Outside of lecture halls or laboratories, some of the best educational opportunities for a university student come from participation in competitions, contests, and similar hands-on events.

Over 24 hours spanning July 30–31, a team of U of T undergraduates took full advantage of one such opportunity by winning first place in Cookhouse Labs’ SummerHack 2020.

The winning pitch

The insurance-focused hackathon pitted 22 teams from 10 different countries against each other, each competing for a first-place cash prize of $2,500. Competitors were challenged to ideate a service or product in one of three areas: mobility services, small business risk-prevention, or managing excess weight.

Rachel Fermo, Prinsa Gandhi, and JiaQi Zhao — each actuarial science students in their third year — competed as Team ABC and took the top prize for their novel proposal to lower weight-related health insurance premiums.

Their pitch was a “smart tooth” that would track the nutritional content of one’s food and send the data to an accompanying smartphone app for tracking. They called the wearable oral sensor and app BYTE, and envisioned it as a calorie-counting device that could be permanently and non-invasively left in one’s mouth.

In an interview with Cookhouse Labs, Team ABC’s mentor, David Schraub — a Chicago-based staff fellow at the Society of Actuaries — highlighted the feasibility of the solution and its applicability in reducing life insurance premiums as reasons for its triumph.

Developing the idea

The Varsity spoke to the members of Team ABC about their project, process, and experience at the hackathon.

“We were considering apps; we were considering smart glasses… We brought a lot of ideas together,” Gandhi said. “But the smart tooth — we all thought it was a really cool idea, so we all decided to just further research that.”

“We came to another idea for obesity, which was a pill that you swallow and it can tell how many calories are in the food you eat,” commented Fermo. “But coming from a very statistical background, we don’t know anything about biology… we decided that the tooth idea sounded easier for us to understand and also find research on.”

“Since we were all actuarial science students, having to do something with insurance [meant] we all enjoyed it,” Zhao remarked.

Advice for aspiring hackers

Although Team ABC has no current plans to bring BYTE to reality, their winning experience with their first hackathon has left them with some advice for prospective first-time ‘hackers.’

“Don’t really feel nervous about [whether] you think you’re capable or not… When we saw the other teams, the other contestants were older than us,” Gandhi said. “Don’t really be nervous, just try it for fun and you might just learn new things.”

“We had that small moment of backing up, but we were like, ‘You know what? We’ll just do it,’ ” Zhao said. “Just go for it and don’t be scared to mess up.”

“I think networking and also really putting yourself out there will bring really great opportunities that you didn’t know you had,” Fermo added. “In general… I think talking to your professors a lot is really great… and then just making friends. Friends are great!”

A different kind of hackathon

Cookhouse Labs is a Toronto-based organization dedicated to networking and fostering entrepreneurs in the insurance industry. Whereas most hackathons emphasize programming skills, SummerHack seeks to de-emphasize coding and focus on creating solutions for real insurance-related problems.

“Events such as SummerHack 2020 are a great way to connect insurance experts to students, with the goal of helping students understand insurance and gain industry experience,” wrote Sven Roehl, Co-Founder of Cookhouse Labs, in an email to The Varsity. “We aim to bring together this global community of passionate innovators to join us on our journey to make insurance better!”

This was the first SummerHack, but Cookhouse Labs is planning to host them annually, along with a companion WinterHack event. Topics vary year to year, and this summer’s was the “Internet of Things,” referring to the growing interconnectedness of virtual and physical ‘things’ that support a data-driven society.