What happens after a medical hackathon? Lessons from two winning projects

Judy Wang, MS, is a program manager in the Telehealth Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Hackathons create ideas and excitement, but then reality sets in.

Much has been written about the successes that result from medical hackathons, in which people from across the health care ecosystem converge to solve challenges. For example, PillPack, which formed out of MIT Hacking Medicine, recently closed an $8.75 million funding round. But is this a realistic snapshot of what happens after a hackathon? We took a look at two of the 16 teams that competed at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Hacking Pediatrics last year.

VP Shunt (3rd Place, Hacking Pediatrics 2013)

The VP Shunt team, comprised of Harvard-MIT PhD student Christopher Lee and MIT Sloan student Babak Movassaghi, PhD, ended up focusing not on shunts, but on a device to enhance the safety of endoscopic third ventriculostomy (ETV). ETV is part of a surgical procedure developed by Benjamin Warf, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital to help children with hydrocephalus avoid repeated shunt operations. The solution Lee and Movassaghi sketched out, with guidance from Warf and neurosurgery residents and fellows, would make ETV easier to perform, as described on Vector earlier this year.

“It’s really hard to innovate in pediatrics, particularly in medical devices, because the pediatric market is so small.”

Lee confesses that not much progress has been made on the idea. He and Movassaghi began researching their path to commercialization and market, and learned that given that they were in the pediatric medical device space, seeking to improve a risky surgical procedure, they would need to apply and receive FDA clearance for a Class III device. That process could take at least a decade.

“As we delved into this more, we realized that we were working on a device that would help at most 50,000 patients worldwide,” says Lee. He and Movassaghi worked on the device for five months after the hackathon and eventually decided to abandon the project, donating their unspent prize money back to Boston Children’s Hospital.

Lee believes that his experience has helped him understand the difficulty of the pediatric health care space, despite the potential to improve children’s lives. “It’s really hard to innovate in pediatrics, particularly in medical devices, because the pediatric market is so small,” he says. “And if something doesn’t work, it’s going to look really, really bad if a patient has a negative outcome in a clinical trial, even if you have 100 other really great outcomes.”

He also suspects that the difficult road to market for devices is contributing to the exploding emergence of digital solutions. “[Software solutions] don’t have to go through the headaches of clinical trials and having to raise a lot of capital to put a device through a clinical trial that will probably be held to a higher standard than for the adult population. It made it really difficult to make the business case to support moving forward with the [hydrocephalus] idea, and it stinks that that’s the case.”

Lee is now continuing his PhD studies and working on another startup, Recon Therapeutics, which has developed a technology to streamline how patients self-administer biologic drugs. The technology was developed out of a mechanical engineering class he took as part of his MIT coursework.

Project Tinkerbell (Best Design, Hacking Pediatrics 2013)

Project Tinkerbell was born out of the passion that Beverly Andrea, RN, BC, and Colleen Ryan, MD, have for the patients and families on Boston Children’s Hospital’s inpatient psychiatry floor, known as Bader 5. They wanted to find a way to alleviate families’ fears and anxieties about their child’s inpatient stay.

“I was really worried about going to the hack,” says Andrea. “I thought, ‘I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m certainly not an IT person.’ But I realized that as a nurse on Bader 5, I had my experience to contribute. And I had a goal: to raise awareness about what we do.”

The idea that they presented—and that won the Best Design award—was an interactive mobile application to orient patients and families to the Bader 5 unit and prepare them for what to expect during their stay.

Since team members are working in their limited free time, they’ve needed to scale back their ambitions.

Since the hack, Andrea and her colleagues have created a video that takes the viewer on a virtual tour of the Bader 5 floor, and Paul Marando, a Bader 5 counselor with a background in graphic design, has joined the effort. “I think it’s going to be great for the kids and families, especially for first-time admits to know what to expect and to explain why we’re different,” he says. “It’s scary to come onto a double locked unit.”

But he admits there are some challenges. First, since team members are working on Project Tinkerbell in their limited free time, they needed to scale back their ambitions.

“Instead of a mobile app, we’re adding on a basic slideshow,” says Marando. “We’re also going to start with a small pilot in the emergency department and test how well it works.”

The second challenge is the negative public perception of inpatient psychiatry services, particularly when it comes to children. When a child is admitted to Bader 5, the family receives a 27-page informational packet and is required to sign and abide by rigorous confidentiality requirements. This can trigger a lot of fear, anxiety and even tears. “They sign this form and they think, “They’re taking my kid away,’” says Andrea. “We want to decrease fear and increase the understanding of what we do.”

The Project Tinkerbell collaborators just submitted a Fast Track in Innovation (FIT) grant application to the hospital’s Innovation Acceleration Program and hope to receive more support and resources. Meanwhile, Andrea continues to spread the word about how invigorating the hack was for her.

“I do a lot of admissions, I’ve been here for 14 years, and I have kids of my own,” she says. “The most important thing is to reach out to families and understand that every question they ask is important. So when I found out about the hackathon, that’s when I thought, ‘I need to do this.’ Just talking to all the people and seeing all the ideas was so wonderful.”