blockchain experience.

The event was sponsored by Ontology, a Chinese blockchain company that says its goal is to build a trust ecosystem using blockchain technologies. It’s also the first Chinese blockchain company to join the Decentralized Identity Foundation, an organization that helps develop basic elements needed for an open ecosystem using decentralized identity technology.

Hackers at the event were encouraged to use one of the company’s blockchain-based IDs.

“We need talented minds to join our ecosystem, and hosting hackathons is a great way to do that,” said Liu Yinghao, a senior software engineer at Ontology.

No clear winner

There was no winner for the first place prize of $10,000 worth of Ontology’s digital currency ONT, as valued on the various Chinese and international exchanges on which it trades. A company representative said it was too difficult to pick one top winner out of the bunch.

Instead, that money was divided into two prizes and given to two additional second place winners, resulting in three $5,000 prizes.

Nor did any of the three teams that won second place prizes deal with identification issues. They innovated on recording transactions, verifying the history of vaccines and payment fraud prevention. The team that placed third, which was awarded $3,000 in ONT, dealt with copyright verification.

“We judged the teams by their creativity, level of completion of the product, the degree of integration with Ontology components, user experience, and other aspects,” said Liu.

The blockchain company is eager to have its technology adopted and is looking for ideas far and wide. In addition to sponsoring this event, Ontology is running its own hackathons in cities around the world with similar prizes.

When it kicked off on Saturday, it wasn’t clear what the blockchain companies could expect to gain by the end of the event. Many people in the room had little or no prior blockchain experience. Some people weren’t even coders, instead showing up to network and perhaps work on a side project.

One participant, Izzy Piyale-Sheard, moved to Shenzhen from Toronto, Canada just one week prior to the event. He had little Chinese language skills or coding experience. Piyale-Sheard chose to create a website for translating popular Chinese apps into English for foreigners.

He said he was drawn to the hackathon because of what it represented. “There’s a lot of emerging tech and emerging startups in Shenzhen,” Piyale-Sheard said. “Being in the midst of that is really interesting to me.”

Vancouver-based blockchain game company CryptoKitties, offered three prizes together with fellow sponsors Animoca and Dapp.com. The team that won the first place prize—an RMB 11,000 (just under $1,600) MacBook Pro—developed the concept of a CryptoKitties hardware controller.

International team spirit

The five members on that winning team came from Germany, Hong Kong, India, Iran, and Spain. Most of them met for the first time at the hackathon. It’s not clear who took the MacBook home. 

Hardware seemed like a natural fit for the team, some of whom had previous experience with embedded systems and the Internet of Things. This includes Akshay, an Indian developer who’s been in Shenzhen for just four months. Without any experience with blockchain, Akshay enrolled in the hackathon for novelty.

“I wanted to work on blockchain and explore,” Akshay said. “It’s pretty new.”

Though 24 hours isn’t enough to hop over to Shenzhen’s electronics district and build a prototype, Akshay and the rest of the team members demonstrated in their presentation how the “cattroller” or “kitty pad,” as they called it, could be used to help players face off in a CryptoKitties game of pong.

The second place CryptoKitties winner designed a game for the platform based on the popular mobile game Pokemon Go, which the team called PokeKitties. For that, the team was awarded RMB 6,000. The only other sponsor to give out an award at the event was ArcBlock, which awarded an iPhone XS Max to a team that developed a payment solution based on the company’s technology.

The companies that wound up with new applications for their platforms said they were pretty satisfied with the hackathon’s results.

“Young people should try different things, something new,” said Liu of Ontology.  

Additional reporting by Nicole Jao.