Over the first weekend in March, hackers, coders, and computer scientists from across the country gathered at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology to compete in the HudsonAlpha Tech Challenge (HATCH), a one-of-a-kind genomics- and biotechnology-themed hack-a-thon. 

HudsonAlpha’s Paul Propst Center was filled with over 50 high school students, college students, and professionals, solving problems related to genomic data security, and AI and AR technology. 

As the weekend went on, the usually quiet office building came to life. Teams turned conference rooms into project headquarters, mentors assisted hackers with challenges as the common areas buzzed , and whiteboards filled with sample lines of code, business models, and pitch presentation notes.

Solving globally significant challenges

Created in 2017, HATCH is one of the few biotech-themed events of its kind in the country. Students, coders, and computer scientists compete for over $5,000 in prizes in two categories, High School Student and College/Professional. Teams in both categories solve problems faced by genetics and genomics researchers, as well as bioinformatic and biotech professionals around the world. 

This year, participants chose between three challenges: creating an AI-enabled science writing system, an AR platform that enables greenhouse and plant science education, or a cybersecurity framework to protect genomic databases. These globally relevant prompts offer participants valuable and marketable experience tackling real-world challenges in a safe environment. 

At the end of a long and exciting weekend, teams presented their solutions in a pitch competition for a chance to place in their respective category. 

GeneShield won the high school division for its cybersecurity platform that would protect genomic information while providing secure access to essential stakeholders, such as researchers and investigators. The team was made up of students from the Alabama School of Cyber technology and Engineering and Pope John Paul II Catholic High School. The winners included Eugene Park, William Mitchell, Jacob Shumer, Uriah Chumpitaz, and Katherine Allen.

“Winning means a lot because many of us are hoping to have a career in the field of cybersecurity,” said Mitchell. “This is a huge accomplishment we can put on our resumes. Knowing that our skills are competitive at this level today is encouraging. Maybe in the future we’ll be just as competitive when we enter the workforce.” 

ARboretum won the college and professional division. The team designed an iOS/Android and PC application that enhances learning and engagement in the field of botany. The team consisted of Mia Kotalik and Ethan Rush, students at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., and Karl Kotalik, Vice President of Global Intelligence at Everbridge, from Tucson, Ariz.

“One of the best parts about competing in HATCH is getting to interact with other people who’re interested in bioinformatics,” said Mia Kotalik. “This is one of the few bioinformatics hackathons in the U.S. Being around other people in this field is incredible.”

An emphasis on workforce development

HudsonAlpha’s Economic Development team hosts HATCH each year, helping nurture entrepreneurship and growth in the field of biotechnology. One of the Institute’s core mission areas, the Economic Development team recruits start-up, early-stage, and established bioscience companies of all sizes to HudsonAlpha’s biotech campus. T

The Economic Development team created  HATCH as a pipeline for workforce development in bioscience. For many HATCH participants, the event is their first introduction to biotechnology and genomics. Teams spend their time on HudsonAlpha’s campus, and are introduced  to HudsonAlpha faculty members, bioinformaticians, and cybersecurity staff who  serve as mentors throughout the weekend. 

The event’s collaborative set-up allows students to meet mentors and potential employers. It also inspires future generations to join the world of biotechnology. For professionals, HATCH serves as a place where entrepreneurs can network and exchange ideas.

“The HudsonAlpha Tech Challenge is a unique event in the world of hack-a-thons, and certainly in the world of genomics and biotechnology,” said Abbie Ruesy, HudsonAlpha Economic Development Marketing Coordinator. “It reflects HudsonAlpha’s spirit of collaboration by bringing together people from across the country, and centers on how critical computer science and bioinformatics are to solving some of today’s most pressing challenges. The comradery, community, and creativity of HATCH are a reminder of how important it is to provide opportunities for computer scientists to apply their skills in a bioinformatics setting.”