How Covid-19 changed the global hackathon program of MIT and others for the better, forever
Engineers often claim that constraints foster creativity, and the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” has never been truer than after the COVID-19 hit. MIT’s health hackathon program, started by MIT Hacking Medicine, has been forced to rapidly go from 100% in-person to 100% virtual globally. During this process, lessons have been learned that can permanently improve hackathon processes in other industries.
Freddy Nguyen, former co-director of MIT Hacking Medicine, physician, scientist, bioengineer, physical chemist and innovator, who currently works with both MIT and Mount Sinai, shared the changes and improvements to the design of the program and launch of the MIT COVID-19 Challenge in response to COVID constraints, many of which will endure. Global hackathons in all sectors can benefit from the experiences and learnings of his team.
Mission and objectives of the program
The MIT COVID-19 Challenge, a collaboration between MIT Hacking Medicine, the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at MIT, and the MIT Innovation Initiative, following the onset of COVID 19, was a series of hackathons that involved and applied to all continents. The mission of MIT Hacking Medicine is to “democratize innovation in healthcare, infect, energize and empower a diverse global community in the field of entrepreneurship and innovation in the field of healthcare. health, to develop medicine to attack and solve health problems ”. At the start of the program in late spring 2020, the MIT Innovation and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem, MIT Alumni Network, and MIT Collaborator Network all came together to discuss how best to to pool the untapped potential of talent, energy and time that people had. down, towards solving some of the global challenges brought on by the pandemic. The planning timeline was unusually short… 72 hours from when they decided to mobilize and their first public announcement. The biggest limitation was that it had to be completely virtual.
The goals of the MIT Hacking Medicine Program were to democratize healthcare innovation, make it accessible to participants around the world, and include all stakeholders: those who know the issues and those who are able to address them. to resolve. This meant the patients, clinical scientists, engineers, physicians, payers and vendors / the business side, the legal side, and the designers of products, services and user interfaces. Unlike most other solution-focused hackathons, one of MIT’s most important KPIs was how many ideas came to fruition and were implemented. Creating a network of mentors who would help bring ideas to fruition, from ideation to impact, was extremely important. From the start, the hackathon was designed to maximize the team’s chances of long-term success.
Key performance indicators for the success of the MIT COVID-19 Challenge
Established from the start, the Hackathon KPIs included:
– Public awareness and scope of the program
– Participation rate (number of team members and mentors)
– Number of countries concerned
– Number of ideas generated
– Sizes of ideas, number of people helped, degrees of improvement compared to previous solutions
– Percentage of usable ideas
– Percentage of teams continuing to develop solutions in the post hackathon environment
MIT engaged 100-200 organizations external to MIT during the challenge, including:
– Health facilities: Mass General / Brigham, The National VA System, across the United States, Weill Cornell and Oregon Health and Sciences University
– Academicians, including social scientists, data scientists, epidemiologists, engineers
– Big technology: Microsoft, Google and Amazon
– Pharma: Pfizer and J&J.
– Incubators and accelerators
– Various professional associations to help supervise the start-ups that have emerged
– Public health officials
– Insurance companies
Part of MIT’s strength is its convening power and its ability to bring together a wide variety of stakeholders to solve problems. The Hackathon Challenge was widely publicized in their networks, which created a positive global snowball effect, generating wide awareness and attracting participants. One of the advantages of being virtual was that it allowed participants from all over the world who could not normally afford the plane ticket or the time to go abroad, to participate. As a result, there were more participants, more diversity of thought, and a wider range of mentors involved, which fits well with MIT’s belief that great ideas can come from anywhere. Teams of 4 to 7 people (which MIT considers to be the optimal number to generate ideas and allow everyone to contribute) were selected on the basis of diversity in nationality, position and background.
The involvement of the local ecosystem and the feasibility of the ideas that reached the top were of paramount importance. The solution to a problem in the United States might not work in Africa, India or South America due to local cultures, education levels, infrastructure and resources, so local participation and perspectives were essential. .
The four key elements of the program design were:
1) To what extent has the problem and the desired impact of the solution been defined in advance
2) Creativity and effectiveness of problem-solving innovation
3) Implementation, assuming the idea has been funded
4) A solid business plan to generate awareness and adoption
Albert Einstein’s quote “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution” was used to inspire the teams. About 1/3 of the hackathon’s time was spent defining the problem and the desired impact. Teams can try to solve a problem that is too big or tangential to the real problem they are trying to tackle. The solution had to address a very specific problem.
Convenience and viability
Participants were encouraged to think about the business plan, the viability of the idea, how it would finance itself, logistical issues, how it would ultimately fit into workflows and how to ensure maximum awareness and adoption.
Facilitate remote communication
Groups have been formed on the Slack platform to emulate interactions in real time. This aspect can be further improved in the future by creating real-time telepresence so that teams can have faster conversations. Another area for improvement was rapid prototyping and the development of hardware to get quick end user feedback. Greater use of local 3D printing and rapid prototype testing would also help.
Focus on implementing / not losing the best ideas
The goal was for the solutions to be implemented as quickly as possible, and the fastest way was to leave what had been developed during the hackathon itself, in the open source space. In this way, participants or partner companies could move ideas forward. On the first day, each participant signed a document specifying that all hackathon ideas were subject to an open license agreement. After the Hackathon, teams could own and develop the intellectual property and had a right of first refusal to develop the idea. If the team refused, the mentor, part of the team, or some other entity that moved forward with it, owned the intellectual property. Most often, this was the original team in conjunction with the mentoring organization.
Judgment and financing
The judges represented all the different stakeholders: investors, CEOs of start-ups, clinicians, payers, providers and government. Three to six months later, the opportunities for mentoring, funding and presenting the event partners went to the teams who have progressed well and shown that they not only had a good idea, but also had a good idea. the will and determination to move it forward. cheeky.
Initial and follow-up support was given to teams having:
– A well-defined problem
– An innovative solution with high impact, financially viable and scalable
– Various experiences of team members
– Strong inter-team communication and organizational dynamics
– Good involvement and support of mentors during the hackathon and the incubation period
– Ability to spread the idea to the main constituents and to get them excited
Building on learning for future global hackathons
There are a few downsides to a fully virtual hackathon:
– It is more difficult to create camaraderie when everyone is far away
– There are fewer impromptu side conversations that can be helpful
– It’s harder to feel the energy and excitement of the entire program compared to a live event with so many talented people coming together to share ideas for an important cause
– Some items must be asynchronous due to the different time zones
– It is more difficult to prototype, integrate everyone’s feedback and test initial concepts
In the future, when the world will hopefully return to a new normal, MIT Hackathons could include some entirely virtual, others entirely in person, or hybrids.
Lessons for other industries on how to maximize virtual hackathons
Four key lessons have emerged that can be useful for hackathons in different organizations:
1) It is important to involve a diverse group of respected stakeholders in the design of the process, who bring different ideas, have a ‘skin in the game’ and can publicize the event in their networks.
2) It is well worth the effort to engage people who previously could not afford the time and travel costs: both participants and mentors, those affected by issues and those who benefited from the solutions, including the entities involved in the implementation such as the government, legal representatives, logistics companies, etc.
3) It is vital to spend enough time to correctly define the problem and determine the financial viability, beyond the development of the basic idea or technology.
4) It is essential to provide incentives for teams and mentors to continue working on ideas, including follow-up funding and publicity of successes globally among the original hackathon and future potential user communities.