Note: As a university professor in innovation and robotics, as well as an entrepreneur and innovator in the software industry, I’ve encouraged my students to participate in hackathons and competitions as a way to boost their creativity and problem-solving skills. However, I’ve recently become increasingly concerned about the darker side of these events. Several of my students have come to me with stories of toxic environments, exclusionary behavior, and even outright cheating at hackathons and competitions organized by companies. As a result, I felt compelled to speak out and shine a light on the harmful aspects of these events that are often overlooked.


Hackathons have gained immense popularity over the last few years, attracting young and passionate individuals with promises of innovative ideas, networking, and potential career opportunities. Hackathons are events where programmers, developers, designers, and other tech enthusiasts come together to collaborate intensively on projects, usually within a limited timeframe. These events are often organized by tech companies, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, or even governments, with the aim of promoting innovation, fostering teamwork, and finding solutions to various challenges. Some hackathons are organized around specific themes, such as social impact, healthcare, or artificial intelligence.

Hackathons can be financed by various sources, such as (a) sponsorships, where large tech companies or organizations might sponsor the event by providing funds, resources, and even mentorship. In return, they often get exposure, networking opportunities, and access to talent and innovative ideas; (b) registration fees, where hackathons charge a fee to participants, which can help cover the cost of organizing the event; (c) grants, where non-profit organizations or educational institutions might receive grants or funding from governments or other entities to support hackathons focused on specific social or technological issues.

Hackathons are typically organized by a team of individuals who handle logistics, such as venue selection, marketing, participant registration, and arranging for judges and mentors. They also establish the rules and guidelines for participants, including any requirements regarding intellectual property (IP) rights. The organizers, sponsors, and judges of hackathons may include tech industry professionals, entrepreneurs, investors, and academics. They often provide mentorship and guidance to participants during the event and may also evaluate the projects to determine winners.

Hackathons are predominantly in the field of software because of several reasons:

  1. Accessibility: Software development tools are easily accessible, and anyone with a computer and an internet connection can participate. This allows for a large, diverse pool of participants.
  2. Speed of development: Software can be developed, tested, and iterated upon rapidly, making it suitable for short, intense events like hackathons.
  3. Collaboration: Software development lends itself well to teamwork, with tasks often being divisible into smaller components that can be worked on simultaneously by different team members.
  4. Wide applicability: Software is used in nearly every industry, so hackathons can cover a diverse range of topics and challenges.
  5. High demand: There is a significant demand for innovative software solutions, and hackathons provide an opportunity to generate new ideas and products.

However, hackathons are not limited to software development. There are also hackathons in other fields, such as:

  1. Hardware: Hardware hackathons, or “makeathons,” focus on designing and prototyping physical devices, such as robots, IoT devices, or wearables.
  2. Data Science: Data-focused hackathons involve analyzing large datasets to identify patterns, make predictions, or solve specific problems.
  3. Design: Design hackathons, also known as “design sprints” or “design jams,” focus on generating innovative design solutions, often using interdisciplinary approaches.
  4. Biohacking: Biohackathons focus on biotechnology, genomics, or synthetic biology, and may involve tasks like designing new biomolecules or engineering microorganisms.
  5. Sustainability: These hackathons focus on creating solutions for environmental, social, or economic sustainability issues, and can encompass a wide range of disciplines.

While these events have the potential to foster creativity and collaboration, they also have a hidden, darker side: exploitation of the participants’ hard work and intellectual property. In this post, we will explore the negative impact of hackathons and discuss alternative, more ethical approaches to support innovation and talent.

Unmasking the Hackathon Hype: The Hidden Dangers Lurking Behind the Excitement

Hackathons have become synonymous with innovation, collaboration, and technological breakthroughs, attracting a wide range of talent from various fields. Enthusiastic developers, designers, and entrepreneurs flock to these events in hopes of creating the next big thing or solving pressing challenges. While the allure of hackathons is undeniable, it is essential to consider the potential negative consequences that often go unnoticed amidst the excitement. In this section we will delve into the lesser-known dark side of hackathons and explore how these seemingly innocuous events might unintentionally foster intellectual property theft, overwork, unhealthy competition, and exclusion. By shedding light on these issues, we aim to promote a more ethical and responsible approach to hackathons, ensuring that the spirit of innovation and collaboration is preserved without sacrificing the well-being and rights of its participants.

