Over the course of a frenetic weekend in March, five unlikely colleagues—an undergrad, a nursing student, a doctoral candidate, an employee at a marketing startup, and a hospital resident—came together to design a device to help asthma sufferers. Inspired by a keynote speech at a hackathon, the initial group formed over a shared interest in asthma dosing. Rounding out their team at lunch, they then spent the rest of the weekend working like mad to complete their device.
The group labored until 10:30 Saturday night, returning at about 7:30 or 8 the next morning to develop a prototype. At one point, they sent the resident scurrying to the hospital for an incentive spirometer, a simple instrument that measures inhalation.
The “INcentiHALER,” as they named their device, was an easy fix to a widespread and vexing problem: the failure of many asthma sufferers to use their inhalers properly. Patients commonly fail to breathe in at the correct rate or length of time, compromising the medicine’s effectiveness. The team’s solution—simple, cheap, and elegant—was an instrument that enables users to monitor their inhalation rate.
“We focused on how design can cue a user to have proper technique,” said team member Angela Hasler, the nursing student.
“Sometimes, innovation can just be a better-designed piece of plastic housing,” added team member Justin Koufopoulos, the marketing startup employee. “We actually hacked together two medical devices.”
Their device garnered the grand prize at Yale’s second biomedical hackathon in March, sponsored by the Yale Center for Biomedical and Interventional Technology (CBIT) and the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation (CORE). The five-member team walked away with the $500 first prize, and they appeared to be on their way.
Six months later, the “INcentiHALER” team is still working on their project, despite some bumps in the road. The top prize in a follow-up competition that would have provided $3,000 in seed money—to build a prototype and apply for a patent—went to another contestant, team member Catherine Jameson said. Summer arrived, and the team members scattered, and other commitments also got in the way. Jameson, for example, is entering her senior year as an engineering major at Yale College.
But the group isn’t giving up. Since classes resumed in September, the team has met twice, Jameson said. Their plan is to construct a better prototype, do market research, and then approach drug companies.
“We’re trying to see if it’s viable and what we need to do to make it viable,” she said. “We are fully committed to doing everything to make it happen because we’ve gotten such positive feedback, and it would improve the patient experience.”
INcentiHALER’s experience is not uncommon for hackathon participants, said Jean Zheng, Ph.D. ’13, CBIT’s engineering director. Hackathons may promote innovation at warp speed, but turning those innovations into viable products usually takes several years, she said.
And that’s just fine, said Zheng and Chris Loose, Ph.D., CBIT’s executive director. Hackathons are about building excitement and energy as well as creating viable products.
“These [hackathons] are really educational at heart, and they can lead to some great things, and have led to some great things,” Loose said, adding that they’re just one part of CBIT’s strategy to jumpstart biomedical innovation and entrepreneurship at Yale.
“The purpose of the first hackathons was to create a culture of biomedical innovation,” Zheng said. “It was raising awareness, creating excitement.”
And even though hackathons appear to focus on applying cutting-edge technology, that’s not always the case. Grand prizewinner INcentiHALER, for example, was about engineering, not algorithms, team member Koufopoulos pointed out. “There are many places where just better design is needed,” he said. “This is not always apparent at a hackathon—where that might mean ‘code’ to most people. Nearly all of our competitors were software projects.”
Hackathons, which originated in the computer industry and later spread to medicine, seek to speed up innovation. Motivated, creative, and accomplished people come together for a short period, typically a weekend. They are given a challenge, and then they identify specific problems derived from that challenge and pitch solutions. At the close of the hackathon, judges give out awards in a variety of categories.
The goal of CBIT, founded in 2014, is to get the Yale community—everyone from medical students and residents to engineering undergraduates and Ph.D. candidates—amped up about creating cutting-edge medical devices and computer applications. As part of its strategy, the center teamed with MIT Hacking Medicine, InnovateHealth Yale, CORE, and other sponsors to hold the first-ever Yale medical hackathons, one in October 2014 and the other in March 2015.
Organizers invited diverse groups, including residents, doctors, nurses, doctoral candidates, and undergraduates as well as public health, medical, engineering, forestry, law, art, and business students. Both events were successes, Zheng and Loose said, producing a plethora of potential innovations.
But once the “hack” is over, the real work begins, they said. Persistence, time, and cold hard cash are needed to succeed. Post-hackathon, teams must build strategies to further develop their ideas, Loose said. Especially important is determining a product’s market viability, he said.
“Defining the market means both how many patients are in need, and how big is the final market,” Loose said. “It also means identifying the stakeholders that need to be addressed. The hackathon helps start that journey.”
The emphasis on entrepreneurship and market viability is what sets hackathons apart, said Linda Fong, an INcentiHALER team member and a doctoral student in biomedical engineering. “Hackathons are unique in that they urge you not to focus simply on the invention, but to also build a viable business strategy around it,” she said. “Focusing on the inhaler actuator was our business opportunity—most companies only care about the drug, not the delivery.”
Of the 30 teams that took part in the two hackathons, about five have continued their journeys, said Loose, a figure he is happy with. Some have ended up working with the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute as well as his center to flesh out their ideas, he said. “I think it’s going extremely well.” Another team still working on its idea called itself “Keep an Eye on It.” Its mobile application, developed in the March hackathon, would allow users to take photos of skin conditions, creating image libraries that physicians could examine and monitor, said team member Kristen D’Angelo, M.B.A. ’15. The app would analyze the images and provide a social network for patients, she said. The team is focused now on market research and recruiting iOS and Android coders to advance a prototype, she said.
D’Angelo was effusive in her praise of the hackathon, saying she was “blown away” by the experience. “I didn’t picture myself standing up to propose a problem, but it was just such a welcoming environment,” she said. “The hackathon really stimulates a level of energy that lets ideas surface and grow.”