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Ideas Made to Matter

Planned Parenthood for substance abuse idea wins MIT Enterprise Management Lab hackathon


More than $78 billion in costs, 2 million users, 33,000 deaths; four days to solve the American opioid crisis.

That was the challenge given to students at this year’s MIT Sloan 2018 Enterprise Management Lab hackathon.

The winning concept: Planned Parenthood for substance abuse. The well-known reproductive health care nonprofit offers standardized and vetted resources to a wide range of people, students said, so why not apply that business model to something like substance abuse.

“We knew a lot of people would try to solve the problem by going upstream,” said Kyle R. Chapman, MBA ’19, and member of the winning team.

A smart pillbox might address part of the opioid crisis, he added, but “the problem is that’s only attacking one point of a really systemic problem.”

Yesseña Brown, MBA ’19, and one of Chapman’s teammates, said coming up with a hypothetical solution to the opioid crisis wasn’t just about offering aid to abusers, it was helping family members and friends know who to call for support, and offering government entities, nonprofits, hospitals, and rehab clinics, a one-stop shop for information.

“How can we address as many of these factors as possible under one umbrella?” Brown asked.

A holistic approach is at the heart of not only the hackathon, but the Enterprise Management Lab, MIT Sloan professor and lab instructor Sharmila Chatterjee said.

“It is not a content issue … it’s a mindset issue,” Chatterjee said. “So when you look at a business challenge, how do you visualize it, and think about the approach to the problem. Everyone has the content [but] how do you bring in that content to address the business challenge posed to you in a holistic, cross-functional manner.”

This is the sixth year of the hackathon, and the business challenge focused on intervention and treatment of people with opioid use disorder. Chatterjee said she chooses hackathon topics that address broad societal issues. Past hackathon topics include smart cities, blockchain, and elders aging in place.

The hackathon has several rules that boil down to needing to be a feasible business solution — no miracle drugs created out of thin air, nor a solution that relies on laws being written or changed.

The students are divided into groups — this year there were four teams of seven — and organizers try to get an even distribution of experience and specialties on each team.

Chapman said as someone with a history and finance background, he came in to the health care-centric hackathon not knowing what to expect.

“I was probably as clean a slate as you could get,” Chapman said. “I think you can always say having a fresh pair of eyes can look at a problem differently, but it was a little bit humbling. It made me more focused on understanding the problem.”

The first day of the hackathon involved speeches from a variety of stakeholders: including Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director for the Massachusetts General Hospital Substance Use Disorder Initiative, and Megan Catlin, lead research, data, and performance analyst for the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy National Heroin Coordination Group.

Chapman and Brown credited their team’s collaboration to using lots of post-it notes to write out every problem they could think of related to opioid abuse, and then writing down how to solve each of those problems.

The visual approach to problem solving is one of the things the students learn during the first day’s design thinking workshop, taught by Carsten Hahn and Niraj Singh, of the SAP Innovation Center. Planning for the workshop started in the fall, with input from the enterprise management track team, the leadership team from SAP Strategy and Innovation, and Wenting Wang, MBA ’18, who will join SAP after graduation.

While there was no silver bullet for the opioid crisis, what the team realized was they could address many of the problems through one source, just as Planned Parenthood does for reproductive health care.

The theoretical organization could be a standardized resource for not only individuals struggling with disorders, but also one for pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, rehabilitation centers, and other stakeholders.

“There’s benefits for everyone in this,” Chapman said.

Chatterjee and Cynthia Quealy, the Enterprise Management track program coordinator, said it’s gratifying to see students putting their heart and soul into the project, treating it as more than just a class requirement, and learning that a “holistic, cross-functional” approach to issues will come in handy when they graduate and have to problem solve in the corporate world.

“We say it’s adopting a c-suite mindset at the start of their careers,” said Quealy.

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216