Two years ago, Luc Sirois, Vice President of Nightingale and co-founder of Resonant Medical (former BDC portfolio company acquired by Elekta) approached me in a panic to sponsor an event happening on the upcoming weekend. The ask? Pay for a bigger venue and order more food for a bunch of web designers and healthcare professionals to convene and design IT solutions to healthcare problems. Imagine my initial reaction… But I’ve known Luc for a decade and anyone who’s known Luc will tell you how persuasive he is. So I did the right thing: I managed to get someone else at our shop to pay for the bill—and Hacking Health was born that week-end.
I was not able to attend the first “hackathon” as my presence was required out West for a boondoggle in Whistler, but I made sure we had people attending. My colleagues were blown away during that weekend: 50 healthcare professionals from across the country teamed up with 180 web designers, software writers and other IT experts to develop patient-centric solutions for our healthcare system, where you can do rapid prototyping in a non-threatening environment. After 48 hours of intense work in front of a computer, 19 projects were pitched to the participants: most of them had working prototypes and well, some of them were even almost investment grade.
Since that first week-end, our group has been involved in their three subsequent hackathons and we witness their growing success. More than 250 healthcare professionals, 600 developers, 125 designers and 100 projects with increasing quality were presented during demo sessions. After events in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Hacking Health is now branching out to Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton and reaching abroad to New York, Cape Town, Barcelona, Strasbourg and Stockholm.
The event held in Toronto last week was a huge success with over 400 attendees, 120 of which were healthcare professionals. A total of 45 projects were pitched to the group and 35 teams formed around these ideas. I attended the whole event both as a mentor and a judge and was amazed by the progress all the teams made over the weekend in trying to tackle real problems healthcare professionals face during their day-to-day practice. At the end of the event, 24 projects were pitched, most of those with a working prototype to show to the crowd (see the MaRS blog post for more details about the projects). More than a quarter of the projects have near-term commercial value and are worthy of some follow-on financing once they gain clinical validation. Venture funds typically invest in less than 1% of the projects they see. The Hacking Health open-innovation methodology holds great promise to significantly increase this ratio.
Successes from past hackathons are starting to generate attention in the corporate world. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Pivot Designs, Self Care Catalysts and BeWorks are now committed to providing specialized services to some of the winning teams.
Hospitals involved in the hackathons are also starting to embrace the concept. Women’s College, the first and only independent, academic, ambulatory care hospital in Ontario with a primary focus on women’s health, heavily participated during the week-end. They gave (in my humble opinion) the most meaningful prize for three teams: early validation in a real clinical setting and the opportunity to be incubated in their institution.
The recipe to this success?
- Firstly, the solutions developed during the hackathons come from healthcare professionals looking to solve problems they encounter during their day-to-day practice. They come committed to finding solutions, they interact with developers who can then rapidly prototype hand-in-hand with the end-user. The outcome is solutions that will have more chances to be used in practice. In addition, a solution pushed by the healthcare professional will foster adoption in the hospital.
- Secondly, by engaging the whole continuum of innovation in the same room: ie clinicians, patients, designers, developers and entrepreneurs, you will impact both quality of the products being developed and commercial viability. On the latter point, I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions mentors advising teams to significantly modify the solutions being developed by simply making them aware of similar technologies on the market.
- Thirdly, Hacking Health is much more than 48 hours hackathons. The organization is creating a sustainable presence in their respective communities with cafés, workshop and clinics, which keeps all stakeholders engaged in making a difference in healthcare delivery.
Looking ahead, Hacking Health’s plan is to create a global movement where everyone involved in healthcare will contribute in generating patient-centric solutions. This will impact healthcare outcome, in Canada and abroad, and they have racked-up a pretty impressive line-up of cities on very limited resources. Hacking Health’s next step is to continue developing the most interesting projects in a clinical setting by creating a national accelerator with an early stage fund in order to bring innovation to the market in partnership with the healthcare stakeholders. Not an easy task, especially in a country with both the lack of capital and in search of a common vision to improve healthcare delivery.
(1) Please also read this great post discussing Dr. Dosani’s experience during a HH hackathon.