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How to host a H@cking Medicine hackathon

Zen Chu

As part of the Kauffman-sponsored Energizing Health Collaboration Series, we've turned over eMed to Guest Editor Zen Chu, the chief architect for the Boston leg of the collaboration conference and an entrepreneur in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here's Zen's latest contribution in his role as eMed Guest Editor.


The H@cking Medicine model is spreading globally. We've "infected" people with the hackathon mentality from Boston to India and beyond. We'd like to see our mission -- connecting healthcare experts with outsiders to attack big problems and create noble businesses -- replicated on a large scale. But we can't do it alone. While it's important to participate in a hackathon before replicating the model, we've provided a primer below to get you started. We've also corralled some content tools in our "hackathon in a box."

Participants apply to attend a H@cking Medicine event -- we turn away more people than we accept -- by detailing for us their interests and expertise. By controlling the number and mix of attendees, we strike a balance between clinicians, entrepreneurs, engineers, and others. People don't arrive with preconceived teams; rather, these groups form at the hackathon.

The process begins on a Friday night. It starts with a problem presented by a participant. This pitch, which doesn't always include a proposed solution, is the primary vehicle to communicate a particular healthcare need. Before homing in on a solution, we bring a diversity of perspectives to the problem. We do this by helping foster "collisions" -- cascading conversations, networking, mini jam sessions -- throughout the weekend. Teams eventually self-assemble, and blow apart, based on interests. As the teams further research their problem and interview experts, they begin to articulate the need in more detail. By the end of the weekend, they're ready to pitch a solution and test a series of hypotheses. Everyone bears witness to the rapid evolution of an idea taking shape in a single weekend.

The choreography of the event hinges on creating the right environment for ideas to get amplified. There's no substitution for bringing together people in the early ideation phase of their businesses to add new perspectives. We instruct participants not to shout down ideas. We favor the terms "yes" and "instead" over "no" and "but."

Hackathons aren't just about creating successful businesses. They're also meant to give participants a new process to solve problems. They can take the hackathon model back to their day-to-day clinical lives and "infect" their coworkers with this mindset. The hackathon weekend is just the beginning.

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