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Medical Innovation in a Weekend

October 16, 2014
by Michael Greenwood

Yale Students “Hack” for Health in Marathon Session

How long does it take to develop a breakthrough with the potential to save lives, ease patient discomfort and even reduce costs?

In many cases it takes years, or at least many months. But a weekend?

Students from throughout Yale University spent Friday evening through Sunday afternoon immersing themselves in Hacking Health @Yale, a three-day innovation marathon. In most cases the students arrived as complete strangers and by Sunday they presented polished—and viable—proposals that tackled a range of health and medical problems around the world.

“Last year InnovateHealth Yale held the first ever at Yale global health hackathon and we’re delighted to offer a version that focuses on medical innovation,” said Martin Klein, director of InnovateHealth Yale (IHY), a program for health innovation housed at the Yale School of Public Health and a co-organizer of the hackathon.

Ten students teams consisting of dozens of undergraduate and graduate students with a shared interest in harnessing entrepreneurship, creativity and science to address pressing needs in medicine and health competed in the inaugural event.

John Cronin, a first-year M.P.H. student at the School of Public Health, was inspired by the ongoing Ebola crisis to design a safer suit for medical professionals to wear in order to avoid exposure to potential pathogens. His Contego suit was designed so that it cannot be donned incorrectly. The gloves and the facemask are designed into the suit and it also allows the wearer to remove the gear without risking exposure. In addition to describing the need for such a suit, he came up with a business plan and a working prototype by Sunday afternoon.

Cronin said that the weekend’s format—designing, building, tweaking—was an ideal fit for him.

“I am the type of person who learns best by doing. I have always been a terrible student but seem to excel in my professional work endeavors. This type of program is perfect for someone like me because it's not theoretical or someone lecturing about how they think you should solve a problem,” he said. “It is: here is a problem you have two days to come up with a plausible solution. It’s action versus pontification.”

Cronin and the other student participants had use of the School of Engineering’s design lab and access to a range of experts in medicine, engineering and design from Yale and beyond to turn to for information and advice.

“They did not pull any punches,” Cronin said. “If they thought what you were doing was a bad idea they would say so which was awesome as it saved you time iterating.”

In addition to Cronin’s medical safety suit, other projects included an app that will allow people newly diagnosed with cancer to quickly find another expert who can give them a second opinion; a non-invasive device to remove stents; a bracelet that can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease by monitoring slight fluctuations in body temperature over time; a redesigned percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tube to feed people when oral intake is no longer possible; and a device that measures how well a shunt is working in people with hydrocephalus.

Each of the teams had five minutes to outline their technology and business plan to a panel of seven judges in a lightning round of presentations Sunday at the Yale School of Management.

Yale’s Center for Biomedical and Interventional Technology (CBIT), a co-organizer of the event, awarded its prize for the best overall innovation went to Team NISE (Non-Invasive Stent Extraction) for a less expensive and uncomfortable procedure for removing devices after kidney transplants.

Christopher Loose, executive director of CBIT, said that “extraordinary prototype” medical devices were made in just one weekend to serve diverse and underserved populations.

“Hackathons are a great environment for students to learn that great innovation starts by clearly defining the need,” Loose said. “Then, interdisciplinary teams have the power to make a tremendous impact in designing a solution.”

IHY also presented a student team—Mobile Dental—with its Social Impact Award. The team seeks to create a platform that allows people with dental problems to instantaneously connect with dental professionals by taking a picture of their condition. They estimated that some 200 million people in India alone could benefit from such a system.

IHY fellows Nick Lovejoy and McKinley Kelcy assisted in planning the three-day event.

In the coming weeks IHY will hold an informational session about its programs for the year and will provide a platform for student teams to form so they can compete for the Thorne Prize, $25,000 in seed capital to use to develop and promote their program or technology, Klein said.

“We look forward to some great innovations,” Klein said. “The next big idea is out there and IHY wants to help make it possible.”

Submitted by Denise Meyer on October 16, 2014