We are going to need all the ingenuity and help we can get to untangle and improve health and health care.
Everyone should have access to the data, information, and tools they need to solve problems. That includes access to each other – peer to peer. My hope is for people to look at a problem and not only say, “I am going to fix that,” but “my community is going to fix that.”
I see examples of this can-do spirit all over the place, such as virtual communities organizing their response to medical device harm or crowdsourcing a better way to manage their pills.
Let’s boost the signal for people surfacing and solving real-world problems for — and with — the people who live with those challenges. Let’s celebrate students participating in hackathons and prize competitions. Let’s find ways to solve national challenges with creative solutions. And let’s give forgotten inventors the respect they are due, like Bessie Blount, an American nurse and inventor who came up with a device to allow amputees to feed themselves. She received a patent for her invention and a Canadian company manufactured working prototypes, but Blount eventually signed over the rights to the French government after being rejected by her own country’s government.
Some of my favorite recent examples of hardware innovation:
- The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center and Cricket Media’s 2019 Invent It Challenge invited kids to submit their ideas for inventions that improve the lives of older adults. Winning entries include the “Craw” (a tool to help seniors pick up objects on the ground) and “FIG” (a small, indoor, vertical garden). (Disclosure: I’m chair of the advisory committee for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.)
- Aging 2.0 lists organizations and events related to all sorts of challenges that older adults face, such as mobility and movement; brain health; and daily living.
- MIT’s Assistive Technologies Hackathon encouraged students and people living with disabilities to co-design solutions to everyday problems like a robust neck brace and a way to play ball with kids.
- George Hacks is an annual medical solutions hackathon in Washington, DC, sponsored in part by the Veterans Health Administration. Students heard directly from veterans living with disabilities who want, for example, to go hiking or biking and need new designs for their prosthetics and other gear. (Disclosure: I’m a volunteer advisor to George Hacks.)
The federal government plays a role in sparking and encouraging innovation:
- The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) held a challenge competition in food safety that yielded five hardware innovations aimed at rapid detection of Salmonella.
- The Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) sponsored a challenge competition to determine the location and status of durable medical equipment in order to aid first responders who need to prioritize people who have lost electricity during natural disasters.
- At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a team created the 3D Print Exchange to support networks of inventors who are creating tools for biomedical research and establishing a platform for on-demand, low-cost prosthetics and assistive devices.
- The Obama White House sponsored the 2016 Week of Making which showcased innovation across eight federal agencies, over 1,400 K-12 schools, and a host of public-private partnerships.
- (Disclosure: As the Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 2015-17, I oversaw programs associated with these initiatives.)
If you are fired up to contribute, please join in or help publicize the latest prize competition sponsored by the HHS Office of the CTO and the American Society of Nephrology: the KidneyX Patient Innovator Challenge. The goal is to elevate citizen-generated ideas around symptom management, diet, quality of life, and independence for those living with kidney disease. Another upcoming opportunity: MIT Hacking Medicine’s DC Grand Hack 2019, August 2-4, 2019.
If you want to learn more about the potential impact of the maker movement on manufacturing, education, government, citizen science, and retail, check out this 2013 report by Deloitte. And for more inspiring stories, read this MIT Sloan Management Review article: When Patients Become Innovators.
What other inventive organizations and people are on your radar? Please share in the comments.
Featured image: Tools, by Dorli Photography.
Susannah Fox says
One thing I love about the health-tech-innovation community is that there is no shortage of energy. Within minutes of sharing this post on Twitter, Sara Holoubek tweeted back: “Yes! This thinking was core to @Tool_Foundry ‘s genesis. Last week 12 cohort teams presented to the committee. Read more here: 12 cohort candidate teams announced”
Please keep the examples, ideas, and other feedback coming!
Jonathon S. Feit says
Thank you as always for your leadership and optimism.
BUT…if you’ll permit me to throw out a criticism that you may be in a unique position to help remedy: call it a pet peeve, but it infuriates me when I dedicate the time to submit our work to a challenge that builds itself as advancing innovation and trying to solve problems of one sorry or another, and I get nothing *actionable* at all in return. It takes however long to fill out the proposal, and presumably there are lots of wonderful ideas out there because there are lots of problems in need of solving.
Yet even some of the illustrious nonprofits, universities, and advocacy organizations that are advancing their work through challenges can’t be bothered to explain why they decided to anoint one set of solutions over another?
After submitting a proposal regarding a technology related to opiate/opiate diversion, which is already in commercial use (read: non-theoretical) and breeding the type of results that presently attract organizations seeking to attack the scourge of addiction, I received an email saying “We got so many applications that yours wasn’t accepted but good luck next time,” etc.
I realize that a large number of proposals are submitted to such challenge programs. But presumably many / most of the solutions are worthy even if they can’t all be selected. Why can’t the event organizers schedule sufficient time to try to ADVANCE THE CAUSE by explaining what they found deficient with any particular application so that it can be improved, especially when the proposers aren’t showing up with a tin cup and a smile? Organizations like the National Science Foundation always make a debrief available, so that the next time someone submits for their consideration, the application package is better-suited. It’s hard to justify yet more time to keep submitting innovative ideas to organizations that only offer the sort of boilerplate feedback that is anathema to progress.
Looking forward to your thoughts, and thank you as always.
Co-Founder & CEO
Beyond Lucid Technologies
Susannah Fox says
Jonathon, thank you. This is a valid critique. It’s essential that we all unpack and deal with it.
One question it inspires:
How might we indicate to potential participants what type of prize competition is being held?
For example, at one end of the spectrum there is the competition meant to inspire people who are not professional inventors, like kids, college students, patients, and caregivers. Any and all participation is welcome. The experience of experimentation and brainstorming is a primary goal.
