What can happen in a minute? A lot, if you’re an innovator pitching at CAMTech Uganda’s hackathon. On day two of the event, participants had exactly 60 seconds to pitch problems in maternal and neonatal health—and then just 48 hours to solve them.
Over 250 participants convened at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology on Aug. 26. In addition to Uganda and the U.S., the engineers, businesspeople and clinicians participating in the hackathon came from countries as widespread as Cameroon and Sweden.
The pitch session clocked in at 59 pitches. Topics included early pregnancy, obstetric fistula and deafness in infants. Many of the pitches garnered cheers and applause. But some audience members, including other participants, found them too broad.
“It’s difficult here to find the resources to read up on every problem that they [participants] find. So some of these problems have been covered, have been researched, in low-income settings,” said Gustaf Drevin, a research associate at Harvard Medical School. “It feels like they’re reinventing the wheel.”
After the tightly-controlled pitch session, the room gave way to the squeaking chairs, hurried introductions and animated chatter of team formation. Noella Aryanyijuka, a biomedical engineering student at Makerere University, was assembling a team to tackle challenges related to neonatal pneumonia.
“We’re trying to network with people and see how you can get your solution faster,” she said. “We’re trying to see how we can solve the problem in a way that’s affordable and locally-sourced.”
The rest of the day was set aside for teams to develop solutions, get materials from the hack store and meet with expert mentors for advice. The stakes will be high tomorrow, as teams compete for over $2,000 in cash prizes (6,702,400 UGX). But a team’s performance at the hackathon doesn’t necessarily translate to success or failure in the future.
“Winning the hackathon is one thing, but success of your project is really beyond just winning or not winning,” said Data Santorino, CAMTech Uganda country manager. “In these hackathons, we have had teams that have never won before and have really gone out and proved the judges wrong, and have ended up really successful.”
Conversely, projects that win at the hackathon can flop afterward. As an award-winning team from last year’s hackathon transitioned into the innovation lab, it became apparent that the problem they’d set out to solve was not very big, according to Santorino.
There’s also the challenge of funding and resource mobilization. Birungi Deusdedit, a recent medical school graduate, said his team placed runner-up at last year’s hackathon for a culturally-acceptable cervical cancer screening method. But they haven’t secured funding, so the project has since stalled, he said.
As teams prepared for the final push on Sunday, the room buzzed with energy, perhaps bolstered by remarks from Elioda Tumwesigye, Uganda’s minister of science, technology and innovation. Tumwesigye thanked CAMTech for organizing the event and noted the crucial role of science, technology and innovation as Uganda moves to become a middle-income country by 2020. “To all the participants, your work this weekend should bear fruit,” he said. “Go and make companies that will sustain you and change lives.”
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