Siberian temperatures. Eleven grueling days, navigating rough terrain. Six teams, matched for talent, competing for glory at the end. The Iditarod ? Nah, just the annual MIT Health and Wellness Hackathon .
This isn’t your average social app-fest. The goal is to jump-start an open source platform where apps that track all different aspects of your bodily health can exchange information. It’s a Sisyphean task, since most digital health solutions today are trapped in silos, but the organizers believe they can change that by enfranchising big companies instead of trying to disrupt them.
“The tradition in health care technology is, ‘This is our device, we make our own software,’” says Dr. John Moore, who organized the hackathon. “The goal is to connect that bit of knowledge to the rest of your health experience. Just keeping track of your step count, for example, won’t let you change the rest of your life.”
To unify the segmented market for health technology takes heavy lifting on the engineering side, since much of the progress made by private companies hasn’t been shared back to the community. Here, each team is required to use open source and open standard tools so that things work together seamlessly: specifically, the Lab's patient-centered CollaboRhythm  platform and the Indivo X  system for personalized health records.
“Working from a common platform takes an extra effort to build,” Moore says, “but it ensures that the prototype will be something that has legs.” With Boomers aging and a lack of innovation coming from industry, the upside for these projects could be huge--but undertaking them is intimidating. “We thought we’d have to reject people,” says Moore, “but instead we just scared them off.”
The teams encamped on the Media Lab’s sixth floor, overlooking a Charles River initially frozen so solid you could stroll over to the Back Bay for pizza. This is the fourth such hackathon sponsored by the Lab’s New Media Medicine research  group; when it started, the competition was 20 mostly MIT students who spent their winter break experimenting with open source innovation platforms for health care. Now the group includes an international assembly of professors, doctors, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as engineers from MIT sponsor companies like MIT sponsor companies like ViiV, Humana, Motorola and Fleury. Still, it’s only a start.
“The hackathon itself is not enough to produce change, but it's an opportunity to expose important players in the ecosystem--pharma, insurers, medical diagnostics companies, startup entrepreneurs, consumer electronics companies--to the value of using and contributing to these platforms,” says Moore. “It’s rare to get these players to converge, but these 80 people are influencers, and now they know each other so they can collaborate. Big innovations will come when they all see how they can benefit each other.”
Matched into six project teams  before arriving in Cambridge, the groups come at problems from different interests and areas of expertise, then work to create solutions that are more than just one-off apps or devices.
“It would take years for all of these sectors to realize the potential that they have seen unfolding in the two weeks of this event,” says Moore. “It is this seed that may lead them to build their products differently and encourage that to collaborate with partners from other sectors using the same tools.”
The focus here is on producing commercially viable products. “Suddenly, you [can] have a really well-rounded tool that can be at the level of sophistication where you can get funding for a startup or a research grant,” says Moore. "We make sure the business people are supportive, and not just looking at today's business models.... We squash negativity. That's a big problem in the health space, where innovative ideas are often killed with comments like, 'Nah, nobody will ever get paid for that.' I act as the benevolent dictator to enforce that."
At the Health and Wellness hackathon, the winners aren't rewarded with cash since winning is only the beginning. Kaiser Permanente donated $15,000 to support the teams during development, instead of forcing them to go out-of-pocket to build their hacks. Awarding money to participants helps unshackle some of the crazier ideas; because current medical systems are plagued with legacy software, Moore wants participants to think blue-sky without being too constrained by cost. “We’re looking for optimal solutions,” Moore says, “more 'greenfield' kind of ideas." (Read on for examples from this year's projects.)
The Lab also provides on-site mentors in the form of software developers, professional UI designers, and video teams to bring projects to fruition. A team member with business experience is attached to each group, but is forbidden from dismissing good ideas that may be promising, but don't have a traditional revenue stream.
By the end of the marathon event, the Charles had thawed, and signs of encouragement were everywhere inside as well, says Frank Moss, a health care entrepreneur and former MIT Media Lab director. Driven by demands from patients and clinicians, he says everyone from the White House to the business community is “saying things we were saying four years ago,” around the time of the inaugural Health and Wellness hackathon. Here’s wishing the industry a speedy recovery.
