Michael Docktor, MD, a gastroenterologist in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, is passionate about technology and taking care of sick children. He is clinical director of Innovation, director of Clinical Mobile Solutions and an original co-founder of Hacking Pediatrics.
Health care hackathons have proliferated over the last three years, perhaps nowhere more than at Boston’s academic medical centers. After three years of organizing and running Hacking Pediatrics events, and seeing nearly 40 amazing ideas generated by hundreds of innovators, we felt that the experience needed to evolve.
Armed with data and a few battle scars, as any startup might incur, we pivoted and sought to, essentially, hack the hack.
The traditional hackathon
The premise of a hackathon is to identify a pain point and bring together collaborators — from clinicians to designers, entrepreneurs and engineers — to iteratively arrive at a solution. Attendees are typically a mix of talented, energetic students and more established techies and mentors who guide these hard-working “hackers.”
In the traditional hackathon, teams form by what can only be described as Brownian motion — a commotion in which people gather organically, driven by participants’ common interest in solving a problem. While this is incredibly exciting, it leaves much to chance. As any venture capitalist would tell you, the team is everything. Having the right mix of talent and personalities that work well together is critical.
After the hack, essential next steps are soliciting customer feedback, gathering data and tweaking the product to market needs. Unfortunately, the reality is that groups rarely have the time, passion and resources to continue work after the event.
Hacking the hack was therefore more than simply boiling down a two-day pizza- and Red Bull–fueled marathon to a 24-hour sprint. We wanted to improve the experience, deliver value to the stakeholders giving their time and deliver on the promise of turning great ideas into real solutions for children and families.
There was much we wanted to change.
Frankly, part of what was missing before was organization, curation and partnership with companies and individuals that were in the game for the long haul. We needed to foster lasting collaborations.
The traditional hackathon kickoff is the one-minute “problem pitch,” where participants describe their “pain point” and solicit team members. We set out to deconstruct this process and remove some of the unnecessary pandemonium.
The solution was collaborating with organizations up front, so that mentors could be full-fledged participants and companies could be active companions in ideation. We were honored to have partners like Microsoft, Cerner, CVS Health, Boston Scientific, Zaffre Investments/BCBS, Booz-Allen-Hamilton and Boston Children’s Hospital’s own Simulator Program pull from their own talent. In the months leading up to our 2015 “Mashup,” we brought these partners into Boston Children’s to showcase their technologies, network and inspire our innovators.
We then had an open application for hospital employees to submit their ideas based on potential opportunities with our partners. As part of our initial curation, we selected the best ideas and had applicants submit a two-minute pitch video. We shared these videos with our partners, who evaluated the ideas, identified where they could add value and tapped expertise from within their groups to form teams for the Mashup.
When possible, we matched innovators or ideas with a corporate partner before the hack. This enabled us to trim nearly an entire day of setup, team formation and initial brainstorming, ultimately creating a higher-yield event.
Limiting the event to one day allowed us to recruit participants who otherwise could not commit to an entire weekend, while still allowing our constituents—innovators, corporate partners, the hospital and eventually our patients — to get a lot out of the event. In a post-Mashup survey, only 17 percent of respondents wished they had more time to hack, while 83 percent thought the one-day format was “just right.”
Many graduates from a hackathon suffer an all-too-common pain: seeing their work die on the vine. We had to ensure that ideas worthy of attention were supported, and that the teams were motivated to continue to build toward their vision.
Fortuitously, in parallel with our efforts, Boston Children’s Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein, PhD, and his team have been working towards creating an Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) at the hospital. This new accelerator is providing a fertile ground where pediatric innovators can take their Mashup projects to the next level, with business advice, mentorship and resources.
Meanwhile, a number of fantastic opportunities offered by our partners — like a $10,000 design award offered by Mad*Pow and a week of development team time at Microsoft’s Technology Center — are helping ensure the long-term sustainability and implementation of solutions born at the Mashup.
With yet another incredible event under our belts, new partners and a growing med-tech community, we’re excited to continue to iterate at Hacking Pediatrics. We’re looking forward to a “kids-only” hackathon this spring, as well as mini-hacks where we will apply the hackathon model in short sessions with small groups of clinically, scientifically and operationally focused innovators.
Ultimately, we hope to unleash and unite the creative talents of our hospital colleagues, patients and families to solve some of the most challenging issues in pediatrics. If you’d like to join us, just drop us a note.
Ed note: Check out this blog post by Sam Lambson of Cerner, giving his perspective on working side-by-side with clients at Hacking Pediatrics to build EHR-compatible mobile apps.