Surrounded by technology and students sprawled over an endless awwrray of tables, Benjamin Segal ’20 worked alongside his brother Geva Segal from Clark University to build a technological solution for recycling. After working with newly found partners Evan Hoffman, (also from Clark University) and Olivia Banks from Brown University, for 36 hours over three days in late October, the team presented its final product, EcoSort, and won the Microsoft Azure Champ Challenge at HackHarvard 2018. Their winning pitch was fueled by copious amounts of coffee and less than an hour’s sleep the night before. 

Addressing the threat to the planet caused by the accumulation of man-made waste, Segal and his team utilized various software, hardware and prototyping hacks to create EcoSort, a smart waste-disposal container. With a single entrance point for waste and the ability to scan the acquired item, EcoSort ensures the correct organization of waste. 

In an interview with the Justice, Segal explained explained how the project came about. “My brother came three hours before [HackHarvard] and we didn’t have any ideas so we walked around campus and saw the trash cans in Usdan. We saw that even though we had three different trash cans, people still put the incorrect things in the incorrect bins. And we thought if people at Brandeis — who are smart people — don’t know how to distinguish between the trash cans, then what happens in places where people have no knowledge about sustainability? So we said, ‘Why not solve it technologically?’ And that’s what fired us up.”

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THE BIG IDEA: Ben Segal ’20 conceived of the idea for EcoSort by observing how often Brandeis students incorrectly dispose of waste. 

Armed only with one idea and his brother, Segal arrived at the Hackathon, where he pitched their idea and gained the support of Hoffman and Banks. Segal explained that Hackathons present the unique opportunity for brilliant minds from all over the world to interact and innovate. This wasn’t his first rodeo, as Segal had previously participated in hackathons such as Codestellation at Brandeis, as well as others around the country — including in his home country of Israel. As an international student and a Malkin Israeli scholar, Segal recalled his passion for innovation and computer science, which started at a very young age.

“[My] First hackathon [was] in Israel, HackGenY. We were working very hard, with my brother and three friends on a solution for traffic control with image processing. We were very competitive and I felt the connection between us got stronger because of that,” he said. “It’s like going to a hard class. If you go to an easy class, nobody works together because everyone works on their own. But if it’s a tough class everyone sits together and works together to make a solution and it builds a stronger bond.”

During HackHarvard, Segal said that building the hardware with limited materials proved the most difficult part of the process. Their final conveyer belt consisted of A4 paper, duct tape and painting rollers.The team endured multiple trials and failures before their design prevailed. Despite the competitive environment, many teams also shared materials and supported each other. In the 36 hours, teams would design and build models, often needing to learn and utilize tools for the first time during the Hackathon. Segal described the workshops that companies provided to teach new skills and provide information, and how the team divided specific components of their design.

“The fact that you sit for 36 hours and don’t give up even when things don’t work, [and] eventually it’ll work somehow, maybe not the best, but it’ll work,” said Segal. “Eventually you’re going to get it right, you’re going to Google, find a formulation, eventually you will find the right path. That’s how we studied, we would sit with YouTube, workshops, … and you can study alone for 36 hours but if you split the work between people, you’re able to do much more,” he said. 

But the best part for Segal was the opportunity to spend time with his brother, Geva. The two bonded through a shared love of innovation, computer science and the desire to change the world with computers. Segal recalled experimenting with robotics starting at the age of 14 as well as attempting to fix a broken TV at the age of six. He described a much larger plan using his technological skills, including a project he already wrote a business plan for.

“I really believe in education …I don’t want my kids to be in the same education system I am and I think we can change it to be more versatile and specific for the student, and motivate people to achieve more in the world,” said Segal. “Eventually I want to build a school. But in the path to building a school, I need to make money, so I think I will make a technological startup and use that to enhance education.”

Segal made sure to acknowledge all the help he has received from various mentors at Brandeis. As a teaching assistant for COSI 11, Segal mentioned how Prof. Antonella DiLillo (COSI) had been a mentor for him from the very beginning, and encouraged him to push the boundaries of computer science. He also expressed gratitude toward Ian Roy, Hazal Uzunkaya and Tim Hebert of the Brandeis MakerLab for providing the hardware for the competition. Segal detailed the extent to which professors have supported him through all his other projects and studies.

“Professor Jordan Pollack helped initiate Brenda [another group project in progress at Brandeis]. He was there to support us as a team from the beginning … When nobody was there to help, he was there to help. He didn’t say no to our ideas,” said Segal. “I’m also taking a class with Professor Eve Marder now and the fact that someone so highly distinguished… [who] doesn’t have time and flies all day long to conferences, has time to meet with you as a student is something you cannot see at other universities. The fact that [I] can go to [her] office and talk with her about where I want to go and my passion about neuroscience and computer science is something you cannot see [elsewhere]… every great achiever is inspired by a great mentor.”

Segal advised all students to knock on the doors of their professors. He believes that kind of initiative is the key to a great academic experience. He also recommended collaborating with other students and taking on challenging side projects, saying it was through these projects that he gained most of his computer science knowledge. Segal urged other students at Brandeis to challenge themselves during their undergraduate years.