Spending two days bouncing between hacking groups and stumbling upon groups that looked defeated but persevered to win
By Dexter Johnson, Contributing Editor, IEEE Spectrum
After having had the opportunity to interview the five Fellows who participate in the Madrid-MIT M+Visión Consortium’s Catalyst program late last year, I was invited to attend an event in late February that M+Visión was producing jointly with MIT’s Hacking Medicine series called Hacking Medicine Madrid.
As a science and technology journalist, you can become fairly jaded to the next big thing and promises of real innovation. However, in my brief encounter with M+Visión’s IDEA3 Innovation Method last year, I was actually energized by the Fellows’ enthusiasm and their abilities. I was also impressed with the simple but novel approach to innovation at the core of the IDEA3 program: first find an unmet need.
It’s basically a take on the idea of finding a market pull and being wary of technology push. But it was the program based on this simple idea that MIT and the government of Madrid had put together to shape the M+Visión consortium that was so interesting to me.
The Fellows in the Catalyst program are asked to initially think of an unmet healthcare need and through a process of being challenged by a diverse group of clinicians, engineers and entrepreneurs are ultimately able to fine tune their technology so it can be developed as a commercial product in the shortest possible period of time.
Failing fast and discarding unworkable ideas quickly helps to streamline the innovation process. Also, spending time observing clinical environments and taking hospital rotations in Madrid, makes the Fellows acutely aware of where technological innovation can make a difference.
It is an intriguing approach to innovation in the field of healthcare, which is too often bogged down in technology that nobody wants or needs while real problems continue to seek out solutions.
This new approach seemed to me to be the most efficient way in which to develop an innovation ecosystem around healthcare technology in Madrid. And indeed this has been one of the stated aims of the Madrid-MIT M+Visión Consortium since its inception in 2010: to strengthen Madrid’s position as a global center of biomedical research by accelerating innovation in healthcare solutions.
Hacking Medicine: A Cauldron of Innovation
The broad concept of Hacking Medicine Madrid was similar to that of IDEA3, but the process would be condensed to just two days over one weekend. This made the prospect of attending just irresistible for me. It would be possible to witness the process of developing an idea into a realistic proposal for a healthcare solution in just two days.
The Hacking Medicine events always begin with anyone present to pitch an idea to solve a problem in healthcare. At the Madrid event, there were twenty such pitches.
After the initial pitches, the next hour or so of the event involves the participants mingling and introducing themselves to the different pitches and offering their services, or finding it better to work with other groups that were pursuing a similar goal.
It all appeared a fairly chaotic process to an outsider like myself. But it seemed to follow an organic process nonetheless, which, after an hour or so, found most of the participants in working groups that stayed nearly intact all the way through the process.
The transformation from the initial chaos to the well-ordered groups seemed almost miraculous albeit messy. Over seventy researchers, students and entrepreneurs eventually broke themselves into a dozen or so working groups.
But not all the groups were clearly defined after that first hour. A group of four, which would later call themselves “Plan B”, I first spied across one of the two rooms that would serve as cauldrons of hacking and innovation for the weekend.
While everyone else had settled themselves at a table, these four students—three engineering students and one medical student—stood in the corner of the room apart from everyone else, and, despite looking a little unsure of themselves, seemed to strike an air of defiance that drew me to them.
“Plan B” Takes Shape
I walked up to the four students of Plan B and asked them what group they were part of. They explained that they had been part of a much bigger group that I had spoken to just moments before. That group had explained to me that their project seemed to have at least three distinct components. So when Plan B told me that they felt that there was an opportunity to develop one aspect of the larger group’s technology, it made sense given what I already knew.
However, they were pretty short on specifics, explaining that they saw an opportunity to work on the data analysis aspect of the other group’s plan to develop an early warning system for heart patients to alert them that a heart attack was imminent.
I wished them luck and moved on to one of the other groups that would eventually be whittled down in number to thirteen groups that would all adopt names that more or less represented the theme of their innovation.
Early Obstacles for “EAT”
The next group I met with—which would later call itself “EAT”—almost didn’t happen because their original pitch came late. When I went to visit EAT, I discovered a bit of panic and despair—and we were only about two hours into the process.
One of the mentors explained to me that the group had just discovered that their idea to develop a mobile app that could alert people with food allergies to allergens contained in the food had already been commercialized.
It seemed to me that I had just witnessed the first group to fail in the hackathon, so I moved on to another group.
Thirteen Groups Hack Medical Devices, Healthcare Apps and Database Analytics
The final thirteen groups could be roughly broken down into three basic themes: medical devices, database analytical tools and smartphone or computer apps for encouraging healthy lifestyles.
A slight majority of the groups were attempting to develop a medical device. One such group was “ImproKnee”, which was looking to develop a way to improve the materials used in artificial knees and the method by which the prosthetics are aligned. Another device group was “Lapascropic Probe” that was attempting to develop a single probe that would allow surgeons to get both ultrasound and optical images from the same device. “Stroke Control” already had a licensing agreement to develop a software platform on the Gemyo device, which is used as a mouse in video games, to create a tool for helping stroke victims in their physical rehabilitation. Another group, “Handscript”, was planning to use the Gemyo device to translate the various sign language gestures throughout the world into spoken languages. An even more far-reaching medical device group was “Relay Mom” that aimed at tackling the problems facing premature babies by developing an incubator that mimicked the female uterus, employing liquid instead of air to help develop the premature baby’s lungs. Another ambitious medical device group was “Live Heart” that sought to develop a t-shirt with embedded sensors for detecting heart parameters in heart patients and alerting doctors and emergency response teams if the parameters indicated a heart attack was imminent.
