Hacker Returns From Wilderness Exile To Disrupt Sally Struthers

Peter Ma says hadn’t switched on his HP laptop for nearly six months when he booted it up at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon yesterday afternoon.

From May until August he backpacked alone in the Sierra Nevada, with no electronics other a watch and a head lamp, just trying to get away from society and come up with a truly new idea. “I wanted to get in touch with basic human needs,” he explains.

Peter Ma hacking away on his two laptops

Ma says he has worked as a developer since he graduated from college five or six years ago. But last spring he felt like the startup he was working for wasn’t going anywhere, and he had just split up with his girlfriend of four years. It was time to do something new, but he didn’t know what. So he retreated to the mountains to figure it out.

He found more questions in the mountains, but that didn’t stop him from showing up at the hackathon ready to code. He says he didn’t have any idea of what he wanted to work on when he showed up, but he completed two apps: Project Care, an app that brings video conferencing and social networking to Sally Struthers style child sponsorship programs, and Dream Recorder, an Android app to make it easy to capture audio notes about your dreams before you forget them.

On Project Care he collaborated with Igor Lebovic, the founder of CalorieCount, a company that was acquired by About.com in 2006, and a contributor to last year’s Startup Bus winner TripMedi.

The idea is to bring greater transparency and personal connection to child sponsorship by giving you a more direct connection with the kids you sponsor via video conferences. Plus once you start sponsoring child, you can also connect with other people who sponsor the same child or children that you sponsor. It uses OpenTok for video conferencing (with the option to save video chats to Dropbox), Stripe for payments and DocuSign for agreements.

He built Dream Recorder on his own. It’s an audio recorder optimized to make it easy to capture audio even when you’re half asleep. You launch the app before you go to bed. If you have dream you want to remember, you can just grab the phone and shake it to start recording. Once the app has been inactive long enough it stops recording and saves the audio files to Evernote, Dropbox or Microsoft SkyDrive.

Once the hackathon is over Ma says he’s going to get back to work on starting a restaurant with a partner in LA — a San Francisco location Honey Badger Cafe.

Lead photo by Mel Stoutsenberger / CC