Intellectual property theft: Many hackathons require participants to submit their ideas and projects in a public forum. As a result, companies and other attendees may steal these ideas without giving credit or compensation to the creators. This practice is unethical and discourages young people from continuing to innovate. Intellectual property theft is a significant concern in hackathons, where bright minds gather to generate innovative solutions. Participants often present their ideas and projects in a public setting, making it easier for others to appropriate their work without proper attribution or compensation. This unethical practice not only demoralizes the creators but also stifles innovation by deterring young talents from sharing their ideas. Let’s take a closer look at some examples that highlight the issue of IP theft in hackathons.

Example 1: A Fintech Hackathon
At a fintech hackathon, a small team of developers came up with an ingenious solution for streamlining cross-border transactions, reducing both time and cost. However, within months of the event, a well-known financial services company launched a strikingly similar product without acknowledging the team’s contribution or offering any compensation. The developers, disillusioned by this experience, became hesitant to participate in future hackathons and share their ideas openly.

Example 2: A Healthtech Hackathon
In a hackathon focused on healthcare solutions, a group of medical students and software engineers developed an innovative telemedicine platform that could revolutionize remote patient care. A few months later, they discovered that a major telehealth company had implemented key features from their project into its existing platform, without giving them any credit or compensation. As a result, the team’s motivation to innovate in the healthcare space was severely dampened.

Example 3: A Social Impact Hackathon
During a social impact hackathon, a group of young environmentalists created a unique app to monitor and reduce carbon emissions. After the event, they continued working on the project, planning to launch it as a startup. To their dismay, they discovered that another company had taken their idea, developed it further, and launched a similar app, effectively rendering their efforts fruitless. The team felt betrayed and discouraged from pursuing future innovative projects.

Example 4: The TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon
One example of IP theft in a hackathon occurred during the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in 2014. Two developers created a project called “Titstare,” an app that allowed users to take and share photos of themselves staring at women’s chests. The app generated significant controversy, and the developers later claimed that their idea was stolen and used without their permission in a similar app called “iAugment.” Although this particular case involved a controversial concept, it highlights the potential for ideas to be taken and used without proper attribution in the fast-paced environment of a hackathon.

False promises of success: Some hackathons promise prizes, investment opportunities, or job offers to winners. However, not all events deliver on these promises, leaving participants disillusioned and disheartened. False promises of success can be a major issue in hackathons, causing disillusionment and discouragement among participants. These events often entice talented individuals with the promise of lucrative prizes, investment opportunities, or even job offers, but not all of them fulfill these promises, leaving participants feeling betrayed and let down. Let’s explore a few examples that demonstrate the impact of such false promises:

Example 1: The Disappearing Prize Money
In a high-profile hackathon, the organizers promised a substantial cash prize to the winning team. However, after the event, the prize money never materialized, and the organizers became unresponsive to the winners’ inquiries. This incident not only left the winning team feeling cheated but also caused other participants to lose faith in the integrity of hackathons.

Example 2: The Vanishing Startup Accelerator Opportunity
At a hackathon focused on startup ideas, the organizers pledged that the winning team would receive direct access to a prestigious startup accelerator program, complete with mentorship and potential investment. However, when the winning team attempted to follow up on this promise, they were met with excuses and delays. Eventually, they were told that the accelerator was no longer able to accommodate their project. This setback forced the team to scramble for alternative support and left them disillusioned with the hackathon experience.

Example 3: The Unfulfilled Job Offer
In a hackathon organized by a prominent tech company, participants were enticed by the prospect of job offers for the top performers. However, after the event, only a few participants received interviews, and even fewer were eventually offered positions. This selective approach left many talented individuals feeling used and disheartened, as they had devoted significant time and effort to the hackathon with the expectation of potential employment.

Example 4: The Red Bull Creation Hackathon
In 2013, the Red Bull Creation Hackathon generated controversy when some participants accused the event of unfair judging practices and not delivering on its promises. The event offered a $10,000 grand prize and the opportunity for the winning project to be showcased at the New York City Maker Faire. However, some participants claimed that the judging process was subjective and lacked transparency, leading to discontent among those who felt they were not given a fair chance. This example highlights the importance of hackathon organizers ensuring fair and transparent evaluation processes and delivering on the promises made to participants.

Overemphasis on competition: Hackathons often foster a cutthroat environment that encourages participants to prioritize winning over learning, collaboration, and personal development. This can lead to stress, burnout, and a negative overall experience for young innovators. An overemphasis on competition in hackathons can overshadow the more valuable aspects of these events, such as learning, collaboration, and personal development. This cutthroat environment can lead to stress, burnout, and a negative overall experience for participants. Here are a few examples that illustrate the consequences of excessive competition in hackathons:

Example 1: The Stressful Student Hackathon
In a university hackathon, students were encouraged to compete for lucrative internships at a major tech company. The competition became so intense that participants resorted to staying awake for the entire 48-hour event, leading to sleep deprivation, high stress levels, and strained relationships between teammates. Some students even reported feeling physical and mental exhaustion for days after the event, questioning whether the potential rewards were worth the toll on their well-being.

