Doctor, meet entrepreneur

At Hacking Medicine, fixing health care’s most vexing problems, and fixing them fast

September 10, 2013

Teams at work at an MIT Hacking Medicine hackathon in Uganda in August

Teams at work at an MIT Hacking Medicine hackathon in Uganda in August

Later this month, executives and senior leaders from Pfizer, Novartis, and other leading drug companies will gather on campus with MIT students for the first ever pharmaceutical hackathon. Together, students and industry leaders will hash out better ways to design and undertake clinical trials of medicine while improving the data generated during trials.

It’s not surprising that a drug company would look to the world’s top engineering school to improve its products or business. It just tends not to happen in a single weekend.

But that’s a Hacking Medicine hackathon, a fast-paced weekend event that brings as many as 150 MIT engineers and MIT Sloan business students into close, kinetic contact with clinicians and health care administrators. The approach is problem-based pitching—not “Here’s our idea. Buy it,” but “Here’s our problem. Solve it.” Medical professionals detail industry challenges. Working with student entrepreneurs and engineers, they develop innovative solutions to those problems.

In just two years, these hackathons have spawned more than a dozen companies tackling a diverse set of problems in health care. One company, PillPack, is a pharmacy that fills, sorts, and delivers medications in packaging that simplifies taking medication. Another, Podimetrics, is developing an insole that collects and transmits data in an effort to prevent complications in diabetics. And a third, Smart Scheduling, uses machine learning to help doctors and clinics schedule patients and predict no-shows, saving time and money. All three companies were developed in a matter of hours.

At the pharmaceutical hackathon drug executives may leave with an industry-changing way to develop, test, or sell drugs. And just as importantly, they may build partnerships with the MIT students who will do it. Those partnerships can become startups before the weekend is out.

It sounds aspirational, but the process has proved successful. Hacking Medicine—sometimes stylized H@cking Medicine—formed at MIT Sloan in the fall of 2011 with the goal of bringing MIT's business and engineering prowess to the health care industry, which has developed a reputation for being slow to innovate, adopt new technology, or change.

“These are MIT and HST [Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology] students who believe that a broken health care system can be fixed by entrepreneurship, especially by engineers who can think about systems and technologies to scale medicine,” said Zen Chu, co-founder and faculty director of Hacking Medicine, entrepreneur in residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and the founder of three companies.

Smart Scheduling, which develops software to better schedule and predict no-shows and cancellations in clinics and doctors’ offices, was born at a February 2012 hackathon at the MIT Media Lab. Gabriel Belfort, a doctor and postdoc at MIT at the time, pitched the scheduling problem. Within minutes, Belfort connected with MIT graduate Christopher Moses and another doctor who suggested a solution. A band of undergraduate programmers and hackers signed on to help develop the initial program.

“That was all in the first couple hours,” said Moses, Smart Scheduling’s CEO and co-founder.

A year-and-a-half later, Smart Scheduling has $190,000 in funding and the program completed a trial in 15 clinics through a partnership with Massachusetts-based athenahealth. This fall, the company expects its first revenue and may expand into up to 200 clinics in the product’s first six months.

Moses and Andrea Ippolito, a 2012 graduate of MIT’s System Design and Management program who joined the group as a co-founder, recall the lively opening of that hackathon. People—doctors, engineers, business students—rattled off 30-second pitches while an organizer, MIT Sloan student Elliot Cohen, typed the ideas into a spreadsheet that was projected onto a large screen. After the pitches, Cohen played matchmaker, organizing people into hacking teams.

“When you get doctors and engineers and entrepreneurs all collaborating at the same time, the complexities of the business model get brought into the actual product development,” said Cohen, who graduated from MIT Sloan in June and today is CTO of PillPack. “When you design a product that has taken the realities of the health care ecosystem and infrastructure into account, you’ve also taken the realities of providing care into account, so the product that pops out the other end—from a business perspective—is built to actually work, and—from a clinical perspective—is built to actually deliver real clinical value.”

