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Healthcare’s Grand Hackfest Recap

By Lina Colucci and Mahek Shah

Healthcare’s Grand Hackfest, a joint production by MIT’s Hacking Medicine and the Kauffman Foundation, was held March 15-16 at the MIT Media Lab. The event was the kickoff to the Kauffman Foundation’s nation-wide series called Energizing Health Collaboration, which aims to connect healthcare innovators and catalyze innovation.

Hacking Medicine is an MIT student group with the mission of creating an ecosystem in Boston and beyond that teaches people how to rapidly innovate for the unique needs and challenges in healthcare. We have been organizing health hackathons since 2011 but this was by far our biggest event to date. Effectively 5 hackathons were held simultaneously under a single roof with the 5 focus tracks being:

Each track had its own participant pool, judge panel, keynote speaker, and sponsor. More than 400 participants, mentors, and judges came from across the country (California, Texas, Chicago, Cleveland, etc.) and even from across the globe (India, Uganda, etc.) to participate in a weekend’s worth of learning, collaborating, brainstorming, and building what will be the beginning of many health startups.

On Friday night the hackathon began with a speaker from each track talking about the needs and opportunities within their area. We learned from Nicole Boice of Global Genes that rare diseases are not so rare: 1 in 10 Americans having a rare disease but unfortunately it takes an average of 7 to 10 years come to a diagnosis because information is so fragmented. We learned from Dr. John Brooks, the President and CEO of Joslin Diabetes, that 35% of Americans have pre-diabetes, that it is truly a pandemic around the world (not just America), and that (hint to hackathon participants) innovations should target interventions as early as possible in the disease progression.

Healthcare's Grand Hackfest

The Grand Hack kickoff on Friday evening was standing-room only as hundreds gathered at the Stata Center to hear thought-leaders talk about opportunities and challenges within healthcare. (Photo by Jose Colucci Jr.)

On Saturday, participants had the opportunity to pitch problems that they wanted to tackle that weekend and recruit team members to their cause. Hacking Medicine has discovered that a two-step process of pitching-mingling-pitching-mingling provides enough structure to let teams form organically around shared interests and complementary skill sets.


Saturday morning’s entrepreneurial energy was catalyzed by keynotes from Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle, Founder and CEO of Iora Health, an innovative company reshaping the Primary Care model and Sarika Aggarwal, CMO at Fallon Community Health Plan. (Photo by Jose Colucci Jr.)

One of the most unique aspects of Hacking Medicine’s hackathons is the diverse pool of participants it brings: participants range from age 18 to 70 with skill sets spanning design, engineering, medicine, business, and basic science. There are serial entrepreneurs looking for their next idea, physicians looking for a team to help tackle problems they see in their practice, patients sharing their stories with the hope of a solution being born that weekend, and engineers looking for useful problems to which to apply their technical skills.

Teams formed by Saturday at lunch and several hacked through the night. Mentors from the Kauffman Foundation, MGH, IDEO, Boston Children’s, Design That Matters, Merck, and more helped teams with difficulties they encountered along the way. On Sunday afternoon, teams presented their weekend’s worth of work to a panel of judges for their track.

The winner for each track of Healthcare’s Grand Hackfest were:

  • Hospital IT track: Vidrio, captures audio/visual information from primary care visits, automates simple EMR updates and transcribes doctor notes (watch the Vidrio presentation)
  • Rare disease track: Facial Metrics, bringing accepted facial feature measurement diagnostics into a mobile app to better diagnose patients with rare diseases more quickly
  • Telehealth and mobile health track: MedSnap, digital capture of health images and secure transmission for electronic health records and global health applications, designed for wireless, portable use and with otoscope/ophthalmoscope attachment
  • Global health technology track: Breathe Easy, real-time monitoring of the extent of blockage buildup in tracheostomy tubes to prevent patient suffocation
  • Diabetes track: MedApp Review, an online platform for physician-reviewed medical apps that uses verified healthcare providers to crowdsource ratings, currently focused on weight loss with a scope for expanding

Click here to learn more.

While it’s incredible to see how much teams accomplish in one weekend, it’s important to realize that 40 hours of idea brewing, background research, and prototype building is actually a full week’s worth of work, especially when there is an entire team of intelligent, interdisciplinary people working towards the same goal. A huge value of the health hackathon experience is that most stakeholders in the health setting are typically in the room. For example, instead of waiting months to set up meetings with clinicians and receive feedback on an idea, there are dozens of clinicians (perhaps some on your team) at the hackathon who are immediately available to answer questions and test out prototypes. The rate at which you can iterate and challenge assumptions is increased in an environment with so many health experts.

One of the side projects that Hacking Medicine and the Kauffman Foundation had going on at the hackfest was making a video to explain what health hackathons are and why they are important (will be posted on hackingmedicine.mit.edu as soon as it’s ready). As part of this effort, teams from past hackathons came and told us about their path after a Hacking Medicine event. It was inspiring to see entrepreneur after entrepreneur talk about their start-ups taking off after they met their co-founders and started working on an idea at one of our hackathons. Many teams now have their first paying customer, or have raised venture money, or are doing clinical trials.

Health hackathons are a spark that gets unlikely players collaborating together on real problems. The real work, of course, happens after the hackathon. We have high hopes for the teams that sparked at this month’s grand hackfest.

H@cking Medicine’s next hackathon takes place April 4-6th in New York City with WebMD & Weil-Cornell: nychack.wordpress.com



    The system administrator of MedTech Boston.

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