Example 2: The Unhealthy Gaming Hackathon
At a hackathon focused on developing video games, the organizers created a leaderboard to track each team’s progress, pitting them against one another. As a result, many participants felt immense pressure to outperform their peers, leading to long hours, skipped meals, and high stress. Instead of fostering collaboration and shared learning, the event became a race to the top, with little regard for the well-being of the participants.

Example 3: The Burnout-Inducing AI Hackathon
In an artificial intelligence hackathon, the stakes were high, with promises of seed funding and media coverage for the winners. This intense pressure to succeed led some participants to push themselves to the breaking point, with little time for breaks, self-care, or reflection on their work. Many left the event feeling physically and emotionally drained, with some even experiencing burnout that impacted their subsequent projects and professional life.

Example: The MLH Student Hackathons
Major League Hacking (MLH) is an organization that supports and runs student hackathons globally. Over the years, they have identified the challenges posed by excessive competition and the potential negative impacts on participants. In response, MLH has implemented measures to promote a healthier, more balanced environment at their events, focusing on learning, collaboration, and personal growth. Some of the ways MLH promotes a positive atmosphere at their hackathons include: (a) focusing on learning: MLH events typically feature workshops, tutorials, and mentorship opportunities to help participants gain new skills and improve their understanding of various technologies. (b) encouraging teamwork: by emphasizing the importance of collaboration and teamwork, MLH events foster a more inclusive and cooperative atmosphere. (c) recognizing a variety of achievements: MLH awards are not only based on the overall winner but also recognize teams for creativity, technical prowess, and social impact.

Exclusionary practices: Hackathons can be expensive to participate in, with registration fees, travel costs, and accommodations, which may exclude talented individuals who cannot afford to attend. Additionally, some events lack diversity, creating a homogenous environment that stifles creativity and excludes underrepresented groups. Exclusionary practices in hackathons can limit opportunities for talented individuals and hinder the overall innovation and creativity fostered at these events. Barriers like registration fees, travel costs, accommodations, and a lack of diversity can make hackathons less accessible and welcoming to various groups of people. Here are some examples that showcase the impact of exclusionary practices in hackathons:

Example 1: The High-Cost Hackathon
A well-known hackathon event in a major city attracted top talent from across the globe. However, the registration fees, combined with travel and accommodation expenses, made it difficult for many talented individuals, especially those from low-income backgrounds or developing countries, to attend. As a result, the event primarily attracted participants who could afford the costs, excluding those who could have made valuable contributions but lacked the financial means.

Example 2: The Male-Dominated Hackathon
In a hackathon focused on software development, the majority of participants were male, with only a small percentage of women and non-binary individuals. This lack of gender diversity created an environment where some participants felt unwelcome or excluded. Additionally, the homogenous participant pool limited the potential for diverse perspectives and creative solutions, undermining the overall goal of fostering innovation.

Example 3: The Limited-Representation Hackathon
At a hackathon designed to address urban planning issues, the majority of participants were from affluent backgrounds and had limited exposure to the real-world challenges faced by people from underprivileged communities. This lack of diverse representation resulted in proposed solutions that failed to address the needs of marginalized populations, highlighting the importance of including diverse perspectives when tackling complex societal issues.

Example 4: The Technica Hackathon
Technica, an all-women and non-binary hackathon, is an excellent example of an event that aims to counter exclusionary practices and promote diversity in the technology field. Launched in 2015 at the University of Maryland, Technica has grown to become one of the largest all-women and non-binary hackathons globally. Recognizing the underrepresentation of women and non-binary individuals in tech, Technica’s goal is to create a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive environment where participants can learn, innovate, and build confidence. Technica addresses exclusionary practices in several ways: (a) financial accessibility: Technica is free to attend, removing the barrier of registration fees. Additionally, they have provided travel reimbursements for participants from other universities and states, making the event more accessible to those who would otherwise struggle to cover transportation costs. (b) encouraging diversity: The event specifically targets and encourages participation from women and non-binary individuals, who are traditionally underrepresented in tech and hackathon events. Technica fosters an inclusive atmosphere, offering a space for individuals to share their experiences, collaborate, and learn from one another. (c) mentorship and support: Technica provides various resources, workshops, and mentorship opportunities to support participants, regardless of their skill level or background. By offering a nurturing environment, the event encourages learning and growth, empowering participants to explore technology and build confidence in their abilities. By addressing exclusionary practices and promoting diversity and inclusion, Technica showcases how hackathons can be more accessible, inclusive, and innovative. Events like Technica can serve as an inspiration for other hackathon organizers to make their events more welcoming and accommodating for a wider range of participants.

