H@cking Medicine: Gathering bright minds to create startups

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Jane Levesque, MedCity News

When Julien Pham, MD, attended his first H@cking Medicine event, the Boston collaborative’s second hackathon, he was smitten with the way entrepreneurs, clinicians and engineers worked in tandem for a common cause. “I fell in love with this mindset of getting people who are completely different in terms of their training to come together to solve a problem,” said Pham, a kidney specialist and junior faculty at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

At the hackathon – a weekend event where participants present healthcare problems and form teams to develop solutions – Pham pitched an idea for a startup that attacked a pain point he observed in medicine: clinical trial data. He quickly teamed up with a business school student, a doctor-programmer and an entrepreneur in an effort to make clinical trial data more visual and accessible to patients. “It was a neat idea, but we didn’t know how to approach it,” Pham said. “We failed very fast.” The group disbanded.

Undaunted by the failure, which he described as “a great learning experience,” Pham continued attending H@cking Medicine events. He became a hackathon adviser on clinical workflow, helping ensure that healthcare products and services created by hackathon teams fit into the culture of medicine. At a spring hackathon, Pham advised a team working on a clinical referral optimization engine. Soon, he became a co-founder of RubiconMD, which uses technology to distribute questions from primary care providers to specialists to reduce avoidable referrals. “What really attracted me to this startup is the large value this can have on healthcare,” Pham said.

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and launched in 2011, H@cking Medicine is an ecosystem bringing together the Boston medical community to teach entrepreneurs, engineers, clinicians, scientists and designers how to launch disruptive healthcare businesses, said Zen Chu, a serial healthcare entrepreneur and MIT Entrepreneur-in-Residence who started the effort with MIT entrepreneurship faculty Bill Aulet. H@cking Medicine is about creating “a circle of mentors” to identify new solutions, Chu said. “You need some super-connectors within the ecosystem that can pull in the right expertise,” he said, “whether it’s patents or regulators or medical devices or reimbursement.”

Entrepreneurship, Chu said, is the No. 1 way to solve healthcare quandaries. “You need fresh eyes on these problems,” he said. “That’s how you scale medicine.” Along with Pham’s company, other H@cking Medicine successes include PillPack, which fills, sorts and delivers prescriptions in personalized packets to help patients take their medications at the right time, and Careport, a startup run by Harvard Medical School students that uses software to improve the hospital discharge process.

Set in one of the nation’s top medical hubs, H@cking Medicine is led by MIT students from across the university and their Health, Science & Technology joint program with Harvard. MIT as a neutral innovation hub helps to make it easier for competing hospitals and other organizations to collaborate on healthcare problems, Chu said. “Healthcare is so complex and fragmented by disease and hospital competition that it becomes hyperlocal,” he said. “We’re just a bunch of engineers that love solving real problems, and healthcare has them in spades. We’re not competing for patients the way the hospitals do.”

For aspiring healthcare entrepreneurs, H@cking Medicine breaks down the barriers – from handling intellectual property to dealing with HIPAA to gaining access to medical practices – to founding a startup, said Andrea Ippolito, a H@cking Medicine co-leader who met the founding team of her startup Smart Scheduling at a hackathon. The collaborative also fosters a sense of camaraderie among early-stage entrepreneurs, said Ippolito, whose company works to improve access to care through more efficient scheduling. “You know others are out there doing the same thing you are,” she said. “You’re doing good for healthcare.”

Aside from meeting their teams at H@cking Medicine hackathons, Pham and Ippolito found other benefits to participating in the collaborative. For Pham, H@cking Medicine’s biggest perk – both for him and the startup community at large – is its accessibility to aspiring entrepreneurs. “It’s an organization that doesn’t really look to receive equity from the companies that come out of it,” he said. “It’s more of a social event.” Both Pham and Ippolito made important connections through H@cking Medicine, such as Smart Scheduling’s hackathon adviser, who is now on the company’s board of advisors. Even participants who don’t end up working together share tips on lawyers, funders and other connections, Ippolito said. “We all want to nurture each other along,” she said. “We’re not just a hackathon… It’s a safe space to be launching a company.”

Three years into the effort, the H@cking Medicine team has honed a repeatable process for identifying needs in healthcare – and setting out to solve them, Chu said. “It can absolutely be replicated,” he said. “It already has been replicated.” H@cking Medicine hosted hackathons in India in March, Madrid in June and Uganda in August, and efforts to launch similar events are under way in China and India. Back in the United States, H@cking Medicine is unveiling a new innovation push with hackathons scheduled through the fall beginning with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in September and Boston Children’s Hospital in October, Chu said. “We see this as a bunch of experiments,” he said. “We’re trying to teach ways of thinking about entrepreneurship as an important force in attacking the enormous challenges facing healthcare in the U.S. and abroad.”

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