Sustainable Life, Challenge Accepted – an interview with Lisa Leibold and Aurélie Wen

To keep the intellectual property with the developer is of great importance for Agorize,” say Lisa Leibold and Aurélie Wen from Agorize in Canada, as we speak about open innovation and hackathons as a service against the background of one of their latest projects, the “Discover AI challenge: Sustainable Life” for Microsoft Canada.

Sebastian Klemm: How do you describe open innovation processes from your point of view: How did they evolve and what are they about?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Open innovation includes the public into innovation processes, it utilizes resources of an ecosystem as well as from the public to develop new ideas and innovate.

In comparison, the traditional innovation approach is that of a closed innovation, where companies want to protect their knowledge and innovation is seen as the business of conventional experts. This process started to open up more and more. First by including other employees as well as by fostering diversity and different viewpoints. Then the process was opened to business partners, the organization’s ecosystem and finally everyone, e.g. students and start-ups.

Today, diversity is seen as key to enhance creativity, where the commbination of different skill sets and points of view drives successful innovation. In our fast-paced modern world companies are challenged to constantly evolve. Innovating efficiently is essential.

Moreover, by including the public, the needs of the society can be better understood and met. Open innovation is thus a mix of marketing that is more efficient and effective.

Sebastian Klemm: Has open innovation always found its implementation in the form of hackathons?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: There are many different forms of open innovation, for instance open source platforms, crowdsourcing, collaborative product design and development.

Hackathons as a form of idea competitions have been around since mid 2000 implemented by tech teams to encourage their employees to develop ideas. Since then hackathons have been closely related to the tech industry and are viewed as a competition created solely for engineers or programmers, but the idea of open innovations or hackathons has been changing and opened up to other fields as well.

Sebastian Klemm: Among others, Agorize has just run the “Discover AI challenge: Sustainable Life” for Microsoft Canada. How did the project originate and how was the challenge organized?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Microsoft Canada strives to educate around AI and is already invested in other projects as for example bootcamps in Canadian Universities about AI technology, for example Azure.

To reach a wider range of students and universities Microsoft Canada decided to give it an online dimension and organize an online hackathon, the “Discover AI challenge: Sustainable Life”. (Read more here.)

Sebastian Klemm: To which areas of life does the goal “Sustainable Life” refer? Who brought in the expertise on sustainability for these areas?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: The teams could select one or many themes based on the four UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are critical areas for building sustainable life: Climate Action, Good Health & Well Being, Quality Education, and Sustainable Cities & Communities. (Read more here.)

Sebastian Klemm: Your “Challenge AI: Sustainable Life” for Microsoft Canada animated the participants to use Microsoft software tools for their innovative solutions development. AI, as all digitalization processes, builds on ubiquitious data, doesn’t it? In some cases, sustainability is also referred to as a blind spot in digitisation.

Have you been discussing the relation of sustainability and ubiquitious data and its constituting necesssary energy supply during development of this particular challenge: with the client as well as the participants?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: We are of course conscious about the importance of the issue of energy supply. First of all, we think it is more sustainable to run hackathons as online challenges compared to hackathons where participants are traveling to and running the event requires much more resources.

Second, the generation of innovators today is so much conscious about environment that they by themselves make thoughts about sustainability an issue in our challenges, indeed.

As for the particular challenge „Challenge AI: Sustainable Life“, sustainability was one of the core judging criteria for all the projects. So yes, sustainability is very much a part of our challenges.

Sebastian Klemm: The final event of the challenge happened on June 26th. Which contributions made it to the finals and who selected the winners?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: The finalists were selected based on several criteria: technical excellence, originality and innovation, impact and potential, feasibility, adherence as well as team complementarity. Six teams were invited to the finals: “Filet Mignons”, “SymSolve”, “Hegemons”, “Easy Read”, “FarmStrong” and “EarthQuick”.