Unsustainable work practices: Hackathons often require participants to work long hours with little sleep, which can have negative effects on their physical and mental health. This model of work is unsustainable and sets a poor example for young professionals entering the tech industry. Unsustainable work practices in hackathons can have detrimental effects on participants’ physical and mental health, as they often involve long hours and sleep deprivation. This work model is not only unsustainable but also sets a poor example for young professionals entering the tech industry. Here are a few examples that demonstrate the impact of unsustainable work practices during hackathons:

Example 1: The Sleepless IoT Hackathon
At an Internet of Things (IoT) hackathon, participants were encouraged to work around the clock for 48 hours to develop their projects. As a result, many attendees skipped sleep entirely or slept for only a few hours. Following the event, several participants reported feeling exhausted and mentally drained, with some experiencing lingering fatigue and reduced productivity in the days or even weeks after the hackathon.

Example 2: The Unhealthy VR Hackathon
In a virtual reality (VR) hackathon, the competition was fierce, and participants felt pressure to work non-stop to stay ahead of their peers. Many neglected their basic needs, such as eating regular meals and taking breaks, in favor of continuous work. After the event, some participants reported physical symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and even nausea, questioning whether the potential rewards were worth the toll on their health.

Example 3: The Burnout-Triggering Web Development Hackathon
A web development hackathon featured a tight deadline and high stakes, with the promise of job offers for the winners. The intense pressure to succeed led participants to work excessively long hours, pushing themselves to the limit. Some experienced burnout as a result of the event, which affected their subsequent projects and professional life, making them reconsider their involvement in future hackathons.

Example 4: The Exhausting CodeFest Hackathon
The CodeFest Hackathon was a 36-hour event that attracted participants from various tech backgrounds. The organizers promised exciting prizes, including cash awards and potential job offers. As a result, participants felt immense pressure to deliver exceptional projects in a short amount of time. Throughout the event, participants worked non-stop, foregoing sleep and proper meals to make progress on their projects. The hackathon venue was crowded, noisy, and poorly ventilated, further exacerbating the participants’ discomfort. As the hours wore on, some participants began to experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, and irritability. Others suffered from mental fatigue and a decline in cognitive performance. Despite these issues, the competitive atmosphere and the desire to win kept many participants pushing through their discomfort. Once the event concluded, several participants reported that the CodeFest Hackathon had taken a toll on their physical and mental health. Some even experienced lingering effects, such as difficulty concentrating and reduced productivity at work or school in the days following the event. This negative experience made many participants question the value of participating in such hackathons, as the potential rewards seemed to be outweighed by the negative impact on their well-being.

Superficial solutions:  The time constraints of hackathons can lead to the development of superficial solutions that may not adequately address the complex problems they aim to solve. The focus on rapid problem-solving can result in short-term fixes rather than long-term, sustainable solutions, which may not always be in the best interest of the target audience or the larger community.

Example 1: Food Waste Reduction Apps
During a hackathon, participants may develop an app that connects restaurants with surplus food to nearby consumers, aiming to reduce food waste. While the app may provide a temporary solution to redistribute excess food, it may not address the root causes of food waste, such as overproduction or inefficiencies in supply chain management. A more sustainable solution would involve addressing these systemic issues.

Example 2: Homelessness Support Apps
In a hackathon addressing homelessness, a team might create an app to connect individuals experiencing homelessness with available shelters and resources. While the app could help some users find temporary shelter, it doesn’t tackle the underlying issues causing homelessness, such as lack of affordable housing, mental health support, or job opportunities. Long-term solutions would require a more comprehensive approach to these systemic challenges.

Example 3: Quick-fix Environmental Monitoring Tools
Participants in a hackathon focused on environmental issues might create a tool to monitor air quality or water pollution. While such tools can raise awareness about the problem, they might not provide actionable solutions to mitigate or reverse the damage. Sustainable solutions would require engaging policymakers, industries, and communities to implement changes that tackle the root causes of pollution.

Example 4: Education and Learning Apps
In a hackathon centered on education, a team could develop an app that gamifies learning or connects students with tutors for short-term academic support. While the app may help some students improve their grades or skills, it might not address deeper systemic issues in education, such as unequal access to resources, teacher shortages, or outdated curricula. Long-term improvements in education would need more comprehensive policy changes and resource allocation.

