Lessons from the Brigham Hackathon: Applications to Everyday Innovation

  The Brigham Innovation Hub hosted our second annual hackathon September 12-14th, with MIT Hacking Medicine and Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA. Over 150 people attended, forming 21 teams. Teams had less than 2 days to form and go through the full cycle of innovation, from problem identification to prototyping. Not surprisingly, and despite the lack of time and experience (this was the first hackathon for ~57% of participants), we saw them learning and applying "innovation best practices" throughout.

Below is a list of advice gleaned from hackathon attendees--it is applicable to both hackathons and innovation, in general.

We reached out to some of our hackathon attendees for advice they would give to future hackathon attendees.  In case you need a refresher on what a hackathon is before reading this, check out our video.

  • Solve a real problem.  Ramesh Ramji is a post doc associate at Yale in the biomedical engineering department. He was drawn to a pitch regarding insulin pumps. “I got to hear about a real life problem that many children around the world face today and decided to come up with a solution.”  Innovation frequently fails when innovators build quickly without first succinctly identifying the problem. Build something to solve a problem, rather than build something and then realize you don't have a problem to solve.
  • Have passion: Praveen Meka, an Internal Medicine MD at BWH, attended the hackathon and saw it as “an ideal opportunity to gain experience and develop my innovation skills.” He recommended to future attendees to “identify individuals who have similar interests and goals and meet them early on at hackathons. Ensure the idea you pick is something you are passionate about.”  Innovation takes time... and then more time, and presents innovators with so many opportunities for jumping ship.  It takes passion to keep going when times get rough.

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  • Get data and feedback: Jean Zheng is the Engineering Director for the new Center for Biomedical and Interventional Technology (CBIT) at Yale and advises future participants, “Get data! Understand the user needs before building!” Many of the problem pitches start with data about the size of the problem, which is important.  After recognizing the magnitude of the problem, ask what causes that problem and then why that problem exists. At hackathons and at the Brigham Innovation Hub we encourage innovators to reach out to mentors or end users (as in, potential customers). Who is going to buy or use your product at the end of the day? Ask about what they do today and how your solution might fit into their workflow or compare to what they currently use.
  • Start building: Nick Patel, President of Wellable, attended the hackathon to “explore innovative ideas in healthcare and learn from and network with likeminded individuals.” Talking about the build, he said, “You have a whole weekend, which sounds like a lot of time, but it flies by so start building immediately.  Your concept may change and evolve over time, but you should start building and iterate as you go.” We recognize that this is slightly at odds with the previous bullet--what do you do first: get data or build?  It's both and teams should be built with people to support both activities because innovation is an iterative process. If you build it, you can test it, get feedback (more data!), and begin iterating or pivot.
  • Keep an open mind: Brittney Mikell, a research assistant in a cardiovascular lab at BWH, recommended "keeping an open mind going into the building process. Although you or your team might have defined exactly what they wanted as the final product, these expectations tend to change throughout the building process.” Be willing to pivot as you gain new information and your team dynamic evolves.

If you have questions about the hackathon or working with the Brigham Innovation Hub, send an email to iHub@Partners.org.

If you work at BWH and have an idea you want feedback on, submit your idea share here.