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“We need more geeks in health care”: MIT Grand Hack draws entrepreneurs

A bedside robot for hospital patients, an app to connect opioid addicts to care providers, a smart wristband for allergy management—these were just a few of the ideas circulating at the MIT Grand Hack on Saturday, held on the sixth floor of the MIT Media Lab. The space echoed with chatter and the clacking of laptops as teams competed to produce the next big innovation in health care technology.

Last weekend, 354 hackers from 20 countries converged at MIT Hacking Medicine’s annual flagship event. The hackers—a mix of engineers, clinicians, businesspeople and developers—competed for cash prizes ranging from $750-$1500 and the bragging rights that come from winning the largest healthcare hackathon in the world, an event that launched companies such as PillPack and Hey,Charlie.

“Good collisions happen here,” said Zen Chu, co-founder of Hacking Medicine and senior lecturer at MIT.

The event kicked off on Friday with a pitching session for hackers to identify problems in health care. This year’s event featured three tracks: Invisible Conditions, Smart Robotics and Patient Care Continuum, sponsored by UCB, Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and Johnson & Johnson, respectively. Next, the focus turned to team formation—a kind of “controlled chaos,” in the words of volunteer Ned McCague, that put hundreds of strangers in a room and tasked them with building teams.

“This is the nerdiest gym class I’ve ever been in,” said Chloe Cullen, a mechanical engineer at Raytheon and first-time hacker. “But we’re doing something good.”

Come Saturday, hackers had formed 49 teams and taken on a range of problems—the elderly population’s declining mobility, sexual abuse on college campuses and the cost of health care in the U.S., to name a few. Tech solutions included robots, wearables and apps—solutions that could be scaled, one of the things that excited longtime volunteers like Aartik Sarma.

“As a clinician, I’m focused day to day on individual patients. You treat one patient at a time,” said Sarma, a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Here, you build things to scale.”

The Grand Hack stands out in the hackathon universe for bringing health care, business and tech together. That’s one of the reasons Vanessa Fernandez, a Mexican student from the University of Guadalajara, traveled nearly 3,000 miles to hack at MIT. “I came to connect with people who are interdisciplinary and have bigger vision about healthcare,” said Fernandez, whose team MemoRoom won first place in Smart Robotics.

The Grand Hack wasn’t always this large. When founders Chu and Elliot Cohen started Hacking Medicine in 2010, there were just thirty hackers involved.

“No one knew what it was,” said Chris Lee, former co-director of the initiative and a member of the inaugural team. “Now, it’s very different. We have a track record.”

In the years since, Hacking Medicine has run over 70 health hackathons in the U.S. and abroad, produced over 25 companies and generated over $150 million in funding.

“The people have changed but the ethos is exactly the same, which is that technology scales medicine,” said Chu. “There’s a massive technology transformation going on in health care and we’re just at the start.”

Amid all the conversations about health problems and global crises, the event had lighter moments too. A Bollywood dance party on Saturday afternoon gave hackers a chance to exercise and take a mental break. There were also 5 Segway Loomo robots veering around, provided by Segway Robotics for hackers to code or, alternately, ride.

Teams kicked into high gear on Sunday, with just a few hours to wrap up their projects ahead of final presentations and Q&A with a panel of judges. 15 teams won cash prizes at an awards ceremony that afternoon. The first place winners in each track were MemoRoom, which used virtual reality goggles to reconstruct the memories of Alzheimer’s patients; Better Together, which created a wearable to connect college students to mental health resources; and MedNOW, which designed an app to connect certified responders with nearby emergencies to provide care until Emergency Medical Services arrived.

“It was amazing—one of the best hacks I’ve ever been in,” said Neo Mohsenvand, a MIT PhD student and member of MemoRoom. Gesturing to his teammates, he added, “I’m so glad I got to meet them. We just flow. We laughed the whole time.”

“It was a great experience,” said Rishub Solan, a Product Manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific and member of MedNOW. “It’s amazing what can happen in 48 hours.”

For Chu, this year’s Grand Hack, like the many hacks before it, confirmed a long-held belief. “We need more geeks in health care,” he said. “Everyone knows it.”

Amy Pollard

Amy Pollard

    Amy Pollard is a candidate for the MA in Communication and International Relations at Boston University. Her interest in health care began with her first trip to Tanzania, where she volunteered at a medical dispensary in a rural village and saw firsthand how access to health care impacts patients. She’s excited to learn about health care technology in Boston. She’s originally from Seattle and holds a B.A. in English from Saint Martin’s University. When she’s not writing, she’s probably drinking coffee, making tacos or watching Parks and Rec. Follow her @amyannexu.

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