The jury choosing the finalists consisted of experts from Microsoft Canada as well as Agorize. The jury at the final was comprised of Marc Seaman (VP Education at Microsoft Canada), Sylvie Giguerre (Director of Sales, Microsoft Canada), Khalil Alfar (General Manager, Microsoft Azure Canada), Aurélie Wen (Managing Partner Agorize Canada) and Rhea Mehta (scientist, CEO of Bowhead Health).

“Discover AI challenge: Sustainable Life”, winning team: Bohan Jiang, Jane Wang and Kevin Liu created “Medico”, a physical therapy app that analyzes patient-uploaded videos, providing real-time feedback and progress reports for the physician.

Sebastian Klemm: Could you elaborate on Agorize’s value proposition at “Hackathons As A Service”?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: On the one hand our value proposition is valid for the platform: the challenges are hosted on our platform which is specifically developed for hackathons.

In addition, we distinguish ourselves through our community which consists of 5 million innovators worldwide that are connected with our clients.

Then there is our vast expertise: We have been organizing open innovation challenges and hackathons since 2011, building our great expertise, a great number of Agorize employees have participated in challenges themselves and hence understand the needs of the participants.

Agorize is the mission link between companies and organizations seeking out innovative ideas, talent, partnerships and digital transformation as well as innovators from across the world who want to be identified by and provide value to organizations and businesses.

We offer three business models: Student- and Start-up challenges, internal challenges, licensing of platform.

Sebastian Klemm: Innovators initially register on the Agorize platform. – Frankly, I am also not all around coercively active anymore wherever i have registered once.

Thus, what does your data analysis tell you: Are the mentioned 5 million innovators actually active? How many innovators have participated in challenges recurrently (2 or more times)?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: We track all our passive and active users. We currently have about 2 million active innovators. Yet, we still count all 5 million users who have subscribed as innovators, since they all still receive our emails and emerging calls for participation.

Sebastian Klemm: You mentioned “licensing of platform” as one of Agorize’s business model propositions. What does that include and how does it work?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Licensing of platform means that we can provide our platform and infrastructure to any company for say one year for them to run their own challenges. One example is Deutsche Telekom, which you can see, if you go to

With our support Deutsche Telekom is running this platform for one year.

Sebastian Klemm: How did the company and service of Agorize come about? What is distinctive and special about Agorize in the context of open innovation processes?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Agorize was founded by three students – Charles Thou, Yohann Melamed and Yohan Attal – who identified a lot of inconsistencies with hackathons: They found that hackathons were limited to a very short time frame, bound to a specific location and most of the time restricted to engineers and programmes, impeding a lot of students and therefore a lot of potentially valuable ideas from contributing.

On the Agorize platforms open innovation challenges can be managed online, allowing participants a greater time frame and improved collaboration as teams can be built and maintained despite geographical dispersion. 

Furthermore, Agorize opened up hackathons for participants from various types of fields, allowing a greater diversity which is proven to bring better results. Agorize also offers challenges for start-ups or internal challenges for companies.

Agorize is special because it changes the way hackathons are conducted and increases the value for all stakeholders: for the participants – which can be students, start-ups or employees – as well as for the project initiating companies.

Sebastian Klemm: What methods does Agorize employ to drive innovation within its own organization?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Actually, we employ the same methodology that we provide as a service for our own organization. Every year we conduct an internal innovation challenge at Agorize including all our offices worldwide. We usually set up 3 to 4 topics e.g. „marketing and sales“ or „better community“. We really are after a basic democratic approach. Thus the judges to our internal challenge are both our three co-founders as well as every employee who cast their vote.

“Discover AI challenge: Sustainable Life”, winning team: Paul Bugnon, Marie Laforet, Matthew Mannarino and Sarah Amini imagined “SymSolve”, a solution enabling plastic surgeons to recreate the natural shape in breast reconstruction for breast cancer patients by leveraging AR technologies and AI data processing to provide surgery suggestions.

