We won at TechCrunch Disrupt, here’s how

With TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 coming up, it’s been exactly 1 year since we walked away with the biggest cash prize at the 2018 TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in San Francisco (and went on to found our AI Health startup Wavy Assistant). So how did three guys from The Netherlands achieve that? Buckle up, here’s the full scoop!

After having won previous hackathons (including at TechCrunch Paris), we wanted to see how we measured up against the world’s best. The TechCrunch organization invited teams from the entire world to remotely send in their solutions for a range of challenges in order to gain a spot in the finals in San Francisco. That’s exactly how we submitted the demo videos of our idea Wavy Assistant. The inspiration came from sponsor Novartis’ challenge to ‘solve heart failure’. An extra requirement was that it should improve the quality of life of patients suffering from heart failure using only consumer devices. No custom medical hardware allowed. This gave us the idea of combining smartphones, with smart wearables and smart home speakers. Smart, smarter, smartest was our motto, but there’s someone who can explain our solution at that time a lot better: (butchered down to 1 minute, because ain’t nobody got time for a 2-minute video)

With a flashy explainer video we hoped to gain the judges’ attention. But to actually get accepted to the finals we also needed a demo. So we made several with the Amazon Alexa Echo kindly lended by my awesome client at that time and one of the few Alexa owners in The Netherlands :). Hence the TC logo…or did it actually stand for TechCrunch?

If you’re thinking “Cool, an IoT door lock!”…then we congratulate ourselves on pulling off the special effects, because that was actually my co-founder Steve behind the door 😉 It’s a HACKathon after all.

Turns out it worked, because a few days later I got a call: We made the cut, on to the finals in San Francisco! We drew up our plan: leave for the US on Saturday, work on our pitch, presentation and demo until Wednesday, have the event itself on Thursday and take the plane home the Saturday after.

San Francisco here we are!

We arrived Saturday and stayed in an AirBnB within driving distance (San Mateo) due to budgetary reasons. Sure, we slept on sofas in the living room, but the cooking skills of our host Angela more than made up for it. One of her businesses is a catering company. So take a wild guess who volunteered to be the guinea pigs of her vegan organic gluten-free and no-sugar-added cooking? We got to try things like custom Impossible Burgers. Oh man, I was this 👌 close to becoming vegan…if only they didn’t taste just a little bit better with bacon on top.

Hacking 2 giants in 2 days

Alright, enough stuffing our faces, we had some hacking to do. We already had nice demo videos, but the actual functionality still had to be built. On Sunday we achieved our first milestone: we hacked Fitbit to retrieve the real-time heartbeat of the wearer in our own Wavy app. I mean, we just had to, because the Fitbit API had a 15-minute sync delay. Which, let’s face it, is a bit on the late side when you’re lying on the floor with a heart attack. Monday we achieved our second milestone: we hacked Google to push our own messages over the Google Home speakers. I mean, we just had to, because Google really only wants you to invoke third party apps yourself before they say or do something in return. Which, let’s face it, is slightly inconvenient when you’re falling in and out of consciousness due to a heart attack.

Behind the scenes, because why not?

We had our first test run on location on Tuesday at 17h. We arrived well on time, so they were still building the sponsor stand. In the end, we were only able to do the dry run at 21h with images and sound etc.

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This meant we had all the time in the world to go Dora-explore the venue, the very main stage where Elon Musk would be interviewed a few days later and we pretty much invited ourselves to an exclusive backstage tour. And…omg, is that a…yes, that is, in fact, a quantum computer under construction!! 😮

Like every test, the dry-run gave us valuable feedback. It turned out the live demo with a Google Home would not be audible with the background noise of the event. That meant we’d have to record a video the next day quickly before the deadline of 16.49h. Sounded fine, right: sleep in a bit, record video and spend rest of the time on the pitch and slides?

Murphy’s law: anything that can go wrong will eventually go wrong. Utterly.

