Boston Blue Button Innovation Challenge: The Teams Start to Hack

This is the second in a series of articles about the Boston Blue Button Innovation Challenge this past weekend. Read the first article here.

After all of the pitching and team formation was finished on Saturday afternoon at the Boston Blue Button Innovation Challenge, the real work of the hackathon began.

Dr. Jennifer M. Joe, MD mentors one of the Boston Blue Button Innovation Challenge teams. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

Dr. Jennifer M. Joe mentors one of the Boston Blue Button Innovation Challenge teams. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

I followed the mentors as they were dispatched to the upper floors of the Tufts University School of Medicine to consult with the teams on their hack projects. The mentors, a diverse group of physicians, analysts and consultants, are entrepreneurs in their own right, having founded their own startups and innovation centers.

The first pitch that I wanted to follow was about assessing concussions using eye-tracking. The pitch presented some harrowing statistics–3.8 million sports concussions per year. The project was spearheaded by Dr. Tanzid Shams, a neurologist and sports concussion specialist at Tufts Medical Center, who met with me in his team’s workspace.

“Concussion is a huge public health problem,” Shams said, “and we want to develop a mobile eye-tracking app to evaluate concussions from sports, right on the sidelines.”

One of Shams’s teammates, Matt Doiron, a research assistant at the Spaulding-Harvard Traumatic Brain Injury Model System, explained that the military already uses a device called Eye-TRAC to detect traumatic brain injuries on the battlefield.

Ned McCague (left) and Matt Doiron (right) work on their eye-tracking device for evaluating concussions. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

Ned McCague (left) and Matt Doiron (right) work on their eye-tracking device for evaluating concussions. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

“Eye-TRAC has already been validated on over 5,000 military personnel,” Doiron said. “But, no one has implemented the tech in a mobile way. That’s what we’re trying to do, to develop an app that’s easy for coaches to use.”

Ned McCague, a data scientist at Blue Cross Blue Shield, was a high school and college wrestler who had experienced concussions firsthand.

“Coaches don’t have the medical training,” McCague said. “As an athlete, I’ve known friends who fake being okay after a concussion so they don’t get pulled off the field. This is a huge opportunity to be more accurate with baseline eye movements and eye movements after an injury.”

McCague added that not only will the data be used to help coaches assess whether a player should be put back on the field, but will also include longitudinal data that will be uploaded to Blue Button so that health care providers can look back at previous head injuries.

“Current tools are subjective,” Doiron said, “and this eye-tracking device enables physicians to get objective physiological data.”

And unlike Eye-TRAC, this app uses no additional hardware. “It uses the built-in camera on a phone or iPad,” Shams said, “so it’s even easier for coaches to use.”

As I left the room, the team jumped back into their preliminary work, talking about building a wireframe prototype and analyzing their starting market.

Steven Young describes the "Visit-to-Visit" web app. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

Steven Young describes the “Visit-to-Visit” web app. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

Searching for one of the other pitches I heard that morning, I happened to walk past a room with a giant user interface drawn across the whiteboard, surrounded by notes written in red for problems foreseen and blue arrows indicating coding functions to be generated.

I stepped into the room on a whim and was greeted by Michael Tomko, a second-year student at Harvard Law School, and Steven Young, a first-year medical students at Tufts. They introduced me to their project “Visit-to-Visit,” which they had pitched that morning as a “Facebook or Twitter-like” online platform for collecting biometric data from smartphones and smartwatches.

Sitting side-by-side with laptops open and furiously typing away were Bruno Faviero, an junior undergrad, and Iris Xu, a graduate student, both in the department of computer science at MIT. They were both too engrossed in their frantic coding to answer any questions.

“We have over 15 million smartwatches being bought and even more millions of apps being downloaded that are generating health data and biometrics,” said Young. “That data isn’t being generated in a manner that is useful for clinicians.

The “Visit-to-Visit” solution, according to Tomko, is to create a web app that will aggregate those data and create a one-page summary snapshot of a patient’s data since his or her last physician visit.

The app will collect data on the patient’s weight, blood pressure, heart rate, activity level, and calorie expenditure using existing wearable tech and health devices, Young explained.

Bruno Faviero (left) and Iris Xu (right) work on the "Visit-to-Visit" web app. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

Bruno Faviero (left) and Iris Xu (right) work on the “Visit-to-Visit” web app. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

“We want to take the incredible amount of data being generated by these devices and make it readable and useful to clinicians,” Tomko said.

When asked about how the mentors had helped the team, Young emphasized the importance of feedback from different disciplines.

“We’ve had clinicians, business, developers stop by, and they provide a lot of different views and considerations to keep in mind,” Young said. “Because of that feedback, we’ve remaneuvered and flexed around some of the harder points and tried to focus on easier points to tackle and easier obstacles to overcome.”

“Their guidance will definitely make the project better for the final pitch tomorrow,” Young added.

I headed down to the Tufts Hall of Medicine for the evening practice pitches, an opportunity for the teams to present their initial work and receive feedback from mentors and other participants. I would soon discover what Dr. Sachin Jain meant when he said innovation couldn’t happen if you were too polite.

Read the next article in this series as I continue to follow three teams through their Blue Button hackathon journey.

Ajay Major

Ajay Major

    Ajay is an aspiring physician-journalist and medical student activist who is a member of the Class of 2016 at Albany Medical College. Ajay received his MBA in Healthcare Administration as part of the Leadership in Medicine Program, an eight-year combined BS/MBA/MD program with Union College, Union Graduate College, and Albany Medical College.Ajay is the founder and editor-in-chief of in-Training, the online magazine for medical students at http://in-training.org. He has a diverse background in journalism, including two years as editor-in-chief of the Concordiensis, Union College’s official student newspaper, and as a freelance medical and health writer for print and online publications.

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