Michael Gelphman's mind is in the stratosphere. Gelphman, the 37-year-old founder of the Kansas City IT Professionals online community, recently sent the message about his next Compute Midwest conference - "Imagine the Future" - 21 miles toward space on a weather balloon. He and some physics and engineering students from the University of Kansas had outfitted the balloon with a couple of GoPro cameras, but a violent explosion damaged the GPS antennas, making the equipment hard to retrieve.
"Yeah, it was tough to find for two days, but we just never gave up," Gelphman says. "We knew if we found it, there would be incredible footage on it. It was one of the coolest things that I've ever been involved with. It reinforces that idea of thinking big and taking risks."
Gelphman plans to do both this weekend. On Friday (October 25), Compute Midwest launches again with an all-day conference at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It continues through the weekend with a hackathon Saturday and Sunday (October 26-27) at Sporting Kansas City's Boulevard members club. Gelphman talked with The Pitch
about his next frontier.
The Pitch: What's new this year?
: We're lucky to get a really good lineup. One of our first speakers that we got is Jordan Evans, who is the engineering manager for NASA's Mars rover project. Anytime I think about traveling to space, it's just incredible. It makes problems that companies and startups are trying to solve seem so small and almost within reach when you think about sending a robot to another planet. He's going to talk about the last mission, what they learned from it and what's coming up from NASA.
How did you get Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit?
I knew he was doing a book tour, so we worked that in. He's going to talk more on a personal level of what he learned building Reddit and more about the future of you, meaning the audience, and empowering them to go out and create things.
One of the other speakers we have is Ariel Garten, who is the founder of Interaxon. They created this headband device that allows you to control machines with your mind and also have insights into your own brain - whether you get stress at certain times or how you can optimize your own thinking.
Another guy we got is co-founder of a company called Oblong, which allows you to control computers with your bodies and hands. But the software itself is almost thinking and reactive to a human being, so you can drag and drop items and put two-dimensional data on there, and it can turn into 3-D. The machine understands how you're interacting with it.
The conference is about more than imagining the future. You have the hackathon, with people taking their ideas and making something real.
The conference itself is about imagining the future, and then the hackathon is about creating the future. We will have a hundred developers coming together building apps. Every time we do a hackathon, the people that come and the ideas that they build in 24 hours, they just mature. It just improves every time.
How have the ideas from last year's conference played out?
It's really just an exercise for 24 hours to get people to create something. One of the main problems that we have, people think about creating an idea and they're like, "I don't have any ideas. I don't know what to create." And they get overwhelmed. But if we can get them to come to something like this with a low barrier to entry, it's just 24 hours, and then they're there and they're in that energetic vibe where everyone's creating something, and there's this tension to perform and to really deliver. They see what's possible to create in such a short period of time. Maybe that particular idea doesn't go anywhere, but it shows them how easy it is to create ideas. And maybe 10, 15, 20 ideas down, they'll create something that is a company.
I've talked to several developers who attend our hackathons, and it changes the way that they look at creating things because it gets them the idea that things are possible.
At last year's Compute Midwest, you announced the formation of the Disruption Institute, a 12-week program to teach people how to become mobile developers.
We launched our first class in March. We had eight students. Three of them have gotten mobile dev jobs. There was one guy who didn't know how to code when he started, and in nine weeks, he got his app into the App Store. That was pretty awesome. A couple of weeks later, he shipped his second app into the App Store.
The real goal of the Disruption Institute is to make Kansas City into a world leader for mobile innovation. I think it's possible. We have a great developer ecosystem. With companies like Sprint and Sporting Innovations and a lot of other mobile-focused companies and all of the assets that we have here in Kansas City, as well as the developer community, I know with the educational stuff that we're doing, we can help cultivate that. We're going to launch another class at the beginning of 2014. After the conference, we'll start getting signups. We already have people lined up for the next class.
What other local tech development are you excited about?
I'm excited about the Sprint Accelerator. Techstars is a startup accelerator, and Sprint has a co-accelerator program that they're starting. They just announced it a couple of weeks ago. It's basically to build mobile health ideas. I think it's going to be amazing for Kansas City. It's again pushing Kansas City forward and all of the companies that can be created from that. Also, it's just getting the rest of the country to pay attention to what's happening here. There's definitely a good vibe, and people are starting to pay attention.