Exploitation of Talent in Company Hackathons and Competitions: The Hidden Cost of Free Labor

Some companies use hackathons as a source of free labor, capitalizing on the enthusiasm and skills of participants to develop solutions for their business needs without offering fair compensation. This practice can be exploitative, as it takes advantage of participants’ eagerness to learn and network while providing little or no reward in return.

The practice of exploiting talent in hackathons can have broader implications for the tech industry. By promoting a culture of uncompensated work, companies may inadvertently contribute to an environment in which skilled professionals are undervalued and underpaid. This can lead to a race to the bottom, where companies prioritize cost savings over fair compensation, ultimately undermining the sustainability of the industry as a whole.

Addressing Talent Exploitation:

To counteract talent exploitation in hackathons, organizers and companies should adopt more ethical practices that prioritize fair compensation and recognition for participants. This could include:

  • Offering meaningful prizes or other incentives that reflect the value of the work produced during the hackathon.
  • Providing clear guidelines on intellectual property rights, ensuring participants retain ownership of their work and are adequately compensated if their solutions are used by the hosting company.
  • Encouraging transparency by openly discussing the expectations and potential rewards associated with hackathon participation.
  • Fostering a culture of respect for participants’ time and expertise by creating an environment that values their contributions.

Alternative Approaches to Foster Innovation and Talent

As a response to the dark side of current hackathons practices, there is a growing movement towards adopting alternative approaches that emphasize collaboration, inclusivity, and healthy work habits. In this section, we introduce various strategies that promote a more ethical and sustainable environment for innovation, including open-source projects, inclusive events, mentorship programs, and a focus on collaboration over competition. By embracing these alternatives, we can nurture a more diverse and creative community of innovators while addressing the shortcomings of traditional hackathons.

Open-source innovation: Encourage the development of open-source projects that allow individuals to collaborate, share ideas, and create solutions together. This model fosters a sense of community and helps prevent intellectual property theft. Open-source innovation refers to the collaborative development and sharing of ideas, knowledge, and resources within a community of individuals. In this model, projects are made freely available to the public, allowing anyone to access, modify, and distribute the source code or content. Open-source projects encourage a sense of community, as contributors work together to create solutions and improve existing ones. While it may seem counterintuitive, open-source innovation can actually help protect intellectual property by fostering transparency and collaboration. Here’s how open-source innovation helps prevent intellectual property theft and safeguards the contributions of individuals:

  • Licensing: Open-source projects are protected by specific licenses, such as the General Public License (GPL), the MIT License, or the Apache License. These licenses dictate the terms under which the source code or content can be used, modified, and redistributed. By adhering to the terms of the chosen license, contributors can ensure that their work is protected and that proper attribution is given.

  • Transparency: Open-source projects are developed in a transparent manner, with a publicly accessible version control system that tracks changes to the source code or content. This allows contributors to see who has made modifications to the project and when these changes were made. This level of transparency makes it difficult for someone to claim a project or idea as their own without giving due credit.
  • Collaboration: Open-source projects encourage contributors to work together, fostering a sense of shared ownership and responsibility. By collaborating on a project, individuals can collectively protect their intellectual property, as the community has a vested interest in ensuring that the contributions of its members are respected and acknowledged.
  • Reputation: In the open-source community, reputation is crucial. Contributors who engage in intellectual property theft or other unethical practices can quickly find themselves ostracized from the community. As a result, there is a strong incentive for individuals to respect the intellectual property of others and to act ethically when collaborating on open-source projects.
  • Legal protection: While open-source projects are accessible to the public, they still benefit from legal protection. Contributors can pursue legal action against those who violate the terms of the project’s license or engage in intellectual property theft. The open-source community is generally supportive of members who seek to protect their work from misuse.

Inclusive events: Organize events with an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity. Offer scholarships or lower-cost options for individuals who cannot afford to attend and actively seek participation from underrepresented groups. Inclusive events prioritize diversity and inclusivity, ensuring that individuals from various backgrounds, skill levels, and socioeconomic statuses can participate and benefit from the experience. By organizing events with an emphasis on inclusivity, we can create a more equitable and dynamic environment for innovation and collaboration. Here are some key aspects of organizing inclusive events and the benefits they offer:

  • Financial accessibility: To ensure that individuals from all financial backgrounds can participate, organizers can offer scholarships, lower-cost options, or even free attendance. By removing the financial barrier to entry, a wider range of participants can attend, fostering a diverse and dynamic environment for innovation.