There were also groups working on database analytical tool solutions. “Not So Rare” and “MyHealth” were both one group at one point that broke apart with both attempting to leverage database analytical techniques to help speed up the diagnosis of diseases. “Artificial Pancreas” sought to develop a non-invasive solution to eliminating the paraphernalia that diabetics need to test their insulin levels and treat it. “Pill Journal” aimed at developing a prescription analysis and control solution that would alarm patients of medication interactions.
Of course, there were a few groups that aimed at apps or other computer-based tools for encouraging healthy habits. “Step Challenge” worked on bring social apps and gaming technology together to create a workplace-based competitive environment for encouraging exercise to combat the sedentary nature of the work environment. Both “EAT” and “Plan B” would eventually develop a solution that roughly fell into this category.
Over the course of two days, I would spend time with all of these groups, dropping in with them to see where they were in their innovation process.
What has to be understood about all of these groups is that they conducted their work within their respective groups in Spanish. But in all of their interactions outside of the groups, where they needed to explain and present their work, they did it in English. This was a feat that I was impressed by throughout the two days and was grateful for since my Spanish was certainly not up to following their often-frantic deliberations.
The End of the First Day
Near the end of the first day, I saw that Plan B had finally found a table to work from. So I approached and asked them how they were coming with their data analysis tool based on at least one of the technologies from LiveHeart’s broad and ambitious project.
They excitedly told me that they had long since abandoned that idea. In fact, they said they had gone through at least four different ideas before arriving at what they were now going to work on through the night.
They were going to develop an inexpensive software tool that leveraged the cameras built into our computers for monitoring our eye movement to alert us that we were getting sleepy and losing our productivity. Their initial idea was it could be a tool that could be bought by companies to monitor their workers. Later, after speaking to a few mentors, they amended that to be a tool for personal use because of privacy concerns.
Based on their level of excitement, I expected that they were going to have a busy night ahead of them.
I went back to visit the EAT group to see where they had come with their idea since their first one had already been commercialized. To my amazement, they didn’t abandon the idea; they simply turned it on its head. They reversed the supply chain.
Instead of selling their product to the consumer, they would sell it to the supermarkets as a service that would attract people with allergies to buy from their store.
I asked one of the members of EAT, Noelia Lombardo, an engineering student, what the group was thinking when they realized that their original idea had already been commercially developed and what their process would be to continue hacking.
“When we discovered that the idea was already developed we brainstormed in order to find a way to solve the problem we proposed,” explained Lombardo. “We then decided that the best way to proceed was to change the business model instead of the main idea. It was a difficult decision to make, since the first idea was very clear for us. However, the obstacle became an opportunity, since after some time working on the new path we had to follow, we realized it was a much better idea than the one we had to reject.”
The Final Day
When I returned the next morning, I immediately approached the Plan B group and asked if they had a long night. From their bleary eyes, I could see they had. But they excitedly showed me that they had developed a software tool that could capture images from a built-in computer cam. Overnight they had created a working demo of an image capture analysis tool. I was impressed.
When I went back to visit EAT, they were so busy making preparations for their presentation later in the day, I didn’t get to ask them much. A wave at me was all they had time for.
When the presentations did come, that focus in developing their presentation paid off for EAT as they won first prize. Plan B, which had the beginning of the weekend couldn’t even find a table to sit at, won second prize.
Certainly there is a lesson in the success of Plan B and EAT that perseverance is critical in innovation. It makes sense that the two teams that seemed to have the most to overcome would be the ones singled out for awards by the end of the weekend. With grit and determination, these groups succeeded, and now they have a new motivator: success.
“The innovation ecosystem is alive and well here, and growing,” said Bryant. “More early stage investors and startup acceleration centers are emerging, and more young people especially see entrepreneurship as a real career option.”“At first it was more an exercise in innovation since we came up with the idea the very morning the hackathon began,” explained Lombardo. “Now, however, we are very excited about taking the idea further with the help of the prize we have been awarded with.”
The beauty of the Hacking Medicine Madrid event seems to be that it has an impact on both the individual and on the broader regional context for innovation.
For the seventy or so individual healthcare innovators who participated, they learned priceless lessons. First, and perhaps foremost, they discovered that they are capable of creating radical innovation themselves. They also witnessed the benefits that can be achieved in working within immersive teams and how rapid iterative thinking can accelerate innovation.
As stimulating as this experience is for the individuals, perhaps its greater impact will be in how it will transform the innovation ecosystem of Madrid.
Spain has always had a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. However, the prospects for that workforce have traditionally been narrowed down to finding a job at a large company. Now, a new generation of engineers and scientists are being exposed to the increasingly attractive prospect of starting their own business.
Peter Bryant, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Instituto de Empressa (IE) in Madrid and a mentor at the Hacking Medicine event, believes Spain is increasingly friendly towards innovation and entrepreneurship.
“The innovation ecosystem is alive and well here, and growing,” said Bryant. “More early stage investors and startup acceleration centers are emerging, and more young people especially see entrepreneurship as a real career option.”
It is in perhaps that last bit of Bryant’s comment: “entrepreneurship as a real career option” where the Hacking Medicine Madrid event makes its key impact on the innovation ecosystem of Madrid.