Let me start by saying that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Grand Hack is kind of a big deal. I don’t make the point as an affront to other hackathons—certainly not DAI’s own—but not many other hackathons can claim to have generated more than $150 million in venture capital and spawned more than 40 viable companies. Those two facts qualify the Grand Hack for royalty status among hackathons, which makes it even more surprising that the event is run entirely by students, MIT’s Hacking Health group. It’s also the reason why I was so excited to get a taste of MIT’s secret innovation sauce from the inside—as a mentor, alongside my colleague Kristen Roggemann.
One concept that caught our attention—as well as the judges’—was Sweet, a chatbot for people with diabetes that addresses one of the biggest challenges for patients: compliance. Sweet’s Ameer Farooq, a general surgery resident who is taking a year of educational leave to get an master’s degree in public health at the University of Alberta, explained that compliance with treatment regimens is one of the biggest challenges to successfully healing patients, and doctors often see it as one factor outside their control.
With Sweet, patients get reminders to take their medicine and they can track their dosage and compliance across time. Since the hackathon, the team is preparing to take the chatbot from wireframe concept to reality, using a graphical design system such as Chatfuel.
DAI also caught up with the first prize winner, Tech-to-Town, which aims to solve the challenge of weak distribution networks and supply chains in developing countries. We spoke with group leader Pelham Keahey and learned a bit about the origin of the concept and how it developed during the hackathon.
Tech-to-Town presents their concept at the MIT Hacking Health Grand Hack.
DAI: Hi Pelham, congrats on the big win! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Keahey: I recently graduated with a PhD in applied physics from Rice University. My research focused on bioengineering, global health, and improving cancer detection. These days I’m a postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital working in medical imaging research, and I was introduced to Hacking Health by some colleagues. This was my first hackathon.
DAI: How did the concept for Tech-to-Town come about?
Keahey: During early discussions with the team, we thought deeply about health facilities—particularly in the developing world—and what challenges they face in providing the best care to their patients. While there are a lot of aspects of that problem we didn’t feel equipped to address (staff capacity, sustainable finance, etc…) we agreed that one challenge we could approach was the poor accessibility to top-quality medical supplies and equipment. Of course this contributes to lower quality of care, and for some patients, no care at all, depending on the problem. Our goal was to think about how we might reduce cost and distribution time for critical medical supplies and equipment, and Tech-to-Town was our solution.
DAI: What were some of the challenges your team faced during the conceptualization process?
Keahey: We went through a lot of ideas that didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The biggest challenge was how to leverage existing distribution networks more efficiently. One thing we considered was ‘How does Coca-Cola do it?’ They’re the largest distributor in the world, and they’re famous for getting their products to the villages beyond the last mile. We even thought about ways of partnering with Coke, like medical devices in Coke cans, but ended up going in a different direction. We talked to several hackathon advisors from MedTronic, a medical device company, about how they distribute their products around the globe.
In the end we decided to focus on the challenge in a different way, from the perspective of a procurement office or purchaser at a medical facility. Compared to the health facilities we know well, they order fewer devices and do so with less frequency, so clearly economies of scale would be difficult to achieve within a single facility. To avoid competing against local supply chains, we also had to think about how to be complementary instead of generating competition with local businesses. This was not an easy balance to achieve.
DAI: What about domestic suppliers? Why are they falling short?
Keahey: Why they’re falling short is something we need to explore more deeply, but they do know the distribution networks and infrastructure already, so we hope to partner with them instead of competing with them. We also will focus initially on devices developed specifically for low-resource settings across a range of specialties, which we believe will be most useful immediately for medical facilities. We believe that by encouraging the pooling of these types of purchases across public and private facilities, we’ll be able to reduce overall cost and make it easier for facilities to purchase equipment.
DAI: It seems like pooling purchases might cause delays in delivery, how will you handle that?
**Keahey: Right, cost and time are our two key variables. By collecting enough orders, you can reduce the cost, but you have to be very strategic about it. We’ll have to monitor closely how much we can sell and how fast, which will depend on the type of demand we encounter. Of course we hope to aggregate demand for devices across multiple local facilities. **
DAI: Long-term, how do you avoid the equipment graveyard?
Keahey: There are many organizations and companies designing new medical technologies designed specifically for resource limited settings. We’re confident that if we focus on the right technologies, we can reduce equipment loss by tapping into current, real demand. We also plan to focus on the sustainability by training local staff.
DAI: Tell us about your pitch and why you think it helped you win.
Keahey: We talked about how engineers and innovators make devices, but once the device is created, it’s difficult to get them to the people who need them in a sustainable and commercially viable way. We talked about how distribution and infrastructure is so difficult in these regions, and how we think Tech-to-Town is a platform that will help local health facilities better utilize resources and provide better care.
DAI: What’s next?
Keahey: We’ve had a few meetings and we’re doing some deep dives into the problem. As you can imagine, with only 48 hours to plan during the hackathon, there were a lot of additional questions we never had time to address. We are working to better understand the market, and hone our value proposition. Beyond that, building the platform and identifying a portfolio of devices to begin with are top priorities.
DAI congratulates Tech-to-Town on their win and looks forward to seeing the platform’s progress from hackathon concept to impact platform.
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