climate hardware hack playbook

michael raspuzzi
6 min readMay 2, 2023

debriefing the 24 hour climate hardware hack during sf climate week 2023

🌎+ 🤖+ ⌛ = ❤️

we hosted a weekend long hackathon with a big challenge (climate), tools of choice (hardware), and all in a weekend (24hr) to build things that matter.

two weeks after the hack finished, people are still sending thank you’s and raving about their experience from this event:

“exceptional event + rewarding experience. thank you.” — sarah

“the climate hack was a blast. i had so much fun honestly couldn’t think of a better way to spend a weekend.” — patrick

“10/10” — mark

this is an overview of how we did it with 3 weeks of prep, 2 part time team members, and 1 goal to get people building things that could address different challenges in climate.

winning projects

  1. native nest — an urban bee keeping hotel kit for the restoration of one of the most valuable species: local bees. one learning from the weekend is that 90% of all honey bees in the u.s. are shipped to c.a. for almond pollination season…
  2. nutri-cycle — (aka hack a poop 💩) exploring ways to turn waste into usable minerals for fertilizer more efficiently and locally.
  3. leek detector — uses bioacoustics for a hand-held leak detector for natural gas inspections.

you can view more projects here on twitter recap →

overview of all the parts that went into the hack

  • event size: 30+ builders, 7 teams. in sf, the attendance rate is about 50% of the registration rate. we had 100+ people sign up, 70 people said they were coming, and 35 people show up.
  • timing: 24hours. while we had the space from sat-sun, teams were not expected to stay up all night, and many got 6–8 hrs of sleep before demoing 12p on sunday. the reason for the timing was to enable flexible focus time to build physical prototypes. we also ended early enough on sunday, people could do what they needed to rest + prep for the weekend.
  • kickoff: 3 founders and builders across different problem spaces in climate that people don’t necessarily know a lot about, including bio supply chain, hydrogen in the maritime space, and at home composting with a startup that raised $100M+. more in the next section.
  • ending showcase: 1 part show n’ tell style with tables and people walking around to see what was built and 1 part shark tank style with 3min pitches and a guest panel of investors to ask hard questions and give feedback.
  • prizes: we focused on what would help teams continue building: including free membership to the hardware space, expert mentorship, professional consultation, and a prototyping grant. we threw in shiny hoodies for fun.
  • space: for hardware hackathons, i recommend maker spaces, design fabrication labs, or hardware startup offices that are free on the weekend. we partnered with studio45, a hardware clubhouse in san francisco.
  • parts: we treated the parts as a ‘library’ where teams had to decide what they needed to build an MVP. once all parts were distributed they could barter amongst themselves to trade sensors or unused boards. for this one, we also had an open call for parts for people to bring their own. if you’re curious, here’s our full part list.
  • sponsors: we had partial support when we launched the event with studio45 as a space partner. two sponsors for parts were secured through direct intros from the volunteer team and other sponsors joined weeks following once they found the event. being both in climate + hardware made it easier for organizations to want to support.
  • promotion: we used luma (hack + showcase sign up if you want as a template) for registration and shared across hardware meetup community, climate newsletters, hackster.io, as well as slack and discord servers. we intentionally made it part of climate base’s sf climate week for extra eyes.

what worked well and why

  1. start strong with builders explaining different problems from their experience. we had the founder of a biomanufacturing company, the director of engineering for a hydrogen fuel cell startup in the maritime space, and a systems integration engineer for an at home compost hardware company. each person had 10min stand up (no slides) paired with audience Q+A. we intentionally made it more engaging with discussion than slides to pique people’s curiosity.
  2. help make teams quickly. on arrival and check in, people could mix and mingle for an hour before the kickoff. then once the first panel was done, we mixed 5min stand up pitches for ideas or peoples’ backgrounds with 20min of finding team members. everyone was in a team within 55min and could switch things up after if they needed.
  3. give time for problem research before building time. after people have a rush from the start and their initial idea, they needed space to understand their first idea was not good. each team had 3 hours to research and better understand the problem they wanted to solve before submitting ideas to get parts. the submission was important as it helps teams write down what they are thinking and could get feedback.
  4. enough focus time to make meaningful progress. after parts were gathered by 3pm, teams had until 11a the following day to submit a deck and demo their working prototype. this was intentional to give teams time to structure it how they wanted to. while we had the space all night, many teams got 6–8 hours of sleep.
  5. judging at the end — legit guests and clear criteria for what success looks like. our judges included VCs, angel investors, and those with experience in the hardware startup and climate space. each one could ask pointed questions and give quality feedback to teams presenting, which is one of the most valuable parts at the end. the criteria were also made clear from the start: 1) a clear understanding of the problem 2) a feasible solution with a working demo and 3) viable economic incentives. we printed out rubrics for judges to accelerate final deliberation.

some things i would do differently to improve for next time

  1. more feedback during problem research to iterate earlier on. we had a technical mentor for debugging and could have done more coaching problem research.
  2. do a workshop at dinner for business models + customer identification. this was the weakest part as we focused on getting each team to the point of a live demo at the end.
  3. make pitch feedback mandatory for final teams — those that got feedback were 5x better than those that went off the cuff. we could have made a submission 2hr before showcase time v. 1hr.
  4. give examples of how to connect quantitatively to climate — decarbonization, adaptation or resilience. teams weren’t clear on this in final pitches and it matters to quantify impact.

^ this was a consequence of balancing a lot in a single hack: hardware, climate, and business model in 24hrs. there’s more to understand and think through, but it also makes it more meaningful.

the structurally unstructured nature of this event, worked well for teams to have focus and build their own culture for how they wanted to approach it. the main success was bringing together people with different backgrounds to not only talk about ideas in climate but also build solutions.

this may be the first one, but it won’t be the last. if you want to help support a future hack in sf, send me a note to michael [at] raspuzzi [dot] com.

thanks @luxcapital + @propellervc for the inspiration behind this debrief.

🌊 hi, i’m michael, i coach climate founders in sf and run climate community events liek this one. previously, program director @ tks, design engineering instructor @ harvard, and program director @ cornell.

i’m always 👨‍🍳cooking up something new. connect with me on linkedin or follow me on twitter.

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michael raspuzzi

building something new. previously @tks @harvard @culinaryai