  • Representation: Actively seeking participation from underrepresented groups, and people with disabilities, can create a more inclusive and diverse atmosphere. This representation is crucial in ensuring that various perspectives, ideas, and experiences are brought to the table, enriching the overall event.

  • Skill level inclusivity: Organizing events that cater to various skill levels encourages participation from individuals at different stages of their careers or education. Providing workshops, mentorship, and resources for beginners, as well as advanced sessions for experienced professionals, can create an inclusive environment where everyone can learn and grow.

  • Accommodations: Ensuring that event venues are accessible and accommodating to people with disabilities is essential for creating an inclusive atmosphere. This can include providing sign language interpreters, offering materials in alternative formats, and ensuring that the physical space is wheelchair-accessible.

  • Safe and welcoming environment: Establishing a code of conduct for the event can help create a safe and welcoming environment for all participants. This code should outline the expectations for behavior and provide guidelines for respectful communication and interaction. It is essential to enforce the code of conduct and address any issues that may arise promptly.

  • Networking and collaboration: Inclusive events can facilitate networking and collaboration among participants from diverse backgrounds. By creating opportunities for attendees to connect, share ideas, and form teams, these events can break down barriers and foster relationships that may lead to innovative solutions and projects.

Mentorship programs: Instead of focusing on competition, create mentorship programs that allow experienced professionals to share their knowledge and skills with aspiring innovators, fostering collaboration and personal growth. Mentorship programs offer an alternative to the competitive atmosphere often found in hackathons and similar events. By focusing on fostering collaboration and personal growth, mentorship programs provide a supportive environment where experienced professionals can share their knowledge and skills with aspiring innovators. Here are some key aspects and benefits of mentorship programs:

  • Knowledge transfer: Mentorship programs facilitate the transfer of knowledge from experienced professionals to less experienced individuals. Mentors can provide valuable insights, practical guidance, and industry-specific knowledge, helping mentees navigate their careers and overcome challenges.

  • Skill development: Through mentorship, aspiring innovators can develop essential technical and soft skills that are crucial to their success in the industry. Mentors can provide hands-on training, guidance on best practices, and advice on developing crucial soft skills like communication, teamwork, and problem-solving.

  • Networking: Mentorship programs provide opportunities for mentees to expand their professional network. By connecting with their mentors and other professionals, mentees can establish valuable relationships that may lead to job opportunities, collaborations, or other career-enhancing connections.

  • Support and encouragement: Mentors can offer emotional support and encouragement, helping mentees build confidence in their abilities and providing guidance on how to handle setbacks and challenges. This emotional support can be invaluable in helping mentees persevere through difficult times and stay motivated in their pursuit of success.

  • Personalized guidance: Mentorship programs allow for personalized guidance tailored to the unique needs and goals of the mentee. Mentors can help mentees set realistic objectives, create a roadmap for achieving their goals, and provide ongoing feedback to help them stay on track.

  • Collaboration and innovation: By fostering collaboration between mentors and mentees, mentorship programs can encourage the development of innovative ideas and projects. As experienced professionals and aspiring innovators work together, they can combine their unique perspectives and skills to create novel solutions to complex problems.

  • Long-term impact: Mentorship programs can have a lasting impact on the careers of both mentees and mentors. Mentees benefit from the guidance and support of their mentors, while mentors can gain a sense of satisfaction and personal growth from helping others succeed.

Emphasize collaboration over competition: Organize events that prioritize teamwork and the sharing of ideas, rather than individual success. This can help create a more positive and supportive environment for all participants. Emphasizing collaboration over competition is a powerful approach to organizing events that fosters a more positive and supportive environment for all participants. By prioritizing teamwork and the sharing of ideas, events can focus on learning, growth, and innovation rather than on individual accolades. Here are some key aspects and benefits of organizing events with a focus on collaboration:

  • Shared goals: Events that prioritize collaboration encourage participants to work together towards shared goals. By aligning interests and objectives, participants can focus on creating innovative solutions and learn from one another in the process.

  • Diverse perspectives: Collaborative events facilitate the exchange of diverse perspectives, which can lead to more creative and effective solutions. By bringing together individuals with different backgrounds, skills, and experiences, events can foster an environment that encourages the exploration of new ideas and approaches.

  • Enhanced learning: Collaboration allows participants to learn from each other, accelerating skill development and knowledge transfer. By working together on projects and challenges, participants can deepen their understanding of concepts and gain insights from their peers’ experiences.

