How Hackathons Help Solve Complex Problems – Faster

By Rahul Patel, EVP and general manager, Persistent Systems.

Rahul Patel
Rahul Patel

One of America’s oldest toy companies, Hasbro, recently gathered 150 developers and created 45 products that would have cost billions of dollars in a traditional research setup. How did they do it? They held a hackathon. When a traditional toy company sees the rewards of hackathons, everybody else should be paying attention.

And in some industries, they are doing just that. Hackathons have been taking place for years in tech, manufacturing and consumer goods markets, but then there’s healthcare: an industry known for its conservative, slow-to-adopt philosophy when it comes to new technologies. But the good news is that hackathons have now gone viral in healthcare—a market where innovation and talented minds are sparking the next wave of care transformation. The reason for this revolution is rather simple: When like-minded individuals across disciplines, with lots of energy get together, great things can happen.

So what exactly are hackathons all about?

New ideas, fast

Think of a hackathon as product ideation, development, and roll-out on steroids—often in a single day. Hackathons bring the adrenaline and clarity that comes from working under a tight deadline to a motivated group of individuals dedicated to a single task. The tight timeframes of hackathons compress grand ideas and distill them into an actionable approach that can be reasonably delivered.

And we’re talking about more than the creation of a simple app. A requirement for a hackathon can also be to define the business case behind a new product or to conceive of the infrastructure that will support it.

For example, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai recently hosted its third annual Health Hackathon. With more than 100 participants from clinical, scientific, computer science, business and engineering backgrounds, this year’s theme was problems related to rare diseases, a major challenge in healthcare. Finalists presented solutions, such as a reinvention of the walker for patients with Huntington’s Disease, smartphone-based eye-tracking technology so immobile patients can interact with connected devices, and a smartphone app to provide diet-based tracking for those with metabolic disorders.

In another example, the Cleveland Medical Hackathon hosted at the HIMSS Innovation Center, produced revelations such as a wristband that senses stress levels in the blood and electrical activity in the heart to help a patient monitor cardiac activity at home; a health portal that rural patients can access without the Internet through an SMS-based interface; and headgear to help blind and visually impaired people navigate unfamiliar environments—created using $20 in parts and open-source technology.

Herald Health, a company recently acquired by Persistent Systems, also recently launched an intelligent workflow and care delivery solution to address the deluge of data overwhelming healthcare professionals. The solution was created at a hackathon sponsored by the Digital Innovation Hub (iHub) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The value of perspective

Your internal teams may be excellent, but there’s something extraordinary in getting insight and inspiration from someone on the outside, with a new perspective, who is new to your particular challenge. And, with low cost of failure, a developer can pursue innovations that would be impossible with accountable budgets and board members to answer.

Developers on demand

But maybe you are looking to hire a full-time resource, and you want to get the most from your investment. Developers are currently in short supply. If you work in technology, then you need to reach more of the developer community, and more importantly, you need to catch and hold their interest if you want to recruit top-quality talent. Hackathons provide companies a direct transit route to top-level developers that might not be obtainable through other methods. And while they’re attending, you can socialize with participants to learn personal details that might help you determine if they are the right fit for any open positions you are looking to fill—a type of “try before you buy” recruitment strategy.

Strengthen brand muscle

When you launch a hackathon it provides all kinds of networking opportunities.  You have the opportunity to partner with other companies in sponsorship programs, etc. where you can strengthen your relationships and explore new business opportunities.

Typical judges of hackathons can include venture capitalists, angel investors and members of the media, so the networking opportunities abound. And if hackathon participants use your product as part of their design, it’s marketing gold delivered to a highly specialized and sophisticated audience.

When you add up the opportunities, hackathons are too powerful to ignore. They present answers to real healthcare challenges that need to be solved not only for the benefit of the industry but the greater good of the patient population as a whole. As the saying goes, “two heads are better than one,” but when you bring many smart minds together, the possibilities are endless.

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