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Brainstorming better medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Spring


Several hours into HackingHealth@Yale, on a rainy Saturday in October, scrums of students were scattered about Davies Auditorium at the School of Engineering, furiously thinking out loud.

Their challenge: innovate solutions to medical problems—everything from measuring patient compliance in clinical trials to securing social support for patients to making medical records portable. Over the course of a weekend, students from throughout the university identified unmet medical needs, formed teams, created practical and economically viable medical products, and presented those products to a panel of experts.

In the auditorium that morning the intellectual ferment was palpable as students proposed and debated ideas.

“I think of it as an outpatient app,” said a student in one group.

“The problem is, you have to do an invasive procedure,” commented a student in another cluster.

“If we could think through the delivery and the services …” said a student in a third group.

Welcome to Yale’s first health hackathon.

Hackathons originated in the computer technology community during the 1990s. Then, as now, the idea was simple: put very smart people in a room for a relatively short period and then challenge them to identify and solve problems. It’s innovation at warp speed and has resulted in marketable products, organizers said.

Over the last decade the concept has spread to medicine, said Chris Loose, Ph.D., executive director of Yale’s Center for Biomedical and Interventional Technology, one of the event’s sponsors. “This event teaches students to start innovating by thinking deeply about unmet needs and working in interdisciplinary teams to build solutions,” Loose said.

Sixty-five students were selected from 150 applicants, based on their skills and ability to devote a weekend to the hackathon, Loose said. Medical and public health students, undergraduates, engineering students, management students, physicists, and medical residents took part in the event that began with Friday evening pitches from clinicians on October 10. The next morning, after a keynote address by Ayesha Khalid, M.D., M.B.A., of MIT Hacking Medicine, a surgeon and “health care innovation enthusiast,” the actual “hacking” began.

Quick, innovative thinking is the essence of a hackathon. At the start, students have 60 seconds to pose problems they’d like to solve. Then they break and seek out others interested in addressing those problems. The group reassembles, and the students have another 60 seconds to propose solutions to the problems they’ve identified.

Like a number of participants, Yale College student Austin Muñoz drew on his personal experience to pose a problem. His sister has juvenile diabetes and was long terrified of her testing meter, which requires pricking a finger for a blood sample.

“I want to make this less scary for kids,” Muñoz said.

Linda Fong, in her fourth year of studies toward a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, noted that feeding tube ports are causing ever more infections and have not changed since the 1970s. Other ideas included a social network for people with similar medical conditions, smart patient ID bands that relay information to surgeons, and a computer app for personal medical information.

Brainstorming done, the students moved next door to the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, where the newly formed teams had access to tools, materials, and 3-D printers. A group of mentors that included Loose and other Yale faculty, inventors, entrepreneurs, designers, and CEOs wandered among the groups, offering advice and suggestions.

Muñoz and physics student Matt Reagor, public health student Amy Wong, management student Dan Freed, and immunobiologist Nalini Vudatto decided to create a juvenile diabetes kit, complete with a carrying case, kid–friendly testing meter, and a story and branded drink box. There to help were Kyle Jensen, Ph.D., director of entrepreneurial programs at the School of Management, and his 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who has juvenile diabetes.

“What if I made you something like a princess meter?” Muñoz asked Charlotte, who expertly and fearlessly uses a meter to test her blood sugar. “Would that be more fun?”

Charlotte smiled and nodded “yes.”

After more discussion, the team settled on a bee theme. They produced a prototype of a black and yellow meter shaped like a bee, with a spinning propeller as well as a “hive”-themed carrying case. They dubbed their would-be company “BumbleBeetics.”

On Sunday, the hackathon's final day, Bumblebeetics and the other teams faced a panel of judges that included a surgeon, medical device entrepreneurs, and other innovators. Bumblebeetics walked away with the best patient experience award.

Fong and her team, first-year doctoral student in biomedical engineering Alex Engler and Yale College junior Amy Chang, wowed the judges and garnered the prize for best prototype with a redesigned feeding tube port with a sanitary seal and a nozzle that can be lowered and stored beneath a cover.

The best medical innovation award went to first-year medical student Tejas Sathe, second-year engineering student Zhilong Cong, and Yale College sophomore Andres Ornelas. They created a minimally invasive instrument to remove stents placed in ureters during kidney transplants, complete with prototype and video. After winning the award, the trio was already thinking about forming a company. “It’ll be really exciting to see how we can develop it further,” Sathe said.

Loose proclaimed the event a success. Several groups, he said, are pursuing development of products they innovated.

“The event created tremendous energy and interest in biomedical innovation,” he said. “I think the judges were amazed by how much could be accomplished in such a short period of time.”

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