Hackathons Aren’t Just for Coders. We Can Use Them to Save Lives
June 10, 2014
With growing attention on medical technology “hackathons“—summits that bring together engineers, clinicians, entrepreneurs, and designers to develop innovative solutions to health problems—the conversation has turned to whether they aremore hype than impact. After all, what can 250 people in a room for two days really do to solve challenges that experts over decades have been unable to address?
A lot, it turns out. They can break down walls to develop real solutions that save lives. And this is especially true in the realm of global health, where new, low-cost technologies can help to address the intractable shortage of healthcare workers in low- and middle-income countries.
Elizabeth Bailey is the Director of the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) at Mass General Hospital’s Center for Global Health.
After organizing five medical technology (“medtech”) hackathons across three continents over the past 18 months, I’ve seen these results.
The First Big Win
Back in the fall of 2012, the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) hosted its first hackathon at Mass General Hospital in partnership with MIT’s H@cking Medicine. After watching the first round of “pitches” with cautious interest, Dr. Data Santorino decided to put forth a challenge he’d struggled with for several years in Uganda: newborns die too frequently because of improper resuscitation techniques.
Globally, an estimated 1.8 million babies die each year on the same day they are born because they have trouble breathing. Most of those deaths are preventable and occur in developing countries. As a pediatrician working in rural Uganda, he’d seen that, despite strong training programs like Helping Babies Breathe, there were too many community health workers who aren’t able to properly use an infant bag valve mask (a handheld pump to help establish a steady flow of air). When Dr. Santorino pitched his challenge, he asked, “Can technology help solve this problem?”
A hands-on test with the Augmented Infant Resuscitator (AIR), a CAMTech-inspired device that will save the lives of babies born in rural parts of developing countries. Image: Kevin Cedrone
A post doc automotive engineer at MIT, a design engineer and entrepreneur, and an MGH pediatrician each saw different parts of a solution. The automotive engineer saw a simple pressure and flow measurement challenge, which could be solved with leftover microprocessors pulled from the trash back in his lab. The entrepreneur saw opportunities for product design and manufacturing. And the pediatrician envisioned not just a way to solve a training challenge, but a tool to save lives during real-time resuscitation.
Fast forward two days and this team of unlikely collaborators— who otherwise would never have met—developed a working prototype of a manual resuscitator with an embedded microprocessor that gives real-time feedback to the health care worker. The Augmented Infant Resuscitator (AIR), an inexpensive add-on to a ubiquitous bag valve mask, won first prize. A year and a half later, the team has filed a patent on their device; won a CAMTech $100K Innovation Award; developed a business plan; conducted field trials in Uganda; attracted $1 million in investment; won a $250K grant from Saving Lives at Birth; and are in discussions with two potential corporate partners.
If you ask this team of innovators whether any of this would have been possible without the catalyst of the hackathon, they would say no. As Dr. Santorino put it, “I nursed the idea of developing a device like AIR for close to two years with little success. The hackathon brought the people and ideas together to make it all happen.”
The AIR team’s journey is far from over. They need to finalize the device design, refine their business strategy, and navigate regulatory approval in multiple countries. Medical technologies and innovations are complicated and take time. But hackathons ignite and accelerate innovation by bringing together a complementary talent pool that is energized and passionate about improving health care. Because of a hackathon and a dedicated team of innovators, AIR now has the potential to impact millions of newborn lives around the world.
The Importance of the Brainstorm
One question we’re often asked is: “What can hackathons accomplish that health care companies or academia can’t?” What we’ve learned is that bringing together radically different perspectives in a compressed timeframe, with a clear focus on unmet clinical needs, sparks innovation. Fantastic ideas come from academic institutions; however, they are often too removed from the clinical realities on the ground and fail to integrate the important business questions that are needed to get a new product to market. Even in big companies that pride themselves on being innovative, the environments are often too rigid and siloed for cross-disciplinary teams, outside-the-box thinking, and the willingness to fail, learn and retry.
Hackathons provide the neutral, “safe” space to do this. So it’s not surprising to see some of the major medical device and technology companies wanting a seat at these hackathons, especially in emerging markets, which are a hot bed of new solutions to longstanding problems.
Over 1,000 innovators have participated in CAMTech’s hackathons in the US, India and Uganda, spawning a range of new technologies to benefit all, but especially the developing world. These technologies range from a smart sensor in tracheostomy tubes to prevent suffocation, tools to prevent fatal bleeding after childbirth, and a simple, low-cost infusion pump to administer IV medications to children. We have seen innovations come from veteran physicians and engineering doctoral students, all the way to small business owners and hospital technicians. Hackathons empower problem-solvers from all walks of life and help to build entrepreneurial capacity. CAMTech is planning its next hackathons in the summer of 2014, in India and Uganda.
Success Is Contagious
Many of the tenets of the hackathon model are not new, but they are novel in the healthcare environment. In fact, much of the concept comes from the principle of co-creation, which companies like Nike and Procter & Gamble have understood for decades. If you engage your customer in product development, you end up with better products that people like and will use more. Customers (health care providers and patients, in this case) should help define the problems that drive technology innovation, not the other way around. Hackathons broaden the concept of co-creation across disciplines and even sectors. In fact, we’re discovering co-creation is essential in global health, where the health care environment is exponentially more complex.
And the spirit of hackathons takes off once released. Serial innovators in Uganda and India are now creating an ecosystem of innovation and improvisation (termed “jugaad” in India) around healthcare. After hosting CAMTech’s second hackathon, Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in Southern India organized two local hackathons and launched a “co-creation lab” to support medtech innovation on an ongoing basis. The university’s Vice Chancellor shared that, “The hackathon unleashed something in our students. It brought a new way of thinking about how to solve health care problems in India and created such energy in these young minds. Now it’s part of our culture.”
We are past the question of whether or not there is value in medtech hackathons. We have hundreds of examples that answer that question. Now we must focus on what we can do after these first 48 hours to support this groundswell of innovation.