Health IT, Startups

How to win a healthcare hackathon before it starts (and after it’s over)

Startup evolution is an iterative process – a marathon. A hackathon can serve as a sprinting start. Here’s how you win.

Last April, I took part in the MIT Hacking Medicine’s GrandHack – a mad, weekendlong race to create business solutions to pressing healthcare problems. I went into the hack with few expectations. I emerged a winner, and part of a promising new startup that focuses on end-of-life decision-making.

But that startup is gone – not dead, just enhanced and made better. The journey for the company has continued and will continue to do so.

I want to catch you up, because my team’s short, strange trip will tell you all the more about the value of the hack – and how to get ready to win one.

What Happened?

The first day of the Hack, I  gravitated towards Suelin Chen – a former consultant with an engineering doctorate who already had a startup in the works. Her concept, MyExitStrategy, centered around simplifying end-of-life planning with an online service. It seemed sound and unique – so I hopped on.

Several others did – including Harvard palliative care doctor Mark Zhang – and by the close of Hack Day Two, we had built a team of seven and a concept we felt was safe to sell to the judges. Our team’s diversity helped with idea generation: On board we also had a journalist, an oncology nurse, two economists and a graphic designer pursuing an master’s degree in public health.

Conceptualizing a startup is a purely iterative process, as we learned during many hours of fervent brainstorming. But this process was important. It helped whittle away the bad ideas so we could start forming something good.

Our winning idea that emerged in the wee hours of the night was simple – create a social media tool to help people designate who their healthcare proxy is, to make important decisions should they be unable.

We pitched “” to a slew of judges at MIT, and won first place.

This earned us a small cash prize, but something more important: We learned the underlying idea was strong. The MIT Grand Hack validated that.

What Happened Next?

The Hack victory was just one step in the constant evolution of this startup. Before heading to the GrandHack in April, Chen had already completed the primary round of Boston-based healthcare accelerator MassChallenge with her initial concept, MyExitStrategy.

We now continued that process with MyProxie. The hands-on, high-pressure world of the highly lauded MassChallenge accelerator was like a drawn-out hackathon. It revealed a pretty important truth: MyProxie, in its post-Hack incarnation, wasn’t a particularly good standalone business concept.

We invited users with a simple entry point: A signup portal to quickly designate who your healthcare proxy will be – and use that as an entry point into learning more about end-of-life issues.

The underlying concept of MyProxie was to invite users into a service that educates users about end-of-life issues using a simple entry point: A signup portal to quickly designate who your healthcare proxy will be. But through Mass Challenge we realized no one would actually use a product like MyProxie – including the founders. 

The startup adopted a new name – Cake – and a new approach. It still is meant to serve as a launching pad for information on how to make end-of-life decisions. But it has a new entryway: A slew of simple yes or no statements, like “I want to be remembered for how much I loved and cared for my family.” In answering about 20, a user’s post-mortem profile is set up – with the first steps already in place for end-of-life decisions. In just a few weeks, thousands had signed up for Cake. This concept was stickier.

Through the accelerator process, Cake was able to secure a number of key connections. It has three office spaces now, including a space in InTeahouse, a collaborative workspace for Cambridge startups, meant to help advance U.S. startups with ties to China.

Cake also as a home in an accelerator run by Boston insurer Liberty Mutual.

The Dirty Secret

Here’s the dirty secret behind winning a hackathon: Start working on your startup idea before you even get there.

We emerged victorious in April because we had a diverse team that was able to attack a startup concept from various angles. But it was also because Suelin already had an idea in place – that had been vetted once by MassChallenge.

Using a hackathon to advance existing ideas – and recruit new team members – well, it’s like doping in professional sports. Everyone’s doing it.

A hackathon, at core, embraces the idea of spontaneous idea generation. And we did. Our process of churning through a dozens startup ideas helped invalidate dozens of ideas that wouldn’t fly. But without that process, as Mark and Suelin can attest, the concept of Cake wouldn’t exist.

The biggest lesson we can take away from this hackathon – Cake will surely evolve into something different, just as MyProxie did. And that’s the beauty of the startup game.

What’s Next

Our team of seven is now two.

Turns out, startups are pretty demanding, and have a high attrition rate. It takes both grit and passion for the concept to stick it out, and Chen and Zhang helm the startup with a new team in place. The rest of us are simply cheering on their efforts.

And they’ve advanced pretty spectacularly since. To this point, Cake has almost completely bootstrapped its operations. But now, Cake is in the diligence process with a number of angel investors, looking to raise its first round of equity. It’s forming collaborations with Brigham & Women’s Innovation Hub and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Final Thoughts (For Now)

For many hackathon participants, the major takeaway is a weekend of thinking out of the box – with some networking tied in for good measure. For others, like Suelin and Mark, it was the genesis of a

See, the hackathon is an adrenaline-laced microcosm for startup development – forcing like-minded people to work hard in a room together. It’s a sprint that helps kick off the marathon needed to build a successful startup – in essence, forcing the iterative process to go at hyper-speed.

But the real beauty of a hackathon isn’t necessarily to build that better mousetrap – rather, it’s meant to cobble together a team that can help refine the initial idea. That you already had.