CERN Hackathon: The passion, purpose (and fun) of creating startups around gee-whiz tech

Przemek Krawczk wants to build a company around a novel piece of equipment – a small particle accelerator – developed by CERN scientists.

Krawczk has a name for his startup – Modular Energies – and as of yesterday, a pop-up team to help him get started, as well as his own network of physicists and others from Jagiellonian University in Amsterdam.


A native of Krakow and a biologist by training, the medical researcher noted he’s making it up as he goes forward with his part of the effort to take CERN technology to market.

“I have no idea what I’m doing. But I know people who do.”

And that, my friends, is how innovation happens. It’s not neat, not linear or predictable … not about “Eureka!” moments.

But it is a lot of fun. And the coolest part … everyone was invited to found their own startup using CERN technology. For free ….

Kids in a candy store

On Monday, 2 July, the CERN Hackathon brought about 100 people to the Conference Center at High Tech Campus Eindhoven. Krawczk’s Modular Energies team was one of 11.

If you’ve been to a hackathon, you know it’s basically a bunch of smart people coming together to solve problems.

If you’ve never been to a CERN hackathon – and not many people have – they’re on a different level. Picture a bunch of physicists, engineers and brainiacs in constant motion, frantically throwing out ideas and sticking up Post-it notes on graphs for each idea they generate as to what to do with dazzling technology coming out of the world’s most advanced particle-physics lab.

What makes this event unique is that it’s a backward approach to going to market. Most of the time, entrepreneurs see vacuums and fill them with business. But in this process, CERN scientists, engineers and physicists developed all this super-duper technology for their own research purposes, then took a step back and realized, “Wow, all this stuff could be used in the real world.”

The CERN Hackathon, organized and moderated by HighTechXL, Eindhoven’s startup accelerator, was basically the ultimate global talent event. It generated 450 applications from 12 countries, said Guus Frericks, HighTechXL founder, in his opening remarks.

Eighty-five people were selected for what Amy Bilton, CERN’s Knowledge Transfer Officer, noted was the first hackathon held outside CERN’s offices in Switzerland. They included several physicists including John Reid of Eindhoven, engineers, Ph.D. candidates and at least one investor, Steven Tan from Nascent Ventures in Maarssen, south of Amsterdam.

Frericks said the community-driven, open-development effort is the beginning of a long process of assessing the 11 teams assembled, and ideas generated, yesterday on the road to actually launching companies at the end of the year.

“The real magic happens” when startup teams get down to work in a 3-month accelerator starting in September, he said.

CERN technology business accelerator starts 24 September 2018.

Team members were given three CERN technologies for the hackathon:

• Accurate temperature control using CO2

Evaporative cooling using carbon dioxide is a technology for systems with high power density, providing highly stable and efficient cooling using small pipes that can extend over long distances. In addition, CO2 is substantially cheaper than fluorocarbon refrigerants and has a much lower negative impact on the environment.

• Long Distance Structured Laser Beam

A simple, low-cost system and method for generating a structured laser beam that can propagate over large distances while maintaining a low divergence and small central spot size. This technology was jointly developed by CERN and the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

• Compact High-Frequency Particle Accelerator

As part of the Medical Applications Programme at CERN, researchers developed a novel, very compact high-frequency radio-frequency quadrupole linear particle accelerator.

There were some parameters for teams including ranking ideas by market viability as well as social good, which can be conflicting goals.

Some of the most novel ideas

• Modular Energies’ idea is to take the modular proton accelerator and turn it into a portable PET scanner for early cancer detection. The PET process requires isotopes with short half-lives. Due to the short half-lives of most positron-emitting radioisotopes, the radiotracers injected into patients typically are produced using a cyclotron in close proximity to the PET imaging facility. This innovation could change all that, used in remote clinics anywhere in the world.

Krawczk said a low-cost, low-maintenance CERN accelerator can make possible PET analysis in places with no ready access to the isotopes needed for scanning.

(It was about here that my head exploded -Terry Boyd)

• Team 10G-4-6B (10G connections for 6 billion people) proposes using the laser tech to create an ultra-high speed data transmission technology that could be used globally.

• Eindhoven-based entrepreneur Yama Saraj gave The Cool Solar team’s pitch to use the CERN CO2 technology to cool massive solar energy farms in extreme climates such as the Middle East.

• Lambda Over Pitch proposes using the CERN Long Distance Structured Laser Beam tech to create a car-to-car communication technology.

• Laserac proposed using the CERN structured laser beam technology to create 3D monitoring systems for precise measurement of tectonic movement to predict earthquakes earlier. Their slogan? “No one likes to be on shaky ground.”

• NeuConCERN proposes using the particle accelerator to create equipment for instant imaging and analyze materials for use by security agencies. Which means you could leave on your shoes and not worry about those liquids in your check-in baggage.

• MedTrans wants to use the CO2 cooling tech from CERN to transport fragile, temperature-sensitive medical supplies such as vaccines as well as human organs for transplant. They also want to add blockchain and data analytics for more accurate quality prediction.


This was more than just a fun day out. Amy Bilton said the CERN tech transfer has led to the founding of many companies over the years including spinoff companies.

We talked to the actual physicists to get their take on the event, and the majority were impressed at the ideas, willing to continue the process, which includes weekly meetings at HighTechXL.

“The test will be which (ideas) hold water when you start looking at the practical applications,” said Eindhoven-based physicist/entrepreneur John Reid who was part of the 10G-4-6B team. “But usually, where there’s an idea, there’s a solution.”

The next steps this month and in August include validating concepts, team formations and weekly touch points each Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m at HighTechXL. The launch of the businesses teams will be at 4 September Impact Day at HighTechXL.

For those who are intrigued by all this, it’s not too late to get involved in this CERN technology transfer effort. For more information, email: [email protected]



Based in Geneva and funded by 22 member nations, CERN administers a number of research centers and projects, including two linear accelerators and several colliders including the Large Hadron Collider. But it’s in the medical technology domain that physics research, including the work done at CERN, that CERN has had a major impact, with magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography and other technologies. “People think we’re mostly physicists, but the truth is, CERN is the biggest machine in the world,” said Bilton. “Most of the people who work there are engineers and technicians we need to keep it running.”

In 2012, CERN adopted CERN Easy Access, a technology transfer initiative to make it easier for businesses and entrepreneurs to access intellectual property generated by its researchers.


The National Institute for Subatomic Physics, or Nikhef, is based in Amsterdam. Nikhef is the Dutch organization that carries out research into the elementary building blocks of our universe, their mutual forces and the structure of space and time. Nikhef partners with CERN on the Nikhef-CERN Business Incubation Center.


HighTechXL is the Netherlands’ premier high-tech accelerator, focusing mostly on hardware since its inception in 2014. HighTechXL is an initiative of the Eindhoven Startup Alliance with ASML, Philips, NTS group, High Tech Campus Eindhoven, ABN AMRO Bank, Brabantse Ontwikkelings Maatschappij (BOM), Brainport Development and EY as its members.

About ASML:

ASLM, based in Eindhoven, makes the machines that make the semiconductor – and the digital age – work. ASML is the main supplier of machines the semiconductor industry uses to burn microcircuitry onto microchips.

Most Popular

To Top

Subscribe to our newsletter

Receive the latest news and updates from Dispatches Europe. Get lifestyle & culture, startup & tech, jobs and travel news dispatched to your inbox each week.

You have Successfully Subscribed!