Six essentials for a successful hackathon

3 minute read

Over the summer, we are hosting an intern from Norwich University of the Arts. About to enter her final year in Graphic Communication, Elena Lockyer is working from our Cambridge office, contributing her design skills. She's keen to learn more about the work we do.

Recently, she attended the BioDataHack with us. Elena has her own experience of Hackathons, having won the People's Choice Award at Sync The City in Norwich last year. Here, she shares her thoughts on running a Hackathon that has real impact, drawing on her own experience and that of other members of the Nexer team.


Over a few days, Hackathons take an idea all the way through to a pitch, where the concept is assessed for its feasibility and effectiveness. Attendees are presented with one or more challenges, forming teams to collaborate and develop solutions. Examples of challenges from the recent BioDataHack are:

  • How can we design a clinical trial around the patient's home?
  • How can we predict opportunities to repurpose drugs to treat unmet patient needs?

Hackathons require a range of different skillsets - you don’t need to be a coding whizz or have polished design skills. If you ever get the chance to go to a Hackathon, do it!

Here are my tips:

1. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker

Diverse knowledge is vital when we're looking to create solutions to complex challenges. It's arguable that the most successful solutions come from the most varied teams. At the BioDataHack, our Senior UX Architect, Francis, shared some of his tips for creating a strong team. He recommended having team members that can fulfil one of four roles: a maker, stitcher, presenter and a researcher. You really don't need to be able to code to participate!

A diagram of the idea teal and its roles. Roles include maker, stitcher, writer, researcher.

Teams and roles

Stitcher = Stitches things together into something coherent, and keeps the goals and criteria in view

Maker = Hands-on with code and data, doing the heavy-lifting of what goes on in the background

Writer = Describes, explains, presents back - focuses on communicating the idea and approach. Might also write the text for an interface, or a set of instructions - whatever your solution needs

Researcher = Seeks out information and evidence either from challenge partners, or from any "users", business people, design experts, etc, and feeds it back to the team in a useful way

You don't need one person per role, and you can have more than four members - you're just looking for a team that covers this full range of roles. Alessia from Team GoGut, who's team formed a winning idea at the BioDataHack explained:

We were fortunate to have a team with experience in an array of fields who were able to answer different questions - or the same questions from different perspectives.

2. Team spirit

Encouraging a non-judgemental, friendly environment in your team ensures you discover the best contributions from each team member. Make sure everyone feels included and show respect towards all ideas. At the BioDataHack, organiser Joanna Mills introduced the idea of the 'home team' - members of staff from the Genome Campus and Challenge Partners who were specifically there to help wherever possible. This helped to create an atmosphere of mutual support.

3. Willingness to help and learn

Whether you're a participant, speaker, mentor, or judge, having an open mindset helps you to make the most of the event. Have time for others and stay curious! When I took part in Sync The City, a member of another team helped us with a few technical hiccups so that we could get our code running across platforms. They didn't have to do that, and it really struck a chord with me. From pitch advice to technical adjustments, the help I received from other attendees and mentors was invaluable. If I hadn't been so willing to listen and act on others' advice, I wouldn't have done so well.

4. Planning ahead

Two days will quickly disappear and, suddenly, there are two hours left until your team will have to pitch. Perfect pitches rarely happen on the first attempt, so make time to practise; pitching is your only opportunity to impress the judges, so it’s important to keep it succinct and meaningful. Throughout the hack, adding structure to the team maximises the use of your time. Alessia also explained:

"We were aware that the time was running against us, so we started by assigning tasks and worked in parallel on different features, and got together every now and then to check that everything was going as expected and to improve what was flawed. We hope that the main strength of our pitch was that it spoke directly to the needs of patients, who currently have a lack of options available to them for managing their illnesses" - Alessia from team Team Go-Gut, BioDataHack 2018

5. Inspiring well-framed challenges

Kick-starting a Hackathon with well-framed challenges provides energy to attendees and gives the event the best possible chances of having real impact. These kinds of challenges fill us with a hunger to explore them, and usually consist of:

  • A real world/relatable problem with a clear context
  • A well-defined user, that's experiencing that problem
  • Future-facing - connected to a big change that is coming, or new combinations (old problems meet new technologies, for example)
  • Thought-provoking, human stories or aspirations

Opening speeches add context, igniting motivation, passion and interest. Speaking at the BioDataHack, James Peach from Medicines Discovery Catapult asked four people from the audience to stand, representing the proportion of the population affected by rare disease in the UK. This was moving and effective.

6. Interacting with mentors

Deadlines are strict, so getting stuck or distracted can be costly. Mentors offer invaluable guidance and an outsider view: engage with them as much as possible. At Sync The City, my mentor’s expertise in Artificial Intelligence helped us into a strong position. We were able to access better resources to build our solution, and receive some powerful, specific advice. For more on the role that mentors can play, read our recent post about our involvement at the BioDataHack.

Beyond the Hackathon

Whether you win or not, the judges' feedback is precious advice - use it to move your solution forwards after the event. Acting on critique is key to improving solutions that are well formulated, challenging, and game changing.


  • No idea is a bad idea
  • Chat (to everyone)
  • Dream big, and then bigger

The real trick of an idea, is doing something about it.

Andy Richards, judging at the BioDataHack.

So, what're you waiting for?