Last year’s Health and Wellness Hackathon winners, dubbed the Chameleon team, went on to launch a company called GeckoCap  which produces a device for tracking asthma inhaler usage. The company, which was named “One of the Best Gadgets of CES 2013 ,” is currently raising funds on Indiegogo. Here are some of this year’s entrants.
Adherence to medications is the key to keeping HIV/AIDS patients healthy, but compliance can be a problem. This app uses gaming to encourage users to take their pills. Users begin by uploading a photo they love to the home screen on their cellphone. Each morning, that image starts out fuzzy; the goal of the game is to sharpen it over the course of the day, based on adherence to the patient’s medication schedule. The system also gives patients a “virtual pill box” containing images of the actual pills in their regimen, to avoid confusion. Data is simultaneously sent to the patient’s physician via Bluetooth, and an accompanying device will eventually allow a patient to easily test his own blood. A prototype is currently being tested in Bangladesh.
The Congestive Heart Failure team built a monitoring device called Beacon that would allow elderly patients with chronic conditions to stay in their homes longer. The device sits in a bedroom and is linked wirelessly to sensors throughout the house. If the sensor determines that the patient is moving less than normal, a light on the top of the main unit will turn yellow--alerting the patient to take her blood pressure, or step on a scale. Sudden weight gain, for example, is a sign that the patient’s condition is worsening. Data will be transmitted to the patient’s doctor, who can then communicate with the patient to see if a change in medications is called for, or if more serious intervention is required.
This app is designed to help patients who are about to undergo surgery for endometriosis learn about what to expect beforehand without scaring themselves by searching Google for information. Post-operatively, the app helps doctors assess how their recovery is going. The biggest problem, developers say, is that patients with this condition are so accustomed to being in pain that they often don’t recognize the severity of their symptoms after surgery, and thus fail to report them to their physicians until they’ve become acute. The My Op app allows doctors to monitor self-reported symptoms, and either text or have a video chat with patients if symptoms are concerning before they worsen.
This group built a web-based platform to assess and manage Parkinson’s symptoms at home, allowing a patient to better control his own condition.
The Tremo Cup, which the patient uses to take medications several times a day, detects tremors, which correlate to how well a medication is controlling symptoms. By monitoring data, doctors can assess how long a medication is working, and if the timing or dose needs to be adjusted. It also allows a patient to see if he can influence the efficacy of the medication by adjusting exercise, food, or sleep.
The Brady Glove has sensors in each finger that allow a doctor to detect Bradykinesia–-the slowness of movement that is a prime indicator of Parkinson’s disease. Neurologists can assess the severity of a patient’s symptoms by asking him to tap his fingers, open and close his fist, and alter the position of his palm--the classic tests for Parkinson’s--then adjust his meds to help control symptoms.
This team’s goal was to find a way for a patient to track and lower her blood pressure with minimal involvement by a physician. The solution was an app with three integrated devices: a blood pressure cuff that sends data to a dashboard; a Fitbit to measure how much the patient moves; and a container that monitors how many pills are still in the bottle. Forget to take your meds, and the 3-G powered pill bottle will send you a text message reminder without having to sync your device. In addition, the app will allow patients to invite friends to act as motivators, sending messages and videos to encourage compliance. The pill bottle, designed by a company called Adhere Tech, is already in development.
The Epicenter team tackled the problem of controlling epileptic seizures through diet and biofeedback. The Ketogenic Diet app allows patients to track what they eat, measure the ketones they produce, and report side effects to doctors. A Ketogenic diet--high in fat and proteins, low in carbs--has been shown to be effective in controlling seizures, but is tough to follow. This app builds in recipes and meal suggestions, and encourages compliance by giving the patient a visual record of her progress.
Epicenter also created a seizure tracking tool, where the patient can record seizure triggers, log how long the seizure lasted, and document feelings afterward. The patient’s doctor can analyze the data and intervene where necessary, and a gaming device using a neurofeedback cap that measures brain currents and a wrist sensor that measures galvanic skin response allows patients to influence their condition via biofeedback.