  • Stronger relationships: Collaborative events promote the formation of strong professional and personal relationships. By working together towards a common goal, participants can develop a sense of camaraderie and trust, which can lead to long-lasting connections and potential future collaborations.

  • Increased motivation: A focus on collaboration can lead to increased motivation among participants, as they feel a sense of collective responsibility and support from their teammates. This can create a more positive atmosphere and encourage participants to push themselves to achieve their best.

  • Reduced stress and burnout: Collaborative events can help reduce stress and burnout by providing a supportive environment where participants can rely on their teammates and share the workload. This can lead to a more enjoyable and fulfilling experience for everyone involved.

  • Long-term impact: Events that emphasize collaboration can have a long-term impact on participants’ careers and personal growth. The skills, relationships, and experiences gained during collaborative events can contribute to participants’ future success and ongoing development.

Safeguarding Intellectual Property in Hackathons

Protecting young people and their intellectual property (IP) during traditional hackathons is crucial to ensure a fair and supportive environment. Here are some strategies to help safeguard their ideas and work:

Educate on IP rights: Before participating in hackathons, young people should be informed about intellectual property rights, including patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. Understanding these concepts can help them take the necessary steps to protect their ideas and creations.

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs): Encourage participants to sign non-disclosure agreements before sharing their ideas or projects with others. An NDA can help legally protect confidential information and reduce the risk of IP theft.

IP workshops: Organize workshops or seminars during hackathons to educate participants about IP rights and protection strategies. These workshops can provide practical guidance on how to safeguard their work effectively.

Clear guidelines and policies: Event organizers should establish clear guidelines and policies regarding intellectual property rights. This includes outlining the ownership of IP created during the event, the usage rights of submitted projects, and any licensing terms that may apply.

Event code of conduct: Establish a code of conduct for hackathon participants that clearly states the importance of respecting others’ IP rights. Make sure to communicate the consequences of violating these rules and follow through on enforcing them if necessary.

Encourage open-source projects: Promote the use of open-source licenses for projects developed during hackathons. This can help protect participants’ IP by ensuring proper attribution and usage terms, while also fostering collaboration and community involvement.

Provide legal support: Offer legal support or access to legal resources for participants who may require assistance in protecting their IP. This can include connecting them with IP attorneys or providing resources on how to file for patents, copyrights, or trademarks.

Careful team selection: Encourage participants to be cautious when selecting teammates or sharing ideas with others. Building trust and ensuring that everyone on the team respects each other’s contributions can help protect their collective IP.

Mentorship and guidance: Provide mentors or advisors who can guide young people on how to protect their IP effectively. These experienced professionals can offer valuable insights and advice based on their own experiences in the industry.

If you find that some of the essential aspects mentioned above are missing in a hackathon, it is essential to weigh the benefits and potential risks before making a decision. Here are some steps you can take in such a situation:

  • Raise concerns: Communicate your concerns to the event organizers and ask for clarification about the missing aspects. They may be willing to address your concerns and make necessary changes to improve the experience for all participants.

  • Assess the potential risks: Evaluate the potential risks associated with participating in the hackathon. Consider the possibility of IP theft, lack of diversity, unhealthy work practices, or any other issues that could negatively impact your experience or career. Weigh these risks against the potential benefits of participating, such as networking, skill development, and potential recognition.
  • Seek external advice: Consult with mentors, peers, or legal advisors to gather their opinions and advice about whether to participate in the hackathon. They may provide valuable insights and recommendations based on their own experiences or knowledge of the event.
  • Participate with caution: If you decide to participate despite the missing aspects, exercise caution by protecting your IP, being selective about sharing ideas, and practicing healthy work habits. Make sure to network and build relationships with like-minded individuals who share your values and concerns.
  • Advocate for change: Use your voice to advocate for positive changes in the hackathon community. Share your experiences and concerns with others, and work together to create more inclusive, ethical, and supportive environments for future hackathons.
  • Explore alternative events: If you decide not to participate in a hackathon due to the missing aspects, consider seeking out alternative events or opportunities that align better with your values and priorities. This may include collaborative workshops, mentorship programs, or inclusive innovation events that prioritize healthy work practices and IP protection.

A Reference Model for IP Protection in Hackathons

Intellectual property (IP) protection is a crucial aspect of hackathons, as it helps safeguard the rights of participants and ensure fair compensation for their work. However, IP guidelines are often unclear or overlooked in these events. To address this issue, we present a model for IP protection in hackathons that can be adopted by organizers and companies to create a more transparent and equitable environment for participants.

