There is a very big parking lot at 3001 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, and soon its owners will receive a very big bill. The city’s new system to tax property owners for the stormwater they funnel into the sewers will cost the lot’s owners more than $10,000 every year.
But what if the website that estimates the tax also included quotes from companies that install porous asphalt, which allows rainwater to seep into the ground, and which could save the owners big bucks on taxes? Before the latest CleanWeb Hackathon in New York City, such an opportunity for local contractors and investors did not exist.
Now it does.
“We didn’t go in with an idea,” says Michael Magee, a junior at Drexel University whose app, called the Lean Green Stormwater Mitigating Machine, won the hackathon’s award for sexiest user interface. “We got there and looked at the data we had, and it sparked something in my head, which turned into this wonderful app. It was amazing.”
That is the basic idea behind all hackathons: Pack smart computer people into a room for a weekend, supply them with pizza and energy drinks, and see what surprises they dream up. As its name implies, the CleanWeb Hackathon was aimed at the intersection of green technology and web applications, finding new ways to merge environmental data with online functionality to better manage resources from electricity to land to water.
“We’re 20 years into planting the seeds for how IT and clean tech can connect,” said Nicholas Eisenberger, managing partner of Pure Energy Partners, a venture catalyst firm that invests in clean tech. “But we’re only a year or two into the recognition that both industries are mature enough to have immediate opportunities for value creation and impact.”
Rather than traditional green energy projects, which require utility-sized investment and decades to realize returns, web-based applications offer the prospect of low upfront costs, fast consumer adoption and easy scalability
Think less ConEd. Think more Facebook.
“With a lot of clean tech, you need a trillion dollars to affect those industries,” says Blake Burris a hackathon organizer. “By comparison, if you do a bunch of clean web startups, who cares if you lose a couple hundred grand on these things? You’re also going to find your next opportunity.”
The hackathon’s “Best in Show” award went to Green Building Banner, a Google Chrome plug-in that displays information about a building’s energy efficiency in a browser banner. It could help Yelp users choose energy-efficient restaurants, or Zillow users to shop for efficient homes, said Conor Laver, a member of the nine-person team that developed the app.
The team is researching whether to turn Green Building Planner into a new company, or offer it as a product by BrightPower, the cleantech startup where Laver and other team members work.
“We’re trying to decide who’s the audience for this, and who wants access to that audience,” according to Laver, who said the team has received calls from potential investors.
“Green Building Banner … really should be implemented and distributed,” said Michael Shimazu, a hackathon judge and a project manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Now, whether that’s an investable business is another question entirely. Remember there’s only so much you can do in a weekend.
Magee’s stormwater app faces a similar challenge. Such a program might attract regional consumers and investors in cities that are implementing new stormwater taxes, said Magee, who plans to tap Drexel University’s network of grants and alumni to fund the next stage of the app’s development.
“My first goal is to finalize the web app for Philadelphia,” Magee said, “and then reach out to vendors and manufacturers to see if they have interest in marketing their products on my website.”
The simplest app from the Hackathon is also the quickest to market. Parkifi helps people find the wifi hotspots in public parks around New York City. It won the hackathon’s award for best use of city data. Developer Sherwin Yu said he plans to take a week “to really polish it up,” and then post the program for sale in the Android app store.
“It does one simple thing,” Yu said, “and it does it really well.”