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School of Medicine and CBIT host health Hackathon

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Autumn


“It’s a great idea,” says Lee Trawick, “but we still need a business model that explains why what we’re doing is different.” He looks around at his team. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to pull it off, frankly.”

There’s an hour left before presentations are due. Competing teams are desperately preparing their final pitches—three minute demonstrations of entrepreneurial potential and scientific competence before a panel of judges, and a shot at one of four prizes. Trawick, an actuary in Dallas Texas, has flown to Connecticut to attend. “This is my 10th Hackathon,” he says. “I’ve been on the winning team once. I thought this group had a shot, but things aren’t looking good.”

Trawick and others are taking part in a Healthcare Hackathon sponsored by the Yale Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology (CBIT) and supported by Butterfly Network, a 4Catalyzer project. 4Catalyzer was founded by scientist, philanthropist and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, Ph.D. The theme of this year's Hackathon is "Artificial Intelligence Enabling Medicine." Teams made up of engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, programmers, and (apparently) actuaries have gathered to turn problems and frustrations into solutions capable of being monetized and brought to the community. The best ideas will receive between $1,000 and $2,500 in funding, as well as mentorship and professional guidance.

Federico Cismondi, a Boston-based entrepreneur with a Ph.D. from MIT, is on another team. His group has formed around an idea about how to use social media to measure patient satisfaction, pitched by Shervin Etemad, a medical student at Vanderbilt. Cismondi has been to five Hackathons before this one, and he likes the team’s chances. “For me, these experiences are very valuable ... I find the teamwork stimulating and engaging, an opportunity to use and develop skills and talents I don’t get to use as often at work.”

Hackathons first appeared around the turn of the 21st century. They have become increasingly popular with the rise of computers and internet accessibility. In them, groups of people come together from different backgrounds to brainstorm software solutions to practical problems that have yet to be resolved with analog technology.

David Rosenthal, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine in the Internal Medicine Department, remembers the context of the early-2000s being ad-hoc and largely disorganized. As a fourth year medical student at Northwestern University in 2007, he opted out of his Match to join former Google engineers in building an online health care informatics startup. “My classmates thought I was crazy then,” he says, laughing at the memory.

According to Rosenthal, the health care industry wasn’t quite ready to take advantage of a youth-driven technological revolution 20 years ago. “Things have changed since then, he says. “People like me who were experimenting with business models 10, 15 years ago are now in positions of authority. And the industry is hungry for ideas that are obvious to people with technological expertise—hackers, in other words.”

“That’s why I love taking part in Hackathons,” says Rosenthal. “It’s seeing the future that I envisioned as an undergraduate and medical student play out in real time.”

Bookended by keynote speeches on Friday, January 19and Sunday, January 21, the majority of the hacking at Yale takes place over a 24-hour period between Saturday and Sunday. Yale School of Medicine hosts over 200 hackers, as well as dozens of mentors and faculty. Everyone seems engaged by the event, challenged to go beyond their sphere of expertise. In some cases, like Cismondi and his teammate Praneeth Saada, a fourth year medical student at Yale with a background in coding from his undergraduate days, hackers bring multiple skills and perspectives to their groups. In other cases, like Rohan Regulapati and the people working in his group, interest in the CBIT Hackathon comes less from formal observation and more from observations about the world around them.

Regulapati is a senior at the Academy for Allied Health and Biomedical Sciences, a high school focused on medicine, about 10 miles southwest of Newark, New Jersey. His idea is based on negative interactions with the health care system experienced by relatives and citizens within his community. People have difficulty understanding lab tests, which depict the health of the internal organs and systems, and Regulapati’s group proposes a mechanism for explaining those complicated results in a format that's accessible to everyone.

“It’s my first Hackathon and I had a great experience,” Regulapati says. “We are really pleased with all of the encouragement and support that we have received from Dr. Siefert & the CBIT team, Dr. Kayne from the Yale School of Medicine, and other mentors. I think that my solution, LabScore, can do a lot to improve health outcomes by empowering patients to easily understand and monitor their internal health.”

Alyssa Siefert, Ph.D. was one of the lead organizers of the Hackathon. As CBIT Engineering Director, Siefert has helped organize previous Hackathons, and said that this was one of the best-attended and best-organized that she’d seen. “We’ve learned from previous experiences,” Siefert said while helping set up an area for hackers on Saturday. “The more events you do, the easier it gets.”

Two YSM alumni who had experience with this and previous Hackathons, Doug Berv, M.D., and Richard Kayne, M.D., both spoke enthusiastically about the program. “I’m amazed to see CBIT bring so many people from different ages, backgrounds, and geographical contexts together in the same room,” Kayne says. “That high schoolers can engage and participate meaningfully is even more special.”

Although Trawick and Cismondi’s teams will not be selected at this Hackathon, Regulapati’s is—the high school team will receive $2,500 in funding, and credibility. This is crucial to moving forward. Even without winning, though, people who participate are rarely disappointed.

“Ultimately, the Hackathon is all about what you put into it, not some prize,” says Berv. “Pushing yourself into the same room as a group of strangers, letting yourself figure out how to solve a problem as a team, that benefits everyone. The hackers, the mentors, the organizers, everybody.”

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