VA, Hikma, J&J back this year's MIT Hacking Medicine Grand Hack

The hackathon that produced PillPack will host around 100 teams this weekend focused on cancer, mental health, rehab, and the post-surgical experience.
By Jonah Comstock
01:54 pm
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This Friday, around 500 engineers, clinicians and other innovators will descend on the MIT Media Lab for Grand Hack, the flagship event of MIT’s Hacking Medicine.

“Grand Hack is unique because we’ll get applicants from all over the world,” Kriti Subramanyam, one of three co-directors of Hacking Medicine, told MobiHealthNews. “Last year we had applicants from over 30 countries, over 29 states in the US. And so it really is a chance for people to meet people that probably they have never met before and may otherwise never meet, and really get that exchange of ideas.”

Hacking Medicine has been bringing teams together to solve specific problems in healthcare since 2011, Subramanyam said. It’s been the birthplace of some successful healthcare startups. Most notable among them is PillPack, the virtual pharmacy company that was acquired by Amazon for just shy of $1 billion last year.

“PillPack came out of our first ever Grand Hack, which was the Grand Hack in 2011,” Subramanyam said. “I think they are sort of the perfect example of our methodology of people who really took the time to understand the problem. They had a pretty simple solution to a really massive problem but they did a really good job of doing their customer research, identifying very clearly who their first target users would be, and why that particular group of people would be most willing to make changes to their current schedule of medication adherence. And then [they] had a really smart plan moving forward in terms of testing their hypotheses and ultimately had great success.”

In the quest to create more PillPacks, MIT brings together individuals with diverse backgrounds to form hackathon teams of around five people each. The organization provides data sets and industry mentors via sponsor organizations. This year the event is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Jordanian pharmaceutical company Hikma, Intersystems, Johnson & Johnson, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Samsung and Optum, all either as partners or sponsors.

Every year teams are given particular areas to work on, but this time will be a little different, Subramanyam said.

“Normally when we think about tracks, we’ve sort of posed three to four general themes or topics around which participants can work. … This year we’re really organizing our tracks along more of a matrix, where one axis of the matrix will represent disease and clinical spaces including cancer, mental health, rehab and the post-surgical experience, and then the other axis of the matrix will really focus on different technologies that could be used in any of those digital spaces.”

This year, those technology categories are “digital health and AI” and “precision medicine”.

Sponsors also help Hacking Medicine to provide first, second, and third prizes in each of the four clinical categories, but Subramanyam hopes the bigger prize will be the companies that innovators can grow their projects into.

“It’s great for us, at the end of the three days, to see amazing final pitches, but what we ultimately want is to see those teams still working in two months, in six months, in a year,” Subramanyam said. “So a lot of what we also do is to really help build out that post-hack pipeline to give teams access to the resources that they might need to continue. So for the past two years we’ve been hosting a post-hack competition, and so it really is sort of like a pitch competition where we invite back teams from the previous year’s Grand Hack who are still working and we ask them to deliver their pitch again and to tell us ‘what is it that you are now seeking in your work?’”

MIT’s Grand Hack begins Friday, with winners announced on Sunday.

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