By Brigette Currin 7 minute read

How Sync the City became an essential element in the East of England’s tech ecosystem

 November saw the return of the fifth annual Sync the City hackathon to Norwich. As in previous editions, the sell-out event generated some exciting new startup ideas. To celebrate the East of England’s favourite hackathon (sponsored by TechEast in 2017 and 2018) we take a look at what events like Sync the City mean for the region’s tech community.

More than a hackathon

Techopedia defines a hackathon as “a gathering where programmers collaboratively code in an extreme manner over a short period of time.” Sync the City takes it one step further: once teams have hacked their startup, they pitch to a panel of judges to win a share of £4,000. According to its organisers, “Sync the City is a bit like an episode of The Apprentice, followed by an episode Dragons’ Den, all condensed into 54 Hours.”

By bringing together individuals from different areas of business and giving them freedom to be creative, hackathons often produce solutions to real-world problems. This year’s Sync the City participants tackled a number of societal and Tech for Good issues, including loneliness, mental health, recycling, and food waste.

For those with an existing startup idea, hackathons provide a space where these ideas may be proved, developed, and tested. Working with teammates from beyond your usual circle of contacts helps provide a fresh take on a problem, as well as the opportunity to learn from others.

Sync the City: a potted history

We asked John Fagan — Sync the City organiser and CTO at Axon Vibe — how the original 54-hour hackathon came about in 2014.

John said: “I met UEA’s Fiona Lettice on Twitter, and we collaborated to invite influential TechCrunch journalist, Mike Butcher, to come up to Norwich. As well as a keynote speech from Mike, we hosted a showcase of Norwich tech companies and demo pit at Open, Norwich.

“Spurred on by this initial success I proposed to Fiona the idea of organising a city-wide 24 hour hackathon, with the support of UEA. After considering the classic hackathon format, I decided I wanted to create a broad event, open to everyone in the public and private sector — not just software engineers. The format of Sync the City was inspired by TechStars Startup Weekends. Fiona persuaded Julie Schofield and Susi Waters from UEA Careers Centre to get involved, and they took the lead on event management as well as sponsoring.

“After the first Sync The City in 2014, Jon Bradford (serial entrepreneur and TechStars London founder) inspired us to expand the event the following year. Having more teams meant we had to shorten the final pitches to 3 minutes. Each year, the quality of the event and the teams’ output just gets better and better!

“Sync the City wouldn’t be possible without UEA’s Julie Schofield, Harriet Byrne, and Jennifer Lloyd, along with SyncNorwich’s Sean Clark, Paul Cutting, and our core mentors including Brian Norman, Ben Taylor, Tom Wood, Hayley Johnson, Paul Russell, Tom Haczewski and Kathryn Wright. We are very lucky!”

 Five years on, Sync the City is a well-oiled machine

With five years of learnings under their belts, the Sync the City team have honed and enhanced the event.

John continued: “Each year, the slickness of the event organisation and the standard of the pitches gets higher and higher.

“To celebrate our fifth year, Paul Cutting gifted me a spot on a team which was a big surprise. I got to appreciate how challenging it is to compete in the event!”

This year’s event also benefitted from a new sponsor: Greater Anglia (the East of England rail franchise owned and operated by Abellio). Their team even fielded an idea, which was great to see such a huge player in the region get involved.

As we mentioned earlier, there was a strong interest in ‘Tech for Good’ at this year’s Sync the City. The 2018 Judge’s choice winner was Sorti: a tech product  that helps consumers figure out which packaging is recyclable.

Team leader for Sorti, Maria Faud, said the app “helps to remove the uncertainty around recycling and aims to influence consumers long term behaviours through educating individuals and helping households reduce their environmental footprint.”

She continues: “Sync the City was an amazing experience and a great opportunity to meet and work with a diverse range of people. This was my first year attending and to have pitched the winning idea is an incredible feeling. I am very grateful to the rest of my team for their hard work over the weekend, and to our mentor Anna for all her support. We’re currently planning a follow-up meeting to explore next steps and we’re all excited to see what the future could hold!”

The people’s choice winner this year was Seren. Lily Beel, trainee solicitor at Leathes Prior and Seren team leader, told Paul Grenyer of Norfolk Developers: “the general idea was to connect those beginning to suffer from mental health conditions with those who have recovered/are in recovery. The waiting time to be seen through the NHS is nine months for mild/moderate conditions — which means that people are likely to get worse during that period. If they had someone to talk to, who had been through similar mental health issues, it might stop them from reaching a crisis point and harming themselves or worse.”

The value of Sync the City

Sync the City is now established as one of the UK’s leading weekend-long hackathons. The event is held in high-regard, and even envied by other tech communities around the UK.

A number of successful young businesses have emerged from Sync the City over the last five years. Prosper founder, George Davis, was inspired to launch his own startup after taking part in Sync the City in 2016 and has gone on to achieve significant entrepreneurial success.

Last year’s winners, Safepoint (previously Lonesafe), are now seeking early adopters for their app. Safepoint founder, Callum Coombes, said: “Sync The City is an amazing experience; it throws together a bunch of ambitious people and gives them a shared goal of building something great. Where else can you go to find a room of 100+ people, all eager to start a new business venture there and then!

“It’s been a rollercoaster year for Safepoint and I’m blown away by the support provided by the Norwich tech community. It’s made a big difference to us and has made building and launching Safepoint so much easier. We’re now reaching out to local businesses to attract early access users and I’m happy to report that this is going very well!”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of Sync the City is its ability to bring together members of the East Anglian tech community who might not otherwise have an opportunity to collaborate.

We asked John what the future holds for Sync the City. He said: “Every year, we take feedback from attendees and hold retrospectives so we can tweak Sync the City. It’s becoming a slick operation, but we can always do better.

“In particular, I’d like to attract more people from outside the “tech community”. I want to see individuals like teachers, doctors, nurses, and farmers come along and pitch an idea at the event.  There are also a couple of other exciting things brewing, which I can’t mention right now.”

We wish all the team at Sync the City well as they start to plan the 2019 event, and will be watching this year’s and previous winners with interest as they develop their embryonic businesses.