Erie Hack Aims to Solve Lake’s Challenges with Tech-Driven Solutions

Even though Michigan is surrounded by one of the world’s most abundant sources of freshwater, it’s still plagued by water-related challenges, such as the Flint water crisis, high lead levels in the water at Detroit public schools, and PFAS contamination. And with the Trump administration looking to cut federal funding for Great Lakes water restoration by 90 percent in its latest budget proposal, one could argue the situation may grow more precarious.

It’s with that in mind that six cities in the Lake Erie basin—Detroit; Buffalo, NY; Cleveland; Toledo, OH; Erie, PA; and Windsor, ON—are teaming up for Erie Hack, an innovation competition led by the Cleveland Water Alliance that seeks to generate tech-based solutions to help alleviate some of Lake Erie’s challenges.

Erie Hack kicked off in February with a series of pre-competition educational events, and on Thursday, TechTown Detroit will host its first hacking day as part of the competition. The event, designed to encourage team formation and the sharing of ideas, is free and open to the public.

Erie Hack events will take place in all six cities throughout the spring. Teams will have a few weeks to develop innovations before each city hosts a quarter final. (Detroit’s is on April 13.) From there, up to three teams will advance to the regional semi-final, held at Detroit’s Cobo Center on June 5 in conjunction with the Sustainable Brands conference. The final winners will be announced on June 30 in Cleveland.

“Water is of major importance to sustainability—[the conference] saw Erie Hack as a great complement to its innovation expo,” says Detroit Urban Solutions director Paul Riser Jr. “Our teams will be able to pitch in front of hundreds of people and the top 50 to 100 brands in the world.”

At stake is more than $100,000 in cash and prizes, with prizes awarded at various points along the way to the finals. All hacking teams must register to compete by March 29. Competitors can come with their own teams assembled ahead of time, or they can recruit people in the audience who may have skills their team lacks. The event on Thursday will include a networking portion so attendees can discuss ideas with one another. People who don’t plan to hack are also “strongly encouraged” to attend to watch the process unfold, he says.

In 2016, the Cleveland Water Alliance collaborated with a team at the NASA Glenn Research Center as well as 150 water and technology organizations to identify Lake Erie’s most pressing problems. That process spawned seven core challenge questions in need of solutions, with topics including improving water infrastructure, creating more actionable data, and reducing pollution. Each participating team will choose one challenge to “hack” for the competition.

Riser says Erie Hack is about more than just creating apps. Engineering and data are important, he notes, but competitors should also understand potential markets or customers, create teams with the ability to execute, and devise a plan for scaling up production.

Riser says Detroit is a natural fit for the competition given its entrepreneurial ecosystem, strong research community, and its stake in the future of the Great Lakes. He also hopes everyday people who have lived through water pollution will join hacking teams.

“Erie Hack gives us the opportunity to create, test, and deploy solutions that will work here,” Riser adds. “And if they work here, they may work elsewhere in the world.”

Riser says that support resources will also be available to Erie Hack teams that don’t advance to the finals.

“Even if you don’t win money, that doesn’t mean your solution won’t have potential customers,” he continues, adding that the event has corporate and philanthropic partners eager to engage. “There’s a landing pad for these ideas to evolve beyond the finals. We see our role as bringing together people we have catalyzed, and keeping them involved by connecting them to other organizations.”

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