hacking health
Jonathan Tsai, hacking away.

This weekend was UC Berkeley’s 3rd Annual Hacking Health Hackathon.  The idea was to spend a day and a half creating digital solutions for some specific industry sponsored challenges. Or, if you wanted, you could create something cool that addressed a problem that you were really interested in or passionate about.

The way these things work is you can come with a pre-formed team or you can just show up and form a team on the spot.  Or you could come with a partial team and add new members once you are there.  Because I had been on a team with Steve Chan (a Psychiatry and Human Behavior Resident at UC Davis) and Tammy Tran (a recent graduate, premed and Ops Manager for Health Tech Hatch) during the California Healthcare Foundation/Health 2.0 Design-a-thon a few weeks before (we got an honorable mention), we decided to participate as a group.  Steve added two other people he knew – Zachary Zeleznick, a UC Berkeley bioengineering student Steve knew from yet another hackathon and Jonathan Tsai, his friend from Computer Science studies and co-founder and CTO of Talentral.

There were three different Challenges with different sized prizes to compete in:

  • Genentech’s ERS Challenge: $7,000 cash prize and a two-hour consultation session with the FOUNDRY for the team.
  • Novartis Challenge: $3,000 cash prize shared between the team.
  • Most Innovative Entry: $1,000 shared between the team.

We initially wanted to compete in the Novartis Challenge because we had an idea about developing an app that would help clinicians and patients better differentiate bipolar disorder from depression.  But we learned on the first evening, Friday night, of the challenge that Novartis really wanted the challenge to focus on COPD and asthma.  We also learned that Genentech’s challenge was focused on improving workflow in the Clinical Trial space – hugely important since it costs between $25,000 and $50,000 per patient to run a trial.  Since we had immediate access to a doc with years of experience running clinical trials, Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD (my husband), we decided to take on this Challenge instead.

Getting pitch coaching from Luke Johnson
Getting pitch coaching from Luke Johnson

What made this experience so much fun was the diverse skill set of our team.  We each brought something different to the table.  Separately, we couldn’t have built what we did, but together we were able to accomplish so much.   Tammy, Zach and I scoured the internet for information about Clinical Trial workflow pain points, details on cost drivers, and potential solutions.  We spent time talking to many of the mentors, including two from Genentech.  We attended the onsite mini-classes in business model development and pitch coaching.  Throughout the day on Saturday we ferreted out and then shared the information with the rest of the team.

Steve is an Adobe Illustrator whiz – it is truly unbelievable what he can make in minutes that would take others hours or days to accomplish.  He started designing screenshots of our app and passed them over to Jonathan, our developer.  Jonathan plugged into his music, went heads down, and coded our app.  By midnight on Saturday, we had our presentation slides almost completed and Jonathan had a lot of the front end of the app coded – he ended up working on this most of the night.

Sunday am rolls around and we need to drive to Berkeley, put the finishing touches on our pitch presentation and app demo and get it submitted by 9 am.  Amazingly, we did it.  Because we were presenting towards the end – we were number 14 out of 17 team presentations – we were able to continue working on our pitch.  Each team had to do their pitch (frame the problem, discuss our solution, explain our business model, and demo our app) in – are you ready for this – 3 minutes.  The organizers made it clear this was a hard stop.  If you didn’t get through what you wanted to show in that time frame, tough, you had to hope you could squeeze more in during the 4 minute Q&A with the judges.

The judges, all very experienced industry people, included Michelle Snyder, Executive-in-Residence InterWest Partners; Celia Carter, Business Manager, Genentech;  Roman Giverts, Founder & President VuMedi; Liz Rockett, Vice President, Imprint Capital; and Todd Morrill, Professor, NSF Bay Area I-Corps program.

We knew we had to be sure Celia Carter liked what we were proposing not just because she is from Genentech, but, more importantly, because she runs the 1500 person department that supports local clinical trial and site monitoring activities in over 60 countries.   She would immediately know whether what we designed made any sense or was redundant to tools that already exist to support clinical trial work flow.

When our turn came, the team lined up in front of the judges to describe what we had built – an electronic Case Report Form (eCRF) to streamline the process of handling patient data at the local clinical trial sites.  Steve did our presentation supported by Zach who used his lap top to cue Steve on the timing as well as to show the judges additional features.  Tammy manned the computer with our slideshow and app demo, expertly moving between features as Steve described them.  We managed to get through the entire presentation without any major glitches finishing up right at 3 minutes.Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 2.34.35 PM

The first question from the judges was “How much did you build this weekend?” Steve passed the mic to me and I explained that we developed everything from scratch starting on Friday night.  Celia Carter then asked how we were different from existing eCRFs.  We were better, I said, because we had features that “leaned” workflow better than some of the existing products we had reviewed.  For example, we designed a way in which data entry and source verification could be combined into one step instead of two distinct processes.  There were more questions about features of the app and parts of the business model….and then it was done.  A bit more than 24 hours of brain crunch, 7 minutes of pitch panic, and then nothing else to do but sit down and wait until the judges made their decision.

Our competition was the last one announced.  First, the judges awarded the $1000 Most Innovative Entry to a team named Whistleblower.  These guys engineered and demo’d a device that could one day replace traditional peak flow meters for asthma.  You exhale rapidly into the device which then uploads the information into a smartphone app that shows a balloon expanding.  The more air you exhale, the bigger the balloon gets (=good air flow).  If you have asthma or COPD, your balloon doesn’t get very big.  This is great, but even better is that the information about the state of your breathing can be transmitted electronically to your doctor who can use it to change around your medications.

The Novartis prize went to the “Breathe” team that designed an app to make asthma patient entered data available to docs.  It looked easy to use and filled an important need for a medical problem that costs $56 billion annually.

A shoutout was given to the team that presented Mortify – an app that gamifies death – for the most entertaining pitch.  More on that in a later blog.

The Genentech prize was announced by turning over a large cardboard replica of a $7,000 check made out to Trial Connect.  There was momentary confusion on our team as some of us weren’t sure who they were talking about…we had only been Trial Connect for 24 hours.  But Steve made us all get up and go to the front of the room to accept the award.  We won, we said to each other, we won, we won, we won!


It was great to win this Challenge, but it wasn’t really about the money, although that is certainly a nice bonus.  It was about being acknowledged for the product of our team effort.  We were five very different people with different skill sets who came together over a weekend to make something that industry thought worthy of winning a prize.  How cool is that?

Thanks for UC Berkeley, the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship, Genentech, Novartis, the judges and the Hacking Health team for a terrific event.



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