Sebastian Klemm: What are the main incentives for brands to run open innovation challenges on your platform?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: A brand’s motivation to conduct a challenge may be manifold: from talent acquisition and employer branding to innovative concepts development, brand recognition as well as boosting employees’ creativity.

Sebastian Klemm: With regard to “brand recognition” and “employer branding”: Has the staging of a challenge in and of itself already the aspired entrepreneurial impact? Else, how important is it, that the innovation stimulated in a challenge is continued in the corporate culture, delivering a measurable impact?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: How one can keep the momentum going is of course a very important question. However this has mostly to do with corporate culture. And to be frank, the service of Agorize ends when the challenge is over. Agorize does not accelerate or incubate within companies.

Sebastian Klemm: For developers, students and start-ups: What are their benefits to take part in such challenges?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Students and developers can explore entrepreneurship and gain valuable experience by solving real problems. They can receive effective mentoring from experts, build and expand their network as well as win prizes. Of course, there may also arise opportunities to be hired.

In adition, start-ups may secure new investments as well as partnerships with companies that help to accelerate their project and business development.

Sebastian Klemm: What are the outcomes for both sides, the client and the participants?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Of course new projects, ideas and possible talent acquisition on the corporate side as well as entrepreneurial and job opportunities on the participants side are the beneficial outcomes of each challenge, next to a constant gain in education and experience on both sides.

“Discover AI challenge: Sustainable Life”, winning team: Ivan Song, Jonathan Chiang and Nathan Morrissey built an online community app that utilizes AI to empower and connect businesses, governments and individuals to collaborate and engage in sustainable efforts as a collectivity.

Sebastian Klemm: What happens after a challenge? Does Agorize provide or assist in shaping further, sustainable processes of continuous knowledge transfer?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: We are experts in organizing challenges and helping students, start-ups and companies to find new ideas and develop projects.

After the challenge, the participants and companies have the opportunity to work together to realize the project. 

Participants can also decide to start a business individually; they already build a great network and potential partnerships through the challenge, so it is the perfect starting point.

Agorize is always keen to see projects being realized and helping participants to connect with the right institutions to proceed their project for example incubators and accelerators. 

Sebastian Klemm: With regard to the “rights of use”: Who owns the industrial copyrights of the know-how created at a challenge organized by Agorize?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: To keep the intellectual property with the developer, hence the participants, is a great value for Agorize.

Sebastian Klemm: When registering for a challenge organized by Agorize, participants agree that their deliverables will be governed by the “Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 France” Licence (the “Licence”). As such, the organizers are free to reproduce the deliverables, to distribute them, to inform the public about them and to modify them.

Can you describe what exactly “deliverables” of a challenge are or could be and explain in this respect the correlation of the IP granted to the developers (participants) and the role of the Creative Commons employed by Agorize?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: First off, the principles of the Creative Commons are quite simple and it is just one of the options one may apply. Now, deliverables can be presentations, videos, apps, prototypes of any kind. Usually the deliverables in challenges start as presentations of 3 to 5 slides by the participating teams and become deeper and more profound the further the challenge progresses.

Then there are several options as to how a challenge can be set up in terms of IP. Option 1 means all IP is with the participants. Option 2 is a mixed IP where ownership is shared among the companies and the participants, since the companies put in a lot of effort and provide mentorship during the challenge. Option 3 can be that IP is with the participants and the company who set up the challenge has a first buyer priviledge.

The early ideas are just a commodity. The IP starts when those ideas become a tangible work.

Sebastian Klemm: Any deliverable involving several participants constitutes a collaborative work. What happens if a team of challengers breaks up after a hackathon – and one of the members continues and decides to start their own company:

How can their former teammates (and also their new teammates) be sure that they get their fair share?

Lisa Leibold & Aurélie Wen: Most of the participants take part in challenges for the fun of it. In fact, you would be surprised at how few actually aim to build a real company based on a successful challenge. Most participants don’t want to struggle with founding a company. They aspire a job opportunity much more often.

However, there are many good ways to cope with the legal matters for all parties involved.

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