What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Stefan Kunst, innovation lead for Odyssey, about organising hackathons to foster innovations that will form the basis of a new public digital commons (or ‘Blockchain’, for non-techies).
By Erin Goedhart-Stallings
Odyssey’s blockchain and AI (artificial intelligence) hackathon is the biggest in the world. The third edition took place at the Suikerfabriek in Groningen on 11-15 April 2019 and involved 100 teams of programmers who worked on 20 challenges from governmental, corporate and non-profit partners. The teams with the best solutions shared a €200,000 prize and will have their bright ideas accelerated by Odyssey and partners such as VentureLab North, Brightlands and Yes! Delft into fully-fledged products and companies.
‘Blockchain is a means to unlock the data silo that is your organisation’, Kunst says. For example, a liquor store clerk has to make sure his customer is at least 18 years old. Currently, the customer has to show the clerk her ID, which has a lot more information. The clerk doesn’t need to know – and shouldn’t know – her full name, date of birth, or address. If the government agrees to unlock the data through a blockchain application, the clerk can get the one piece of information he needs: whether the customer is of age. The rest stays private.’
‘We are building the next generation public digital infrastructure.’ What is a digital infrastructure? Kunst explains: ‘When I e-mail you from my Gmail to your Outlook, I’m e-mailing from one company, Google, to another, Microsoft. The only reason you can read that e-mail is a thing called an e-mail protocol. The protocol is owned by no one; it is fully open sourced and adapted by everyone to build e-mail clients like Outlook or Gmail. With the hackathon, we get 20 corporate, governmental, and non-profit partners who say, “I want people to build a protocol which is not owned by me, but which I can use and my competitor can use as well”. We use blockchain and AI and other relevant technologies to achieve this. Then we can finally get to use the Internet for what it’s for: mass collaboration.’
Odyssey is a new sort of company, fostering knowledge creation beyond their own staff. ‘Airbnb is the largest “hotel company” in the world without owning any hotels’, Kunst says. ‘We see ourselves as one of the world’s larger innovation companies because we have delivered 135 prototypes over the last two years. And we have done that without employing any developers ourselves.’
‘As a company, we are both hyper international and hyper local. International because last year we had teams from 22 countries at our hackathon in Groningen. And local because we work with local suppliers who all go the extra mile for each edition. They have grown together with us and the hackathon, from 350 to 900 to 1500 people.’
‘Dutch not required’
Half of Odyssey’s employees come from outside the Netherlands. ‘It helped when we started putting the phrase “Dutch not required” in our job openings’, Kunst says. ‘We are an all-English company since our events draw people from all over the world. We have benefited massively from having staff from Ukraine, Moldova, and Slovenia. They expanded our Western European mindset and help us understand more about the world.’
Despite their international outlook, Odyssey intends to stay in Groningen. ‘This is where our roots are, and it’s a really important part of our company. We do stuff here in Groningen with the hackathon that we couldn’t do in Amsterdam because we know the people here. For us, Groningen is a big village where everyone is really positive and tries to help each other out.’
Following this third successful hackathon, the future of Odyssey looks bright. ‘We are currently expanding internationally,’ Kunst says. ‘The fun thing is in the 21st century you can have an office in Groningen and still work everywhere in the world!’
Erin Goedhart-Stallings is a writer and editor working with the IWCN on Make it in the North