Jonathan Burnett is an only child. He never shared a bedroom until May, when he was selected as a HackerHouse cadet. Since May, he’s had three roommates and shared a bathroom with eight other people.
“It’s like a frat house for nerds,” Burnett, a rising junior studying computer engineering at UF said. “Chaotic but fun.”
The house is one part startup incubator, one part mentorship program, two pinches retreat and a dash of reality TV. The nine cadets work together in teams to create a company, complete with a prototype and business model. There are eight weeks of prototyping and four weeks of business planning.
In August at the end of the three-month program, the winning prototype will receive $50,000 in financial and professional prizes.
HackerHouse was the brainchild of Trendy Entertainment co-founder and CEO Augi Lye. The idea came to him this December: too many incubators emphasized the business plan over the project itself. He wanted to create an environment where teams could build viable products. And he needed an entire house to do it.
That same weekend, he went house hunting and found the Camellia house at 205 NE 6th Ave. in the historic Duckpond neighborhood. Within two weeks, he closed on the mint-green house with coral and white trim.
Lye, a Star Trek fan, assembled a team of eleven mentors, dubbed “captains.” Lye’s title within the house is “admiral,” although no one has ever addressed him as such. The Star Trek double parabola logo is even on the cadet’s t-shirts.
“Most startups die in the cradle,” Christian Von Kleist, one of the captains, said. “And we can prevent that from happening.”
There is no set schedule. The cadets have time to teach themselves PHP or figure out how to build a laser or tinker with the house’s 3D printer (for the record, all of these happened) if they so choose. During Von Kleist’s week as the go-to mentor, he was frequently at the house until 2 a.m. answering questions and brainstorming with the cadets.
From a pool of 81 applicants, eight were chosen to eat, sleep and hack in the house. Lye sought people who were self-motivated doers.
The cadets get room and board for free; Lye wanted to eliminate the problem many startup founders face: struggling financially to make ends meet until their business took off.
“They were all handpicked because they’re these extremely nerdy people who like to create things,” Von Kleist, who helped with the selection process, said.
When one of cadets already had an app built and a business partner established, they brought his teammate into the house, raising the total number of cadets to nine.
Unlike the many house-full-of-people reality shows, which encourage dischord and petty fights, the cadets are all obviously friends.
Mat Chandler, the oldest cadet at 27, has lived alone for the past few years. He didn’t think he wanted roommates. But the can-do atmosphere at HackerHouse has shifted his opinion.
“I can feel my whole energy changing,” Chandler, who runs UF’s Fab Lab, said. “I feel so much better every day. Now, I need people. This is awesome. It’s so motivating to have all these guys.”
“Flip side of that coin is there’s no privacy,” said Burnett. “But none of us have girlfriends.”
Burnett and Chandler are half of the team designing Chime, a modern-day wind chime. The device is a dodecahedron that fits in the palm of your hand. Each pentagonal face has a sensor — temperature, moisture or light, for example — that collects data.
Similar to the old-fashioned wind chime, which responds to the breeze, Chime takes the environmental data and creates music. It runs an algorithm correlating the numbers to pitch, tempo and volume. The faces are magnetic, making the sensors interchangeable.
The device was born at AngelHack Atlanta. A hackathon, if you’re not familiar with the term, is an event where engineers, entrepreneurs and programmers get together for 24 hours and create a finished prototype, which they pitch at the end of the event. Usually, there is a winner and prize money to claim.
The cadets rode up in the house RV. It has a mobile hot spot, of course, so no productivity was lost on the five-hour ride.
Burnett and Chandler, with fellow cadets Peter Borenstein and Juan Davis Rios, comprise Team Chime. They didn’t have an idea going into the hackathon. They left Atlanta first-place winners.
Later in the year, they will compete in the international AngelHack event in California.
Other projects developing in the house include the MyReps app, which connects people to their Representatives in D.C.; iFish Earth, which aggregates fishing reports; SpinChill, which cools beer by rapidly twirling it in ice; and GOOD Inc.’s automated pet feeder.
“We’re all brilliant in one way or another,” Eric Pheterson, C.E.O. of GOOD Inc., said.
For the cadets, their projects aren’t really “work.” As opposed to engineering classes — usually a cycle of lecture, study, test, rinse and repeat — the house gives them an opportunity to creatively implement their knowledge.
“We are here having fun,” Rios said. His smile is “24/7,” Chandler said. His nickname, JuanDa (go ahead, say it out loud: wan-da) is a friendly poke at his long curly hair.
The HackerHouse experience has shifted the cadets’ impressions of Gainesville and post-college plans.
Rois, who moved to the U.S. from Medellin, Colombia, nine months ago to get his masters in electrical and computer engineering, initially thought he would move to California or New York after graduation.
After meeting Gainesville’s leading entrepreneurs and being surrounded by his HackerHouse peers, he’s considering staying in town.
He isn’t the only one noticing the college town’s rise in the business world. In the past 18 months, Gainesville raised more capital than the rest of the state combined — a grand total of over $150 million.
“Gainesville has actually hit a critical mass state,” Lye said, “where there are enough smart people in a concentrated area. There’s enough money in a concentrated area. It’s got the mindset and culture for something like this to happen.”
HackerHouse is riding that wave all the way in. Lye plans on having a fleet of cadets every school semester. Applications have already been released for the fall class.
“It’s addictive,” Lye said. “(Entrepreneurs) are the rockstars of our generation.”