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How AquaHacking Helped Jumpstart my Entrepreneurial Journey

By Yacine Mahdid COO of Axya
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If I wanted to have an impact, I needed to take ownership of what I believed in.”

It’s rare that you can easily pinpoint a single event in a life-journey and say “here is where it all started”. In my case, I can confidently say that my entrepreneurial journey started thanks to the AquaHacking Challenge.  The program showed me a path I didn’t even know existed.

Through the twist-and-turns of the entrepreneurship process I’ve ended much farther than where I originally started (i.e. from water quality estimation to the manufacturing sector). Yet, that initial push was what I needed to find my calling as an entrepreneur.

My background is a bit unusual. I have a research background in computational neuroscience and I was about to finish my PhD before dropping out to focus on my company full-time, Axya

I always loved learning, building things, and solving problems, and that which best suited me at that time was scientific research. Working on big, abstract problems and finding ways to chip away at them using technology was one of my favorite things to do. 

However, despite all my effort, I was starting to become a bit frustrated with how little real-world impact I was making. From administrative tasks, to research paper review and waiting for ethics to clear out, I always found myself tinkering on side projects and helping other people with theirs. One such side project was doing Hackathons for fun with my brother and his friends. After doing a few together, we got signed up for the AquaHacking Challenge – and then my world changed!

The AquaHacking Challenge

The project I chose for the 2018 AquaHacking Challenge was a seemingly simple one: Raw sewage overflow detection.

From the time-series data available from the Government of Quebec’s open database, we were to develop a machine learning model that could predict which area of a municipality would experience sewage overflows, when and for how long. 

What attracted me to this project was the availability of the data and the fact that I love to practice open-water swimming. Being able to take a closer look at the quality of the water and understand this problem more in-depth was something I absolutely wanted to explore. 

The results were pretty worrying, not in accuracy, but in terms of how frequently raw sewage overflows were happening in freshwater. I was motivated to solve this problem and have an impact, which led my team to the finals of the AquaHacking Challenge. 

The system I developed, which was built with a very basic random forest decision tree, worked with considerable accuracy and was able to give reliable results based on the municipal data we had.

What my team still had to do was 

  • Develop an actual product from the model.
  • Identify and sell to potential customers.
  • Pitch and secure financing to launch our idea and business…Easy!

Entrepreneurial Spark

Now that the “solving the problem part” was done, I had very little interest left for the remainder of the project which was to actually secure early adopters for the solution we had developed. This was clearly “not my function” and well outside of the scope of what I thought I could do.

But I believed in our solution and so I tried my best to help secure customers. Doing so was my first glimpse at the strange world of entrepreneurship and business.

As a researcher, I had always only focused on developing solutions not on selling the solutions I developed.  But this time we were working on solving a real world problem. If we didn’t try to see the product implemented, we might just as well not have developed it in the first place.

Even more importantly, if you can’t make your project financially sustainable, you won’t be helping many people for very long. At some point you have to take it upon yourself to make things move and happen if you want to see the positive impact that motivated you at the outset.

This lesson was one that had a profound impact on me. From that point on, it changed how I viewed challenges. What happened next was a great wake up call that if I wanted to have an impact I needed to take ownership of what I believed in. I did just that. I helped push the project to the finish line as motivation from my team was dwindling.

We had no finished product, no customer in the pipeline and the angle for the pitch at the final wasn’t ready. In that moment, with the little time we had before the final, I learned what I was capable of. Thanks to my friend who stuck with me, we were able to deliver something we were proud of at the AquaHacking final event!

We didn’t end up winning the AquaHacking Challenge. In fact, we came in fourth place, which meant no cash prize! However, the learning process and the experience gained made it all worthwhile! 

After this initial entrepreneurial spark, AquaHacking gently nudged me towards the next step of the entrepreneurial journey which was to incubate the idea we had. 

We were incubated at Centech, where I learned all of the fundamentals of entrepreneurship that I clearly lacked. In all honesty, had I not been secured a spot at an incubator I would have most likely never founded my current company as I had no idea that incubators were a real thing.

Entrepreneurial Ignition

In January 2019, while at Centech I integrated the learning from my AquaHacking journey and worked on solving a real problem in an impactful and sustainable way.  We ended up pivoting from the original solution, establishing a company in a totally different sector and making a viable business case which established Axya. 

We have since participated in the accelerator program of Creative Destruction Labs (2020) and been working on solving real world problems for real paying customers. The feeling of having a positive  impact is unequaled.

Everytime a customer says that our solution helped them I realize that it all started because a few people with an idea had enough drive to make it a reality. That nudge however didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was made a reality because organizations like AquaAction made it possible for someone like me to discover the entrepreneurial fibre within myself.

I’ll be forever thankful for the AquaHacking Challenge to have shown me an alternative path that I didn’t even know existed. I have been on this journey for 4 years now through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

Looking back, all it took for me to get started was to be taught that I have the right to take action and solve meaningful problems around me. After that initial push, all mental boundaries and excuses simply vanished.

Yacine Mahdid COO of Axya