The Next Generation is a BWH Clinical & Research News (CRN) column penned by residents, fellows, graduate students and postdocs. This month’s column is written by Joao Ribas, a PhD student and research fellow in the Khademhosseini lab. Ribas recently participated as a mentor in the third annual Brigham Innovation Hub’s Hackathon, which took place from Nov. 6 to 8 and was organized by Brigham Innovation Hub in collaboration with MIT Hacking Medicine.



Participants at the 2015 Brigham Innovation Hub’s Hackathon.


As the auditorium is filling up with skilled and creative minds, the judges take their seats in the first row, eager to see the innovative solutions for health care born during the weekend of Brigham Innovation Hub’s Hackathon. Health care hackathons bring doctors, engineers, designers, programmers and entrepreneurs together in one place to tackle health problems in a short amount of time. The allure of a health care hackathon is this improbable gathering of combined expertise in a single location. It accelerates the innovation process and propels outstanding ideas and solutions for pressing health care needs.

BWH and I started hacking health care with the inaugural hackathon in 2013. I used to think of hospitals as places of care and treatment, but not often as the forefront of innovation. But the 2013 Brigham Innovation Hub’s Hackathon changed my perspective. After that event, I dove into entrepreneurship and innovation in an attempt to help solve health care and medical technology problems around the world. Hackathons shaped and changed my view, and BWH’s bold initiative positioned them in the avant-garde of health care.

This year, I took part in organizing the event and mentoring participants through MIT’s Hacking Medicine, a student-run MIT group that energizes, influences and teaches health care entrepreneurship as a way to solve health problems worldwide. Being on the other side of the stage gave me a different perspective, a deeper understanding of the mentoring process, and a clear map of the hackathon innovation journey.

Saturday morning opened up with 30 pitches. One doctor described how difficult it is to interpret arterial blood gas levels and mentioned a range of other medical parameters that often require the use of specific calculators. Another participant pointed out that building an autocomplete function within electronic health records (EHR) – a ubiquitous feature in a smartphone era – would allow health care providers to shorten and improve the quality of information. The audience built an atmosphere of excitement, and the participants enthusiastically took notes, absorbing and analyzing each problem statement.

The pitches were the prelude to team formation. This is a vibrant part of a hackathon, where participants weigh their expectations and skillsets, gather around ideas that personally appeal to them and start hacking solutions. It also provides a great opportunity to meet people with various backgrounds. At this point, each team’s table was ready with markers and easel pads – these were the white canvas where problems, processes and patient journeys were going to be mapped. Visualizing this information proved to be a fantastic way to better understand and think about problems and map ideas/solutions, giving participants a deeper insight into the big picture.

The next part of the hackathon brings mentoring to the process, and here is where I found the biggest differences between 2013 and now. When you hack in a team you follow one journey, but as a mentor you see every team’s journey. Your role is to help them understand their problems and focus on particular paths. Often, teams fall in the trap of trying to solve all the problems or designing a solution with multiple features. As a mentor, you pass along two key concepts that most teams learn by the end of the day: understanding a need and hacking a minimum viable solution. The first one teaches you how to identify and narrow down to a single real need, while the second one teaches you how to design the simplest solution that solves the most critical challenge.

Back in the auditorium the final pitches were about to begin. Teams had prepared for and were anticipating this moment with excitement. All of the solutions presented were impressive, but the team that won the MIT Hacking Medicine prize amazed the auditorium by demonstrating mock patient consultation where the physician interacted with the EHR utilizing voice commands on Amazon Echo. As a mentor, I am privileged to witness each team’s journey and see how much they accomplish in such a short amount of time. Starting with (often) complex problems, teams are able to dissect and understand them. They may have had to pivot several times but are still able to solve, create, and demo a solution: a remarkable feat achievable only with great multi-disciplinary teams. Twiage, the hackathon winner from 2013, encouraged teams to continue working and pushing their ideas forward, sharing their experience post-hack and offering advice for participants.

The 2015 Brigham Innovation Hub’s Hacakthon ended on a high note and put the power to innovate into the hands of those who participated, and I was proud to be a part of it.