Boston Blue Button Innovation Challenge: Initial Pitches and Team-Building

Breaking the wall between medicine and business, said Dr. Joe Jabre, Director of the Tufts University School of Medicine’s MD/MBA Program, was the theme of this weekend’s Blue Button Innovation Challenge in Boston. Hosted at Tufts and organized by MedStart and MIT H@cking Medicine in collaboration with The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC-HIT), the hackathon challenged 85 professionals, students and patients to generate the best health hack in just 30 hours.

Keynote address by John D. Halamka, MD, MS at the Boston Blue Button Innovation Challenge. Photo credit: Ajay Major.

The weekend began on Friday night with two powerful keynote addresses followed by a kick-off social, which one of the medical student participants described to me as “one giant flirting session” for participants to seek out team members and gauge their competition.

Early the next morning, the participants gathered in the Hall of Medicine at for a rousing talk by Dr. Sachin Jain, Chief Medical Information and Innovation Officer at Merck and Co. and former advisor to the National Coordinator at the ONC-HIT, accompanied by a pair of sign-language interpreters.

“We are the only people keeping the fax machine operators and producers in business,” Jain lamented. “Let’s retire the fax machine,” he said as the audience cheered in agreement.

But Jain assured the participants that this weekend was no laughing matter.

“We’ve had a lack of ambition in health care innovation because we’re too focused on money and getting acquired,” Jain stated. “It’s not because we don’t start out ambitious. It’s that we become isolated and we feel like we’re the only one facing these obstacles. That’s when we start to lose the ambition.”

Jain charged everyone in the room to think “big thoughts and big ideas” and remember that being polite is not the best policy.

“I don’t think innovation is something that happens when you’re polite,” Jain asserted, “and we’re all conditioned to be polite.”

Andrea Ippolito, PhD student in engineering systems at MIT and co-leader of MIT H@cking Medicine, rallied the audience with a few energetic shouts of “are you ready?” before she officially called for the first pitches.

In a flash, a winding line of participants formed along the side of the hall, notepads and iPhones clutched in hands. Pitches chock full of personal stories of illness and terrifying statistics stretched on for an hour, ranging from teledentistry to novel personal health record platforms to enabling patients to find cancer-killing foods and herbs.

Before Ippolito could even call for the “organized chaos” phase of the hackathon to begin, participants leaped from table to table, similar pitches colluding together–or separating apart–as collaborative relationships began to combine and dissolve in rapid succession.

(All Photos Credit: Ajay Major)

On one table, four laptops were open, screens filled with code being written in real time. On another, there was a heated argument on the intrinsic nature of data silos.

Another round of pitching followed soon thereafter, cutting the number of pitches down to 25 from a whopping 45 that were presented just an hour before. As the team-forming phase began and groups signed up to receive one of 15 team spots and their own team workspace in the rooms above the Hall of Medicine, there were no clear units formed, only a smattering of half-formed ideas. It would be a few more hours of confused dealings between team rooms before 15 groups would finally be working on their hacks.

Read the next article as I 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 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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