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What are Hackathons and How do They Work?

July 01, 2022 - 7 min read

The objective of most hackathons is to find effective solutions to challenging problems in computer programming and more recently, with DeFi and Web3 applications.

hackathons supraoracles polygon tron


Hacker culture is most often traced back to the 1960’s MIT computer science department to a group called the Tech Model Railroad Club. Long story short, computer programming started becoming noticeably more centered around enjoyment as opposed to research or occupational work. The group came together to identify pressing issues, and collectively develop solutions which address them. This sort of collaboration is the essential spirit of what constitutes a modern-day hackathon.

In other words, hackathons facilitate engagement, enjoyment, and creativity amongst programmers, enterprises, and a variety of stakeholders when it comes to Web3 protocols. Hackathons are free from the typical constraints of developing something new in that they are gamified and tend to have low stakes. 

The playful environment fosters a genuine sense of community among like-minded enthusiasts, while the competitive aspects drive innovation. The hype surrounding the event is fertile ground for leveraging the skills and reach of an organization’s marketing and business development teams, as well.

How Do Hackathons Work?

Predominantly, the objective of most hackathons is to find effective solutions to challenging problems in computer programming and more recently, with DeFi and Web3 applications. Developers, designers, engineers, creatives, and other relevant team members compete to discover solutions to present for evaluation at the culmination of the hackathon. 

Meanwhile, organizers and sponsors announce as well as seek for new collaboration opportunities, engage the participants with games and presentations, attend to organizational aspects of the event, and stage networking sessions.

We most commonly associate hackathons with software developers and youthful fintech entrepreneurs, but all sorts of projects are starting to emulate hackathons in order to identify and solve challenges in their fields. Aside from software developers, organizations without a heavy emphasis on tech are also using these hackathons to leverage the brainstorming and development sessions to inspire fresh ideas. 

We are talking about everything from political influence, cultural messaging, or addressing logistics problems in supply chain management. For example, an organization could host a small hackathon with a focus on making its services more enticing to millennials. Experts with a variety of professional experience and perspectives come together in addressing all sorts of topics, whether they be technical or not. Nevertheless, we will focus primarily on hackathons as they pertain to Web3 and the future of finance as it transitions to digital rails.

While hackathons are often internally organized and hosted, more organizations are now opening their hackathons to anyone who wants to take part, though participants often need to purchase tickets to the event.

hackathons by sector
Source: HackerEarth, “Demystifying Hackathons”

Hackathons typically run from 24 to 72 hours, though there are variations to the standard, of course. Once teams are selected or have officially declared their participation, a week or two is given to them for preparation. 

At this time members strategize on how to best prepare and assign roles designating responsibility for certain aspects of the task at hand. Sometimes, hackathon participants are given even less time to prepare for the challenge, with new teams forming during the first hours of the event, meaning strategies and roles must be developed on the spot. 

Depending on your industry and goal, hackathon setups can vary. For example, Solana runs virtual hackathons with millions of dollars in prizes being awarded to successful participants. On the other hand, the Vatican has sponsored hackathons with a focus on social activism like messaging around social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and lobbying for resources to be allocated towards migrants and refugees arriving in Europe.

While each hackathon’s purposes will vary, the setup of most have a familiar structure whether they be virtual or physical: generate and present novel concepts to the problem posed. In robotics or engineering, this could take the form of both functioning software, or even a physical prototype. Though hackathons can include a variety of structures, a few commonalities are as follows with regards to the competition itself:

  • Introductions and opening keynote speech
  • Overview of the event (challenges are laid out along with rules and expectations)
  • Project pitches (and potentially team formation)
  • The challenge itself (team collaboration in competitive arena)
  • Presentations and discussions of challenges (sometimes good ideas limited by time constraints)
  • Winners are awarded prizes
  • Commencement keynote speech

As mentioned, organizers often arrange closing programs which help cultivate community participation and engagement, and find networking opportunities within their ecosystem in the case of Web3. These follow-up opportunities are helpful for organizers to collect feedback and build on the momentum for future hackathons or collaborations.

At physical events, it’s not uncommon to see sponsors offering full hardware labs set up for the event, giving participants a chance to showcase their latest tech while pursuing the prize money. Other high-profile sponsors will put forth awards and other giveaways for using their products, tools, or software in the competition.

Hackathons: Pragmatic for Startups, Coders, Users, & Enterprises

Hackathons make efforts to be as inclusive as possible, welcoming programmers and market participants of all experience levels. Despite the competitive ethos inherent to hackathons, participants are also treated to a good time, and wisely take the opportunities to learn or implement creative flourishes. Nevertheless, it’s best to bring at least a rudimentary understanding of Web3 and writing code in order to compete.

The prime ingredient of the hackathon’s success is derived from its practicality wed with an emphasis on creative freedom. Instead of ascribing specific instructions which can be replicated easily, experts are simultaneously challenged with technical problems while unshackling themselves from the constraints of a concept’s economic viability. Essentially, hackathons take developers through a mini-process of innovation, moving through phases of problem discovery, ideation, and creating a proof of concept.

role of hackathon in innovation process
Hackathons capture the magic of the first three steps in the innovation process.

In addition to innovation and tech implementation, hackathon participants learn from experts, pitch their ideas to investors, network, apply for job opportunities, and enjoy an atmosphere of like-minded tech aficionados. Fintech-related hackathons have more than just cash or merchandise prizes up for grabs, too. While some hackathons have offered things like items and software subscriptions, many announce internships, NFTs, and cryptocurrency awards as prices as well. 

Hackathons are great opportunities for upskilling rapidly. Ask plenty of questions and even prepare a list of key speakers or events in advance to get the most out of your time at the hackathon. Depending on its availability, scan a list of workshops and speakers to identify relevant stakeholders who might be appropriate to have in your network for future collaboration.

Potential Recruiting Grounds for Digital Network-States

Critics have pointed out that sponsored hackathons may be at odds with the initial ethos of such events in that it has been made into a big business. Perhaps prize money might constrain the creative process or otherwise attract programmers seeking personal gains. However, strong cases can be made that the resources put into hackathons will inevitably bring people together in solving real-world problems, whether it be coders in a garage or software engineers at an enterprise brand. 

Furthermore, while hackathons can be festive, their impact is nevertheless powerful and lasting. The inclusive and creative culture of sharing they facilitate, the variety of young talent they attract, the gamified projects they challenge participants with, and their overall versatility in applicability make hackathons an ideal tool for Web3 projects to use for innovation, building talent-pool pipelines, and building strategic partnerships.

In fact, by hosting hackathons often and doing it well may inevitably give rise to a healthy ecosystem of engaged participants. That is, taking what is online and marrying it with the physical world on a regular basis could facilitate the onboarding of committed citizens to what Balaji Srinivasan calls the network state

Imagine an archipelago of islands separated by oceans but still interconnected infrastructurally, and now compare this to the variety of Layer 1 ecosystems and their stakeholders, separated by cyberspace. If one of the islands is having a big party and the others hear, they might come visit to have a good time. To have staying power, projects need to essentially lay claim to one of these islands in the archipelago and tell the people that not only is our island having a good time, but we solve meaningful problems as well.

Hackathons may be the perfect recruiting ground for your little slice of paradise, your network state. Let the games begin.


  1. Fernholz, S. (2020, 28 May). Hackathons: What are they and how to run them. Hype Innovation.
  2. Lawrence, A. (2016, 22 Feb.). What is a hackathon? A newbie’s guide to collaborative coding. Rasmussen University. 
  3. Srinivasan, B. (2021 11 Nov.). The network state. 1729.

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