An inside look at Hacking Medicine

Is the hack hype? I dove in, joined the signature event of MIT Hacking Medicine and found out.

There’s an element of performance anxiety when you’re doing anything in Cambridge: The city just has this palpable buzz of brainpower.

This is particularly true when you gather 400-plus scientists, programmers, physicians and entrepreneurs for a weekend designed to reinvent healthcare. It feels a little like the first day of high school.

I usually come to MIT Hacking Medicine conferences to write about healthcare innovation, but last month I decided to participate in its Grand HackI’ve been skeptical (and wager that many of you have been as well): Do hackathons actually live up to the hype?

The hack’s reputation is certainly building. Businesses are harnessing hackathon concepts to shake things up and catalyze more inventive product development. MIT is building out a HackMed Institute with exactly that thought in mind: Interfacing with larger businesses to bring the hackathon ideology into wider corporate use.

But can the process built by Hacking Medicine really instill the kind of new, innovative thinking that healthcare needs to transform itself? Or is it just a glorified retreat for the wannabe creatives of medicine?

I got my answer.

I am still a little stunned.

Back to High School

It may have felt like high school, but I felt somewhat confident I could run with the cool kids of the Hack. Before I was a journalist, I was a scientist: I was a biochemistry major and worked four years as a research peon, sequencing DNA to try and find the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia.

So on Friday night everyone picked one of four topics to hack (I chose primary care) and then we listened to fellow hackers pitch problems they’d like to see solved.

These weren’t spur-of-the-moment concepts. Interestingly, many posed ideas they’d already been working on for months – hoping to use the hackathon to accelerate a concept already in motion.

Teams were allowed to form organically after that. In this high-schoolesque world you had your cheerleaders (building out an app on diet monitoring), jocks (developing a smoother EHR integration process), student government types (hospital revenue cycle consulting) and so on.

Programmers were the Hack’s varsity players – everyone wanted them.

I gravitated toward Suelin Chen, a fellow hacker who was both deeply experienced and came from a place of genuine passion. She has a materials science doctorate and worked as a life sciences consultant, but her nascent idea was winningly simple: to build a startup that simplifies end-of-life-care issues.

I stuck with her.

On to University (With Plenty of Doctorates)

High school ended Saturday morning. My team of nearly 20 folks started brainstorming around an amorphous concept: Aging and death.

We sat, cross-legged on the floor, and just talked: about our skill sets, and our interests in senior or end-of-life care. We had doctors, biochemists, economists, designers and even another journalist. But we had four disparate concepts going on – so again, more team mitosis.

My final team included Suelin, a palliative care doctor, an oncology nurse, two economists, and a graphic designer pursuing an MPH.

We talked more – this time for eight hours – looking at end-of-life care from a hundred different angles. We tried to suss out one that we could realistically transform into a business concept.

We had some pretty hideous ideas. Take “KillSwitch,” a website that lets you designate who will delete your porn stash when you die, so your mom won’t know of your untoward proclivities while alive (it already exists.)

Thank goodness for the diversity of our team – it may have been our greatest asset, and something that without the Hack would be very hard to recreate.

The analyst was our fearless leader and clear CEO, guiding the conversation and providing true business insight. The economist kept us focused. The palliative care doctor (our CMO) just had such a deep knowledge of the issues – and happened to be a charismatic ideas man. The designer made us look good. I asked the right questions, and challenged the team to work out the kinks.

The nurse was one of the most empathic man I’ve ever met – he brought us down to earth by keeping the patient in focus at all times. He also killed the KillSwitch.

This kind of diversity cuts both ways – as it could have caused us to sprawl and not make a decision. But the Hack mentors give on-the-spot, informed thoughts on whether your concept holds any water. It’s one thing to brainstorm an idea you think is brilliant – but completely another when you’re presenting it to a potential partner, investor or consumer.

The time crunch inherent to a hackathon ultimately forces you to make decisions fast. Cut the fat and hone in what’s simple but effective. Our proposed hack – called MyProxie – was not high-tech. The idea was to simplify the jargon and legalities around tough end-of-life issues (take your standard DNR process) and make it a more publicly palatable concept through education and social sharing.

We took a subtle, straightforward approach to a massive issue.


It’s now 11 p.m. on Saturday, and we finally have our concept. We worked late into the night. By morning, our awesome designer created a number of mockups for a website and other collateral while I polished the presentation’s look and the language. Many thanks to the suite of Google documents, which allowed us to modify our presentation in realtime. We were laser-focused. We worked together. We all pitched in. It was a blur. We got it done.

We had to convey our concept in three minutes; judges were allowed two more of questioning. We had to keep it tight.

Our CMO and CEO pitched. Mark Zhang, the palliative care doc, emphasized the public health need for a product like ours. Suelin talked business.  The judges looked animated. The audience was nonplussed.


We won.

We won first place for the primary care track, and a second award called the “Patient Shark Tank” prize, which won us a meeting with an eager investor.

Since the Hack, my team and I remain in touch. I’m staying on in an advisory role. Our CEO and CMO have been making the rounds among the venture community and the Boston health care systems – they’ve already drummed up a considerable amount of interest in our startup. We just got accepted into this year’s MassChallenge accelerator class.

Remember that.

On To The Real World

I certainly have a hell of a lot more respect for the startups I cover since participating in The Grand Hack.

The hackathon provides a microcosm for the overall iterative process of startup creation. You get a genuine feel for what it takes to launch a company. You have to be lithe. Pivot. The startup space is crowded – you might find a competitor’s already on the market for an idea you think is absolutely original.

I got engaged recently. Let’s hope my fiancée doesn’t read this, because the wild joy I felt from winning this hackathon was on par with watching him propose. It might have been better. It was certainly more of a surprise.

Because after such an intense burst of extreme focus, of putting your all into a concept and placing it up against hundreds of very, very smart people – well, the win’s just huge. It is validation for an idea that could help allay some of the strain on our healthcare system – and validation for an idea that could make it as a company.

But I should be real here: It is extremely rare for an idea from a hack to be a company. These ideas don’t generally become companies – and I know it’ll be an uphill battle for MyProxie to make it big.

But that’s not the point. The medical, technical and educational communities are still terribly siloed. Hacks unite the disparate pieces.

Look at the diversity on my team. We came from all corners of the cafeteria; it would be hard to drum up such a varied mix of humans without an event like this. Each of us brought our individual expertise to attack a ubiquitous problem – and we generated a pretty unique approach. It teaches you how to think differently. Out of the box, as it were.

That’s the real value of the hack.