PillPack started as an idea of TJ Parker’s. A graduate of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, Parker met Cohen while working on Hacking Medicine and the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. The pair later co-founded PillPack as a company. Parker’s initial idea for PillPack had appeal, but Cohen admits he didn’t fully appreciate its value to the world until it was developed, prototyped and explored at Hacking Medicine.

“If these things didn’t exist, there’s just no way we would know each other,” Cohen said. “Our social circles were never going to cross.”

But they did, and today PillPack is a venture-backed company and a graduate of the prestigious TechStars startup accelerator.

“One of the big problems right now in the health care sector is that you don’t have any young entrepreneurs,” said Tracy Rausch, the founder of Waltham-based DocBox, a company seeking to develop a communications platform that can be used to transmit real-time clinical information to doctors and nurses in hospital settings.

Rausch, who mentors among the MIT Hacking Medicine network and whose company recently signed a $6 million contract with the Department of Defense to test its product in clinical settings, said the group brings critical business and engineering support to an industry in desperate need of disruptive innovations.

“Starting a medical device company, there’s a certain profile people want,” Rausch said. “There’s such a vast amount of knowledge you need to have from the medical side, as well as the technical side.”

New perspectives are important, too, as so many health care industry challenges are seemingly intractable problems with Olympic-sized hurdles, like regulations, testing requirements, clinical trial costs, and scalability concerns.

“You don’t have to study biology and health care for ten years to begin making an impact on health care,” Chu said. “It is so complex that fresh eyes and applying technologies in new ways unleashes innovation in the health care sector, which has historically under-invested in technology and is now under pressure to lower costs while improving quality. And that’s borne out in the ventures that have started at Hacking Medicine hackathons.”

Chu estimates that more than 1,000 engineers and physicians have attend the eight MIT hackathons to date, including one in Madrid and two partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital in India and Uganda. Hacking Medicine organizers estimate that of the hundreds of ideas pitched, more than 140 teams have formed. While it’s early, and many teams are still in a nascent stage, more than a dozen companies have formed so far.

And the Boston area is the perfect place for them to start. In thesis work to complete his MBA, Cohen, of PillPack, found that a combination of high National Institutes of Health research funding and entrepreneurial activity, measured in venture capital deals, makes Boston the best place in the world to develop an innovation ecosystem in health care.

“Boston is the only place on the planet, even more so than San Francisco, where there is so much real medical knowledge, understanding, and research, and so much entrepreneurial energy,” Cohen said. “And as much collaboration as we have, there is still not enough. There are still not enough examples of medical students getting to interact with engineers and entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurs and engineers interacting with nurses and clinicians and pharmacists.”

Still, Cohen said, “It’s not just about getting the involvement or input of a clinician. Without actually having them on the team, and truly being an interdisciplinary team, it’s a misguided thing.”

Ippolito, of Smart Scheduling, is now a co-lead at Hacking Medicine, responsible for guiding the organization as it grows, sees success, and is in turn called upon for partnerships with industry leaders. The group has already organized a hackathon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and has led hackathons with the hospital in India and Uganda. Another hackathon was held in Spain, and a colleague is looking to expand the organization with a chapter at Duke University, nestled amongst the world-class hospitals in the North Carolina research triangle.

“Our original vision, and we still hold true to that, is ‘We bring together engineers, entrepreneurs, clinicians, and designers to hack on and build disruptive solutions in health care,’” Ippolito said. “What we couldn’t have really anticipated … is how much interest it was going to garner outside the academic community. These hackathons really caught on fire.”

Other upcoming MIT Hacking Medicine events include a Sept. 20-22 hackathon with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an Oct. 18-20 Hacking Pediatrics event with Boston Children’s Hospital, and Hacking Medicine’s involvement in the healthcare and life science night at MIT’s t=0 entrepreneurship festival.

Ippolito attributes the appeal of to Hacking Medicine to its fast pace of innovation, the passion and talent of the people involved, and the relatively low cost of sponsoring a weekend full of MIT students doing what they do best.

“Where else could you create that many innovative solutions based on pizza money?” she asked.