The App Express

Just before the start of Mobile World Congress, 36 strangers — 12 “creative minds,” 12 software engineers and 12 business school students — who will meet for the first time that morning, will board a high-speed train at Barcelona’s Sants station with the goal of creating apps, successfully pitching investors, and forming companies, all in just a few days and mostly while speeding across the Continent on a train or riding on The London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel on the South Bank of the River Thames.

After boarding the train in Barcelona the group will form 12 teams tasked with coming up with ideas for mobile apps before they rumble into Paris’s Gare de Lyon, about six and a half hours later. Once in Paris, the 12 teams will have time for a glass of Bordeaux but little else, because they will just be getting started.

After boarding the Imagine Express in Barcelona the entrepreneurs must come up with ideas for mobile apps before they arrive at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, about six and a half hours later.

The teams, which must include one creative mind, one software engineer and one business student, will then spend the following day in Paris at the offices of French drugmaker Sanofi, one of the sponsors of the event, to design interfaces, develop software and create business plans for their apps. The 36 participants will then continue their journey with another high-speed train; this time the destination will be London. As they zoom through the French countryside and travel under the English Channel the “dreamers,” as the event organizers are calling the participants, will be busy preparing pitches and presentations for investors.

A package of prizes

The 12 teams will be divided into four categories — health, tourism, social and “open” (which means anything that does not fall into the other three categories) — with three teams in each category. Once in London, the 12 teams will present their projects to a jury as they ride The London Eye. During the 30-minute ride on the Eye the three teams from each category will have five minutes each to make their pitches to the jury, which will include investors John Henderson of White Star Capital, Sofia Hmich of Index Ventures, Katie Leviten of JamJar Investments and Itxaso del Palacio of EC1 Capital. Once one set of three teams has pitched they will be replaced in the London Eye compartment by teams from a different category.

The winning team in each category will take home a package of prizes that includes an undisclosed amount of funding from the event organizers as well as packages of consulting, media and tech services each valued at €5,000 and devices and telecoms services worth €2,000. The investors on the jury will be free to offer funding to any of the teams they deem worthy.

The dreamers will fly back to Barcelona from London on February 26th and the following day the four winning teams will present their projects at 4 Years From Now, a new event focused on start-ups taking place during Mobile World Congress. The winners will then create real companies and be set up at incubators in Barcelona. The event is funded by sponsors so the 36 participants, who were chosen at events leading up to MWC, will not have to pay anything.

We wanted the best

“We didn’t want cost to be a barrier for the talent,” says Rosa Monge, Director of Imagine Creativity Center, the organizer of the event. “We wanted the best.”

Imagine Creativity Center, an organization based in both San Francisco and Barcelona, has held similar events (though not on a train) in Silicon Valley. The three California events have produced projects that have developed into proper start-ups that have gone on to raise venture funding.

“Working in a such highly innovative environment was terrific and a once-in-life experience”

Francesca Gabetti, ProfEye

“We’ve learned that anybody can be creative,” says Monge. “It’s a method and you can learn using a method. The second thing we have learned holding these events is that people work better in multidisciplinary teams, which is why there is the requirement that the teams are made up of different types of people. You tend to gravitate towards people similar to you and we realized it’s better to work with people who are different than you so you have different aspects covered.”

While the trip may seem like a gimmick (hackathons are not known for producing concrete results), Imagine has had success with similar approaches in the past.

Once-in-life experience

“Working in a such highly innovative environment was terrific and a once-in-life experience,” says entrepreneur Francesca Gabetti, who participated in the Imagine Silicon Valley program last year and with her team created ProfEye, a digital data platform and application for smartphones and Google Glass that allows recruiters to access candidates' technical and soft skills. The project has since been turned into a company. “We had the opportunity to live the values and trends of the Valley from the inside,” says Gabetti. “We met people from the world’s most innovative companies such as Google, Ideo, Wikipedia, Twitter, Waze and WhatsApp, among many others, receiving feedback from the best professionals and were able to work on disruptive solutions with a concrete methodology.”

By the end of the February trip there will be the first indications of whether Monge and her colleagues at Imagine managed to meet their goals of detecting talent, generating disruptive ideas for the mobile industry, and creating, incubating and accelerating businesses of value.

If they achieve half of that, they will take the notion of an appathon to a whole new level and prove that strangers on a train can achieve a lot more than just discussing the weather and whether they will arrive at their destination on time.