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Innovation and entrepreneurship jumpstarts real‑world student ideas

Posted by Rebecca Rawcliffe on November 17, 2022 in Students

The ShiftKey Labs hackathon series is providing opportunities for students to tackle real challenges in partnership with industry, and alumni support will only help take it further

From space, aviation and climate change to healthy ageing and the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, students and community members are working on solutions to real-world problems and even starting their own business ventures through innovation and entrepreneurship programing.

Take fourth year Dalhousie Computer Science student, Karanbir Gill whose participation in hackathons through Faculty of Computer Science-based technology innovation sandbox, ShiftKey Labs has led to the launch of his own start-up.

“It’s a place to explore new ideas, innovation, and creativity. These Hackathons also help to improve the connections with like-minded people and amazing mentors. This is where my company HosTech was born, and this idea has helped people during this pandemic,” says Karanbir.

The Faculty of Computer Science is serious about its commitment to nurturing new ideas, innovation and creativity. The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fund, newly established this year, provides alumni and friends with an opportunity to have a direct hand in shaping the future of Nova Scotia’s digital ecosystem. Contributions go directly to creating transformative learning experiences, like the programming offered through ShiftKey Labs.

Solving challenges 

A hackathon is a 48-hour, weekend-long problem-solving event. They challenge student participants to create economically and technologically viable solutions to the real-world challenges faced by a variety of sectors and businesses. Since fall 2019, more than 700 students have taken part in over 10 hackathons through ShiftKey Labs.

While hackathons as stand-alone ShiftKey Labs events benefit those involved, they connect to much broader innovation and entrepreneurship activity.

Dalhousie Computer Science students Deep Dave and Shivam Mahajan’s participation in not only hackathons but in the Faculty’s Technology Innovation course and the ShiftKey Labs Lab Residency Program, which provides software-based start-up ideas with material and in-kind support, has helped them to establish their start-up, Mealful – a Halifax-based meal plan subscription that provides meals from local restaurants.

“The Technology Innovation course equipped me with the skillsets, knowledge and acquainted me with the tools needed to establish a high growth start-up,” says Deep. “Being able to network with fellow entrepreneurs during the weekly talks was what stood out to me during this course. ShiftKey truly has been the single most important resource for me during my journey at Dalhousie.”

Connecting to industry

Most hackathons are supported by industry partners looking to tap into student creativity and innovation to help them solve their challenges. Throughout the events, students have an opportunity to receive mentorship and guidance from these industry professionals to help the teams refine their prototypes. Support from alumni through the Faculty of Computer Science Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fund will further expand these opportunities to collaborate on innovative solutions to local and global problems.

Some of the sectors and topics covered through the ShiftKey Labs hackathon series include diversity and inclusion, COVID-19, government technology, banking and insurance, climate action, aviation technology and healthy ageing with industry partners including TD Bank, CGI, NASA, Halifax Stanfield Airport, Air Canada, Halifax Regional Municipality, The Halifax Innovation District, the Government of Nova Scotia, Technation, Venture for Canada, Nova Scotia Health Authority, the Government of Canada, and more.

While the benefits for individual students and organizations are clear, Martha Casey, CEO of innovation hub Volta, argues hackathons and the work coming out of ShiftKey Labs has a much bigger impact.

“ShiftKey Labs hosted at Dalhousie is an outstanding example of collaboration in our ecosystem. Through engaging a range of partners across the tech sector, Akram and his team have hosted many events that profile opportunities in technology and innovation. At Volta, we sincerely appreciate being involved in this initiative.”

Events that make a difference

By participating in hackathons, students like Karanbir, Shitangshu, Deep, and Shivam not only network with professionals in various industries, but also with other students who may be in different programs of study or even at other academic institutions. An additional motivation to take part in these intensive events are the prizes offered to the top 3 teams.

“In short, hackathons make a difference,” says Shitangshu. “For young people like me who are looking for others with whom to collaborate on new ideas, these events bring together people of all sorts of backgrounds to jump-start start-up ideas, non-profits & other concepts to address some of the world’s big problems.”