We built the entire demo on Toon‘s iPhone X, because that worked best for our hack. Wednesday at 8h the alarm went off. But Toon’s iPhone did not feel like waking up. Uh oh. Of course we did not have a backup iPhone X, because you know, €1200 for a phone. Redeveloping the app for Android was also not feasible within the time left. And we had a mandatory presentation to attend. All of a sudden, the 16.49h deadline sounded fine no longer. The plan was to find an Apple Store somewhere in SF. The bad news when looking up stores online was that a meeting with customer service was only possible with an appointment. The worse news was that the earliest appointment was at 12.55h…the next working day, that was.

New plan: split up. Steve would work on the presentation, while Toon and I would try our luck at the Apple Store in the city center. The ladies from HITLab/Novartis helped us with a quiet location to record a demo video. Steve started working there (hotel VIP lounge), while we went to Apple. Once there, we were immediately spotted by the helpful Apple employees because of our lanyards that we didn’t even realize we were still wearing.

Them: “Oh hey, TechCrunch Disrupt! That’s going on right now, right? How’s that going for ya?”

Us: “Well…not too great actually…we’re working on a demo for our presentation using this iPhone X, and it died this morning.”

Them: “Oh man, that’s doesn’t sound too good, do you guys have an appointment?”

Us: “No, earliest available was tomorrow and the deadline is today” *sad puppy face*

Them: “Alright, we’ll hook you guys up, free of charge.” If you ever wonder why Apple has the mind-blowing NPS rating every company is after, look no further. 

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An hour and a few LinkedIn connections later Toon’s iPhone X was restored in all its working glory. In the meantime, Steve was not so lucky, the hotel had been evacuated due to a fire alarm. When we came back ready to shoot the video, we quickly found out why the alarm went off in the first place. There was road work being done outside, including a jackhammer to break open the street. That made it quite impossible to record an audible video. In the meantime, the deadline was approaching mercilessly.

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After a call with our saving angels in Novartis hoodies, we were allowed to use their co-working office space. After we set up everything to record, we were interrupted by a well-known meeting room drama: “Hi there, did you reserve this room? Because I think we reserved this room.” After some quick negotiations they left and we finally could record the video. Of course, by then it was past the deadline. Luckily, due to having a reputation of being way too early for all the other deadlines until then, we were allowed an extra hour and handed in the demo!

Practice makes perfect

That night we had dry-run #2, with presentation including our hard-earned demo video. From that, we realized 2 things: the presentation took way too long (supposed to be 5 minutes max) AND the video had to be recorded, again. The Audio/Video pros allowed us to process our updated presentation the next morning at our own peril because it could not be tested anymore. So that night, we cut the half the slide deck and practiced with a stopwatch over and over and over. After a short night, on Thursday morning (the day of), we also re-recorded that damned demo until it looked like this now rather familiar bit:

We went to the venue and handed in the presentation. The perfect slide deck. Luck was no longer a factor in that respect. We spent the rest of the time to practice, practice, getting sick of practicing and then practice some more, word by word. An hour before the presentations we left Steve alone to focus. He rejoined half an hour before the presentations. Team Wavy had to go third. After the A/V pros heard the first two pitchers they gave us the tip to tell Steve to hold the mic closer to his mouth than the previous 2. But they clearly had never heard Steve pitch before, so we reassured them with the legendary words:

“Thanks, but Steve’s got this”.

And then the moment arrived, Steve entered the stage as a gladiator would enter the arena. And then the magic happened: the minute he started pitching people fell quiet, suddenly looking up from their phones. Who is this public speaker? Why doesn’t he have his own tv show yet? ….And wow, that Wavy sure sounds like a great idea!

Well, the rest is history. The decision would only be announced the next day, but I felt quite confident. “We won”, I told my teammates. Steve and Toon were a bit more cautious, so I bet them for €3. Long story slightly shorter: next to a bit of prize money, I also won another €3,- The End.

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Well, actually the story doesn’t quite end there. Soooo much more happened, but I simply don’t have the hours in a day to describe everything. No worries, because just for that reason we recorded an actual after the movie! So sit back and enjoy 😀

Lots of thanks to Beth SullivanJamie FialkhoffRobin RobertsShwen Gwee and Mohanad Fors and more people I forgot to tag for organizing this amazing experience!

Daryl Autar

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