  1. Pre-event communication and agreement: Before the hackathon, organizers should communicate IP policies and expectations to potential participants. This can be done through the event website, registration materials, and any pre-event communication channels. A clear, written agreement should be signed by participants to confirm their understanding of and agreement to the IP policies.
  1. IP education: During the event, organizers should provide educational resources or a workshop on IP rights, protection, and best practices. This will help participants understand the importance of IP protection and familiarize themselves with the necessary steps to secure their rights.
  1. Ownership and licensing: The default policy should be that participants retain ownership of the IP they create during the hackathon. If a company or organizer wishes to use the work created during the event, a clear and fair licensing agreement should be negotiated. This agreement should detail the specific rights granted to the company, any compensation or royalties for the participant, and any limitations or conditions on the use of the IP.
  1. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs): In cases where confidential information or trade secrets are involved, organizers may require participants to sign NDAs. These agreements should be clear about the scope of the confidential information, the obligations of the participants, and the duration of the confidentiality requirement.
  1. Open-source projects: For hackathons focused on open-source development or community-driven projects, organizers should provide clear guidelines on how IP will be managed within the open-source context. This may include specifying the open-source license under which the work will be released and any obligations or rights that participants will have as contributors to the project.
  1. Dispute resolution: Organizers should establish a clear process for resolving IP disputes that may arise during or after the hackathon. This process should include steps for identifying the issue, gathering relevant information, and determining a fair and equitable resolution.
  1. Post-event follow-up: After the hackathon, organizers should follow up with participants to ensure that any agreed-upon IP arrangements are being honored. This may include checking in with participants who have licensed their work to the company or ensuring that open-source projects are being managed in accordance with the agreed-upon guidelines.


While hackathons have the potential to create valuable networking opportunities and inspire innovation, they must prioritize ethical practices and the well-being of their participants. By adopting alternative approaches, we can foster a more inclusive, collaborative, and supportive environment for young innovators to thrive. Let’s work together to create a more ethical future for the tech industry.

Late note: I was adviced by readers to add a new toxic practice that it was experienced by some participants, the so-called “bad-faith mentors“. I am going to expand the topic beyond the space of hackathons.

Bad-Faith Mentors are a Challenge to the Spirit of Collaboration!

Mentorship plays a pivotal role in personal and professional development, fostering an environment of learning, collaboration, and growth. However, the presence of bad-faith mentors can pose a significant challenge to this collaborative spirit. These mentors may engage in discouraging or undermining behaviors, driven by self-interest or a desire to impede the progress of those they are supposed to guide. Often, they may feel threatened by the ideas and successes of others, leading them to act unethically.

In various settings, such as hackathons, academic institutions, or professional environments, bad-faith mentors can obstruct innovation and demotivate individuals seeking guidance. This negative influence can stifle creativity, hinder progress, and impact the overall atmosphere, turning what should be a supportive and nurturing experience into a discouraging and frustrating one.

Addressing the issue of bad-faith mentors requires a multifaceted approach, including promoting a culture of openness, implementing mentor review systems, and providing mentor training. By raising awareness of this challenge and actively working to mitigate it, we can foster a more inclusive and supportive environment that encourages collaboration, creativity, and growth for everyone involved.

In the context of hackathons, the issue of bad-faith mentors can indeed be challenging. Hackathons are competitive events where teams work together to create innovative solutions in a short timeframe, and mentors play a crucial role in providing guidance and support. To address bad-faith mentoring in hackathons some preventive actions might be considered, as follow:

Establish clear mentorship guidelines: Hackathon organizers should create and enforce clear guidelines for mentors, emphasizing the importance of ethical behavior, fairness, and constructive feedback. This can help minimize instances of mentors discouraging ideas that they find personally interesting.

Encourage transparency and open communication: Organizers should promote an environment where participants feel comfortable discussing their concerns or experiences with bad-faith mentors. This can help identify problematic behavior and address it promptly.

Implement a mentor review system: A review system, such as anonymous feedback or peer evaluations, can help hold mentors accountable for their actions and discourage bad-faith behavior.

Assign multiple mentors: Allocating more than one mentor to each team can reduce the impact of a single bad-faith mentor, as team members can seek advice and support from other mentors.

Provide mentor training: Offer training sessions for mentors on how to provide effective guidance and feedback, as well as the importance of ethical behavior during the event. This can help prevent unintentional bad-faith actions and ensure that mentors are aware of their responsibilities.

Monitor mentor behavior: Organizers should keep a close eye on mentor interactions with participants and intervene if they notice any bad-faith behavior. This can help create a supportive and fair environment for all participants.


Credits: Stelian Brad