Hackers en masse

Hackers en masse

All participants, mentors, sponsors and organizers from the first-ever Milwaukee Hardware Hackathon.

photo: Molly Willms

Score keepers

Score keepers

Adam Cohen and Jason Hilleshiem put the finishing touches on Magnetag, a tool to monitor points in games like paintball or laser tag.

photo: Molly Willms

Brewing up a win?

Brewing up a win?

A prototype of the Fermentation Station, the at-home, temperature-controlled home-brewing station that took second place.

photo: Molly Willms

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

One of the workstations at Team Shepherd Band's home base.

photo: Molly Willms

Rallying the troops

Rallying the troops

Badger Meter CEO Rich Meeusen addresses the crowd before each team pitches its finished project to the judges.

photo: Molly Willms

And the winner is...

And the winner is...

The creators of Shepherd Band, a child safety device, with their trophy.

photo: Molly Willms

There’s a word for people who can turn an air conditioner into a homebrew station, a cell phone vibration panel into a child safety device, and a coffee table into a beer fridge: hackers.

Hardware hackers, to be specific, and 46 of them gathered this weekend to do that and more at the first-ever Milwaukee Hardware Hackathon at the Global Water Center.

Nine teams had 54 hours (a tenth team was formed 10 hours before judging) to take an idea for a new invention and turn it into a working concept or prototype to present to judges.

In the end, Team Shepherd Band, who invented the child-safety device, took home the grand prize: consulting and production for a crowdfunding campaign, corporate leader mentorship, a website, a public relations campaign, and a meeting with local business accelerator program Gener8tor.

The trophy itself was a yard-long silver wrench, an emblem of the hands-on nature of the event itself.

Brandon Alberti, one of five event organizers, said the idea came to him and his team at last year’s Startup Weekend. The friends saw a lot of innovative software, mainly apps, being developed and pitched.

“Milwaukee has this rich history of manufacturing,” Alberti said. “Why can’t we build or kickstart a business, you know, with a hardware background?”

Soon, the group was meeting with Rich Meeusen, CEO of Milwaukee-area Badger Meter (NYSE: BMI), to discuss sponsorship. A half-hour meeting turned into an hour and a half, and Meeusen was able to garner support from fellow CEOs almost instantly.

Five months later, the hackathon began.

Sixty people threw out 13 potential projects. The attendees voted on Friday to pursue the top nine, and teams got to work.

Each team was given access to smart watches, 3D printers, mini computers, geolocation beacons and hardware basics: electric drills, soldering irons, screws and other hardware store fare.

When that wasn’t enough, the organizers took advantage of a budget surplus and made a hardware store run for the teams, allowing each to spend about $150.

Team UBrew, who created an all-in-one, temperature-controlled home beer fermenting system, used their budget to buy an air conditioner. They dismantled the unit and used the cooling coils in their Fermentation Station, and went on to win second place.

Team Shepherd Band created a wifi-based system designed to help a parent or caretaker keep track of children in, say, a park or a museum. Each child is outfitted with a bracelet and the adult holds a wand that controls the system; if a child steps outside a certain adjustable radius of the wand, his wrist begins to beep and light up, summoning him back. The adult can also summon the children by pressing a button, which activates all the bracelets and lights up the wand so the children have a common beacon to head toward.

The third place and people’s choice-award winning team created Cascade Green, a compact at-home hydroponic growing system that uses sensors to tell its owner exactly what it needs and when.

Their invention, like all the others at the hackathon, was created to solve a problem. In this case, team leader Nick Gartmann wanted to give space to grow fresh produce to people with little to no yard space—or gardening acumen.

“I’ve never successfully grown a vegetable,” Gartmann said. “I’ve tried multiple times. Not once have I ever successfully grown one.”

Problem-solving was one of the four criteria the judges used to choose the best projects, along with product novelty, viability with existing technology, and customer commitment.

Though the grand prizes could give Team Shepherd Band a head start in commercializing their technology, several of the other hackers had plans to continue developing their projects on their own. These include the people behind Green Cascade and the Supreme Fade Grip, an ergonomic tool that makes barber clippers easier to hold and use over long periods of time.

And if the organizers have their way, the products from the first hackathon won’t be the last. Alberti said they raised enough money and gathered enough sponsors to ensure another hackathon for next year. They also plan on having several smaller events throughout the year at which mentors and hackers can discuss new products.

For now, the hackers, particularly those behind Shepherd Band, have products to get off the ground, which they’ll be able to show off at the follow-up event on May 13.

Molly Willms is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, WI.