On May 12th, over 400 medical technology innovators came together at MIT’s fourth annual Grand Hack, the flagship event of MIT Hacking Medicine. It’s the world’s largest healthcare hackathon, with participants from across the country and around the globe.
The event brings together people with backgrounds in medicine, technology, and business to find solutions to today’s most pressing health issues.
Participant and entrepreneur Michael Barros, who’s pursuing an MBA at Boston University, wasn’t sure what kind of project he would work on when he came.
“I wasn’t planning on pitching anything,” said Barros. “I was going to help people fix something.”
But in the pitching session, participants were told to offer problems rather than solutions. Barros may have lacked a solution, but his problem grabbed the attention of a room packed with innovators.
In the last 10 years, heroin abuse has doubled among Americans aged 18 to 25. Addicts seeking treatment face long wait times, and Barros knows the long wait can mean the difference between life and death.
In 2010, Barros was a student at Saint Anselm College when he and a roommate began experimenting with heroin. As their addictions spiraled out of control, they left school and found themselves homeless. They waited for months without help. Feeling hopeless, Barros’s roommate committed suicide.
“I’m only here because I got help when I needed it,” said Barros.
The urgent need to connect addicts with treatment immediately caught the attention of Arjun Venkatachalam, product manager at medical device company NxStage Medical, Inc. Philips Healthcare development engineer Nate Lee soon followed, and the three came up with a phone app that provides addicts with information on treatment options, and shows what treatment services are available in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps most crucially, the app will allow treatment facilities to post their capacity for taking in new patients in real time.
The group, which named itself CareConnect, were finalists, winning $750 from Janssen Pharmaceutical to continue work on the project.
Corey Campbell is another passionate participant. A veteran of around 15 hackathons, Campbell devotes himself to making treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder more widely available.
When Campbell’s mother was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, her struggle with PTSD prompted Campbell to come out as a victim of childhood sexual assault, since he too struggles with the condition.
“I was at a breaking point. My mother needed my help, and I was in my most difficult semester,” Campbell said. “I felt like my world was ending.”
Campbell began to explore how widespread of an issue PTSD is, and the experiences of people in war torn countries like Syria caught his attention. He left school at Northeastern University to devote himself fully to the issue.
“Millions in Syria are at risk of developing mental health disorders,” said Campbell. “We need to develop a lower cost system they have access to.”
Campbell is working with scientists and engineers at MIT and other institutions to come up with affordable diagnostic tools, that will allow healthcare providers to see how PTSD affects patients by scanning their brain activity.
The 2017 MIT Grand Hack was filled with passionate participants seeking solutions to everything from communication gaps between patients and healthcare providers, to developing virtual reality devices that will help hospital patients combat loneliness. In addition to being a networking opportunity, the event is a window into the future of medical tech innovation.
Bryce Fricklas is a journalist from Boulder, Colorado. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal (2013 – 2015) and Guinea (2016), where he focused on community health. His interests include culture, music, nature conservancy, and public health. He is an MA candidate in international relations and international communication at Boston University.
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