SAN FRANCISCO – A group of three University of Waterloo graduates missed out on being selected as finalists in a $1 million coding contest hosted by Salesforce.com this week as some members of the developer community are criticizing how the contest was run.

During its annual Dreamforce conference, Salesforce offered the developer community an incentive to attend and take interest in its Web and mobile platform. As it launched new application programming interfaces (APIs) at the conference, it invited developers to take part in a special “Hackathon” track that would feature a three-day long rush to develop a mobile app from scratch. The top prize for best app was $1 million.

The $1 million Hackathon was the idea of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, says Mike Rosenbaum, executive vice president of platform at Salesforce. Dozens of teams registered for the contest that allowed 72 hours to develop an app.

“The strength of the platform is dependent on the strength of the eco-system,” he says. “The more excitement we can generate from developers, the more innovation we can bring to the platform.”

The $1 million prize was claimed by two developers that met at Harvard University. Thom Kim and Joseph Turian developed Upshot, an app that allows users to speak plain-English voice queries to their tablet or smartphone to get Salesforce.com database results presented to them.

Some participants in the competition and other developers took issue with the selection of the winner. Kim is a former Salesforce employee, Ycombinator forum users complained, and the team started developing the app before the contest began. Salesforce addressed the complaints in a blog post by Adam Seligman, vice president of developer and partner marketing at Salesforce.

Three Canadians, each representing a different startup from the Velocity accelerator garage based at Waterloo’s Communitech Hub, took part in the contest. Parth Davé from Sentry Scientific, Leander Lee from MappedIn, and Beatrice Law from Family Tales formed team Discovery Channel to compete for the big prize.

Seligman assured Lee that all 150 apps submitted for judging were at least viewed (entries required a video demonstrating the app), Lee says in an e-mail.

“I did find the fact that some people worked on the hackathon idea months before us a bit unfair, but I can understand the problem from Salesforce’s perspective,” he writes. “In any case we are still happy to have participated… I’m sure most of the controversy stems from resentments and bruised egos.”

The Waterloo trio was flown out to San Francisco to compete in the competition by Salesforce after winning a locally-hosted competition that was organized by Salesforce and VidYard CEO Michael Litt. An entrepreneur building a company that delivers video marketing services, Litt had the idea to host a local competition after delivering a talk to the Velocity cohort. He noticed many of the recent graduates based there were focused on consumer-facing apps.

“We’ve had a lot of success in building business-focused applications,” Litt says. “We’ve benefitted from the community’s help and from Salesforce’s relationship. So how do we expose young entrepreneurs to that relationship as well?”

Litt e-mailed Daniel Debow, vice-president corporate development and marketing at Salesforce.com , and pitched him on the idea of hosting the competition with the winner going to the dreamforce Hackathon. That’s how team Discovery Channel found themselves staying in the basement of Segliman’s basement.

“It was actually quite nice,” Davé says. “They were generous enough to make dinner for us.”

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The Canadian ‘hackers’ from right: Parth Davé from Sentry Scientific, Leander Lee from MappedIn, and Beatrice Law from Family Tales.

Davé and his teammates produced an app called Dynosaur, which allows developers to use Heroku to deploy an application to a social media channel like Facebook. The team pivoted its focus part way through the competition, abandoning an idea to create a mobile Heroku manager because it didn’t have a wide enough appeal, Davé says. The team missed out on becoming finalists.

“Even though we work for different companies, we have the ability to interact with one another and collaborate on ideas” at the Velocity program, Davé says. “It’s a really great opportunity to work on my programming skills.”

Second prize was $50,000, third was $25,000, fourth $10,000, and fifth place was awarded $5,000. Apps that ranked in the top five were posted to TechCrunch. Some participants in the contest are posting their videos for viewing online and asking the public to vote for “the real winner.”

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