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Lessons from Healthcare's Grand H@ckfest

Christina Hernandez Sherwood on March 27, 2014

When more than 450 participants packed the top floor of MIT's Media Lab this month, they were joining H@cking Medicine's Zen Chu in a "grand" experiment. Healthcare's Grand H@ckfest was unlike any H@cking Medicine hackathon to date. With five tracks, including diabetes, global health, and telemedicine, along with sponsors for each, the hackfest attracted some of the brightest in entrepreneurship, medicine, engineering, and design. "MIT, without a medical school, is able to have a healthcare impact," Chu said. "That is just really fun for the teams."

After 48 hours of "hacking" on healthcare's top pain points, participants had developed innovative ideas for healthcare startups. The event organizers shared with eMed some key takeaways from the "hackathon of hackathons" for healthcare entrepreneurs:

  • Since the hackfest had multiple track, participants were forced to get specific about their problem and proposed solution, said H@cking Medicine co-leader Allison Yost. "Sometimes in the broad scheme of things," she said, "people get distracted." These questions can help any healthcare entrepreneur narrow their focus: Who is my customer? What is my specific use case?
  • Similarly, involving a mentor from an early stage can help a team focus, said H@cking Medicine team member Ayesha Khalid. "There is a danger of over-generalizing your need," she said, "and therefore your pilot."
  • The "pre-competitive" nature of hackathons makes them ideal for early-stage healthcare entrepreneurs, Khalid said. Though many large-scale healthcare organizations are hesitant to share ideas, she said, the hackathon model is about sharing pain points and creating community. It's a better way to network, Khalid said, than simply within a single company -- or a single community.
  • The hackathon model could be adopted across the country and the world by universities, hospitals, and businesses, Yost said. "This process works no matter the very specific use case," she said. "A lot of innovation can happen in a short amount of time if you get all the right people in the room."
  • The key to getting the right mix of people, Yost said, is to strive for the most diverse crowd possible. Think outside the box: You don't just want healthcare engineers, for example. You want engineers who never before considered working in healthcare.

With the Grand H@ckfest behind them, the H@cking Medicine team will continue working to spread the hackathon model globally. Next steps include tracking hackathon data and supporting hackathon participants after the whirlwind weekend has ended. "We try to experiment with each of these events," Chu said, "so we're learning, as well."

Related: How to host a H@cking Medicine hackathon

This event was the first in the Kauffman Foundation's six-city Energizing Health Collaboration Series.

Category:  Ideation  Tags:  event

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