Another type: people who are professional engineers, designers, etc. who are taking on a challenge outside their usual area of expertise, tackling a problem creatively because it’s not their field.
At the far end of the spectrum: competitions that ask for high-level inventions and innovations from people working in that field. Here I’m thinking of, for example, the FDA’s Food Safety Challenge. That was a particularly sophisticated competition with multiple stages, culminating in a final round of 5 teams who each were assigned a mentor from within the FDA to help refine their design (which the teams told me was worth more than gold).
All of the entrants, at every level, should be treated with respect. But the level of review and feedback might be on a sliding scale, particularly as the challenge reaches different stages.
Another aspect to consider: The goals of the organizers. Is it to get a working prototype that can be sent to production? Is it to encourage new entrants to consider working in medical and assistive device innovation? Is it primarily a learning experience for the participants? Is it a networking event?
For example, George Hacks (the weekend-long hackathon at George Washington University) recruits a phalanx of experts from local universities, government agencies, and organizations to serve as advisors and judges. This year the judges filled two rows of the auditorium. We split up into teams of three and talked to the students as they refined their ideas, then gave a second round of feedback during the final pitch session. I’ve volunteered both years and have loved talking with the students about how to improve their designs and take their ideas further. I’ve also met some great people who were fellow volunteers. And there is no shortage of feedback for participants because the organizers have been thoughtful about their goals.
When I’ve served as a judge for other competitions it’s been an incredibly in-depth volunteer activity — so much so that I hesitate to volunteer for any that require a commitment longer than one weekend.
Again, how might we help match participants to the right challenge? Or indicate in advance what to expect? I’d love to hear from organizers, participants, judges, etc. about what you’ve seen.
Dave deBronkart says
Jonathon raises an interesting point, one that I’ve sensed but have never heard articulated: too often innovation fests feel like we’re being milked, even if the organizer had the best intentions.
Jonathon, can we somehow create ground rules for a legit partnership between the organizer and the “donor” / entrant?
Patients seeking participation in conferences (as speakers or panelists) often report the experience that organizers pretty much act like “We value you guys so much that we’ll take whatever we can get for free.” Can we propose a respectful partnership, something more robust than our usual “Hey, involve us!” (I’ve said that one too often, without proposing guidelines.)
– If you ask us for ideas, give us robust evaluations
– Your investment in evaluating our submissions should be in proportion to our work in submitting. (That’s too vague to be useful – just a hint)
– What else might we reasonably expect?
One hope is that this exercise might lead to thinking up more meaty requests in the first place.
Sara Holoubek says
Challenges are produced for a wide variety of reasons, and yet as competitions, they inherently seek a winner. However, open innovation is both a short and a long game. We have found that the strongest open innovation programs are those that seek to stimulate a market beyond the challenge. They do this by following rule number one of open innovation: respect the solver.
Opening up is still an entirely new way of doing business. Pioneering a new competency is never easy, and there’s no established playbook for open innovation. While there is no shortage of academic research on open innovation, it is still described and practiced differently by different sectors, industries, organizations, and individual teams. And sadly, this means that far too many organizations do not invest enough time in challenge design.
So how can you design an open innovation challenge to be more equitable? Speak with real people during the research and challenge design phases to understand their motivations, barriers, and opportunity costs. Make sure that incentives are commensurate with effort. And never forget that for solvers, submitting an application might mean missing another important business opportunity, or even a family vacation.
At Luminary Labs, we often consider ways to give back to the community, regardless of whether they were selected or not. For example:
Create publicly available resources that all participants value. This can take many forms, such as curated reading, data sets, or a webinar with experts. For example, Phase II of Magquest (www.magquest.com) has a series of webinars featuring experts on topics such as magnetometer technologies, potential sources of data interference, and examples highlighting best practices.
We often see great teams, but the submission just isn’t aligned with the challenge. Smart organizations will tag these for funding or partnership outside of this program, or share the full list with their corporate venture team. We have seen this happen many times, and at different points after the challenge.
Sometimes an additional sponsor will offer bonus grants to non-winners. As part of its collaboration with Tool Foundry (www.toolfoundry.org), the National Geographic Society invited accelerator applicants to apply for a Bonus Award. This grant opportunity, which may provide up to $50,000 per team, is exclusively available to Tool Foundry applicants. Recipient team leads will also become National Geographic Explorers, giving them access to the Society’s Explorer community.
Celebratory events for winners can also offer opportunities to all participants to showcase their work, providing exposure to additional funders and partners. We have also seen this approach be virtual, with submission abstracts being published online to provide this exposure.
Dave deBronkart says
Wow, Sara, that’s an amazing batch of insight, and terrific answers to “how might we avoid the sense of being milked?”
A few keepers in your response, for me:
– the strongest open innovation programs are those that seek to stimulate a market beyond the challenge.
– They do this by following rule number one of open innovation: respect the solver.
– Sometimes an additional sponsor will offer bonus grants to non-winners.
-… but the submission just isn’t aligned with the challenge. Smart organizations will tag these for funding or partnership outside of this program
All of these (and more) are inconceivable in the events I’ve seen where people feel like they’re being milked or “played.”
What are the chances of publishing these methods in a paper somewhere, for reference by great-minded organizations?
Are there other lessons to be harvested from people like Ashoka Change Makers?
Alan Zausner says
Sometime Innovation For Innovation Sake Might Not Be Appropriate
I am not a luddite, far from it. However I was jarred when I encountered a food service robot delivering meals at the NYP-Weill Cornell Medical Center Oncology Treatment Floor. I wondered why the planners for the Medical Center felt it was important to remove human contact when delivering meals of sustenance & healing to those afflicted with cancer.
Technologists & Planers should always have on top of mind if their proposed innovative solution will do more harm than the good it was intended to accomplish.