The event would be unlike anything I’d ever experienced. But I knew one thing. It would be extremely rewarding. And I was very excited about finding out what the next 48 hours held.
Innovative Tech Solutions to Healthcare Challenges
My team members and I were participating in Cajun Code Fest in Lafayette, LA (and my hometown). Cajun Code Fest was an event bringing people and data together to solve a healthcare challenge, and the theme was childhood obesity.
Teams competed against each other to code a product in 24 hours. They then presented their solution to judges in hopes of winning the $25,000 cash prize and a qualifying entry to the U.S. Health Datapalooza in Washington, DC (not to mention bragging rights and the admiration of fellow tech/health geeks).
Judges considered these factors in selecting the winner:
- How well the solution addressed the challenge
- How innovative the idea was
- How much was developed during the event
- User friendliness of the product or design
- Viability of the product in the market
- Quality of the presentation
I love tech. I love healthcare. I love innovation. I love being around smart creative people. And I love having the opportunity to help improve Louisiana. So I sat at that table on Friday morning hardly believing my good fortune. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the boiled crawfish. Yep, Cajun Code Fest even had crawfish.
Needless to say, if I were Oprah, all of these things would be featured in my favorite things show.
Todd Park’s Words of Wisdom
Cajun Code Fest began that Friday morning with a stellar speaker lineup to inspire us before we began product development. The lineup included, among others:
- Bruce Greenstein, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals
- Jay Walker, Founder of Priceline.com and curator of TEDMED
- Todd Park, US Chief Technology Officer (and former CTO of HHS)
Todd Park gestured excitedly as he finished up his speech. “I can’t wait for you to start coding. I can’t wait! I can’t wait!” Todd has an infectious energy and is a pleasure to see speak. For my fellow clinical research professionals who are attending DIA, you will soon have the opportunity. Todd is a speaker this year (register here).
And then Todd shared words of wisdom that would prove to be prescient:
One more thing for the developers by the way. Just a hint. One of the things we actually learned empirically based on the data. The people that tend to win these things are people who mash up people from different sectors.
It’s not the hacker working by him or herself. It’s not the doctor working by him or herself. It’s not the obesity expert working by him or herself. It’s the mashup of the Silicon Valley renegade hacker, the doctor who has actually been working with patients on this issue for years, and the obesity expert who mash themselves up and don’t tend to hang out together.
That’s the best part about these kinds of gatherings is that they mash people up. They create ingenious solutions. They are neither naive and neither stuck in conventional wisdom.
Childhood Obesity Innovation (And A Prediction Come True)
The winning product was PlayFit from team BE CAMP VB. The product is an innovative solution to encourage and manage pickup games. I can’t possibly do the product justice, but I thought this team distinguished themselves in a few ways.
First, their solution was unique. Some of the other finalists presented very similar products, while Playfit was unlike anything else presented.
Second, this team did an excellent job presenting the market viability of their product. I don’t think we have a shortage of health technology products. Health IT is experiencing a bit of a gold rush, and it seems a new health tech accelerator is popping up all the time. What we do need are more viable health tech solutions that people will actually use. So I think this team’s attention to market viability served them very well.
Third, Playfit was designed to be accessible to people of diverse socioeconomics. Obesity is strongly associated with people of a lower socioeconomic status, so I think it’s essential that a solution be accessible to them.
As I alluded to earlier, Todd Park’s prediction turned out to be true. The winning team was composed of people in diverse backgrounds, both within and outside of healthcare. Team BE CAMP VB kindly provided me with a description of their backgrounds, which I think illustrates this point nicely:
- Chris Burriss, PMP, MCTS, MCITP – software project manager and designer, some computational work in bioinformatics, 10-year software developer, technical adviser to venture capitalist firm, past entrepreneur, ex-military (Army), long-time enthusiast of exercise and nutrition
- Meredith Warner, MD, MBA – Practicing orthopedic surgeon, angel investor, entrepreneur, ex-military (Air Force)
- Adebanjo Oriade, PhD – Assistant Professor of Physics, now focusing some on computational physics. Expertise in physics of nano-magnets and micro-magnets and computer modeling/simulations.
- Peter Molnar, PhD – PhD in Theoretical Physics. Associate professor of Computer and Information Science. Research interest in multi-agent system simulations, self-organized system and high-performance computing. Computer vision and sensor fusion; machine reasoning and learning. Also Web-design and Rich Internet Application development.
- Robert Tanory – Software development lead for leading provider of home health and hospice care. Avid blogger.
- Betty Tanory – Retired elementary school teacher. Experienced in helping small children with obesity issues.
- Jackie Rowe – Data coordinator for non-profit that focuses on health care information & education for community outreach.
- Vamsee Alla, MD – Practicing hepatologist with clinical research experience.
If you wanted to develop a technology product for childhood obesity, this is probably not the team you would assemble. But as Todd Park predicted, the “mashup” of people created an ingenious solution, neither naive nor stuck in conventional wisdom. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the other finalists, this team did not know each other before the competition.
Cajun Code Fest far exceeded my expectations, and I highly recommend the experience. If you’d like to read more, Sean Nolan, chief architect of Microsoft HealthVault, wrote a great blog post. And video of the event, including Todd Park’s speech, can be watched here.
An Important Lesson for Clinical Research Professionals
One area I find the clinical research industry to be lacking is in the cross-pollination of ideas. And I think it’s hampering our ability to come up with truly innovative solutions.
What passes for innovation in this industry is often just an incremental shift or kneejerk adoption of the latest buzzwords and trends. One very notable exception is Pfizer’s virtual clinical trial, which I consider to be truly innovative.
Much of the problem, in my opinion, is that we spend a lot of time talking to each other. And we haven’t done a very good job of looking to the broader healthcare system, and even other industries, for inspiration. I think we would benefit from examining opportunities like code fests, which tend to encourage this sort of cross-pollination.Henry Ford famously drew inspiration from Chicago’s meatpacking operations when developing the assembly line for the Model T. The assembly line made cars affordable for average Americans and raised the standard of living nationwide. This example is just one of many breakthrough innovations made possible by cross-pollination.
We haven’t truly looked to patients for inspiration either, which is shocking, being that patients are our ultimate consumers. Sure, the patient centricity movement is making its way into industry discussion, but for the most part, we have not moved beyond much more than discussion.
How Do We Encourage Cross-Pollination?
So what can we do to encourage cross-pollination? I’ll throw a couple of quick ideas out there, but I want to hear your thoughts.
Code Fests are one possibility. From what I understand, a second Cajun Code Fest is planned for next year. Is there any chance sponsors or CROs would be willing to contribute data for such an event? The clinicaltrials.gov API (Application Programming Interface, not the other pharma API) was one of our data options. But the potential for much more is certainly there.
Another fairly new concept is the “unconference.” Unconferences tend to reject the high fees, top-down organization, and sponsor-driven presentations of traditional conferences in favor of a more participant-driven model. This model fosters collaboration, and thus cross-pollination, in a way that traditional conferences do not.
These ideas are just a couple of possibilities, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. What can we do to create cross-pollination, both individually and as an industry? Please leave your comments below.
If you’d prefer to speak privately, please use the contact page to get in touch with me. This topic is of great interest to me, and I’d love to explore it further.