In recent months I’ve had the privilege of seeing a myriad of ideas from inspired and passionate people looking to solve significant challenges based around health. I’ve been involved in judging two similar events, the Code2Care hackathon and the Robert Wood Johnson foundation sponsored Emergency Response for the General Public Innovation Challenge. Whilst setting two different challenges, the ideas shown demonstrate the common problems and areas that people see for new solutions and thinking. This piece focuses on the ideas and solutions that came from the Code2Care hackathon and the themes and trends seen from the entries. It also considers their relevance to the Pistoia Alliance, our membership and the potential for future collaboration:
The Code2Care hackathon was a new ideas hackathon aimed at current or recent students and set a challenge of bringing technology solutions to help alleviate the problem of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). According to the WHO, NCDs such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are the leading cause of mortality and account for 70% of deaths worldwide.
There were many entries, covering many diseases and different problems, the 5 finalists below were selected, and a pitch final decided the result.
The winners looked to tackle:
- Dementia management and diagnosis
- Diabetes symptom diagnosis
- Parkinson’s monitoring and support
- Dermatology conditions, diagnosis and importantly building new more diverse cohort data sets
It was a mix of data collection via mobile devices, with a couple of innovative partner medical devices, all looking to better support the treatment of NCDs through diagnosis and progression monitoring of the condition.
Winner: Team PODIA
Team PODIA developed a nice idea creating a simple and cheap to manufacture rig to allow Diabetic patients to more easily check for any foot ulcers. It was a great combination of using established tech (the phone / app) + a well thought out device to augment the phone’s tools. I also like how this was easily turned into a well marketable and deliverable pack.
The Animo team proposed using a smart watch’s accelerometers to analyse and monitor tremors to monitor and support Parkinson’s patients and help clinicians provide the correct medication and treatment plans. This integrated feedback loop is becoming more and more prevalent in the support of patients across different diseases and conditions.
Team Dori proposed an ergonomic rehabilitation device leveraging neurological auditory therapy to enhance communication, physical, and cognitive skills whilst reducing anxiety for Alzheimer’s patients. The simple device provided music playlists to support memory recall, guided meditation, neurological music therapies to stimulate cognition and pre-recorded messages from loved ones for familiarity and soothing. This integrated with monitoring and customisation from the support carers was a well thought out solution with a good focus on user experience and design.
4th place: Team fAIrCare
Their pitch sums it up perfectly:
We are 3 students from medical and biomedical backgrounds with a passion for improving existing health inequalities. Some of the most common skin conditions are under-diagnosed in darker-skinned patients due to difficulty in identifying them. This has resulted in poorer health outcomes for them. We aim to develop an app that allows patients to submit pictures of skin lesions and describe their symptoms to enable AI-assisted classification of skin conditions by comparing the information to a digital database compiled by leading dermatologists, with an emphasis on fair representation of all ethnicities. Based on the results, relevant advice will be provided.
The challenge of generating and providing access to available and diverse datasets is key for future scientific research, a collaborative initiative across industry could help clearly support their ambitions, moving beyond just our FAIR project and helping build these datasets for the future!
Ambulo’s proposal is a machine-learning based diagnostic-support tool monitoring and analysing gait via smart phones, aiming to predict the risk of developing dementia by monitoring and analysing changing walking characteristics that is observed in cognitive decline.
What did we learn from all the entries in the competition?
There were over 30 entries to judge, so whilst 5 were picked as the finalists, there were a lot more ideas from the entries, obviously I was one of many judges so I had my favourites too, but importantly I think it is interesting to understand the common ways they tried to tackle the challenge. We can always learn from events like these, the misconception that there’s limited innovators or sources of ideas to me is clearly disproved from events like this one and the people involved.
There were 33 entries, typically teams of 3 to 5 people and the range of areas they aimed to tackle were widespread covering:
- Mental Health
- Cardiovascular conditions
- Dermatological conditions
- General health and lifestyle
What was interesting was how they tackled these areas and the problems they saw that needing fixing, to me they broke down into 5 areas:
The ideas mixed between using established devices (mobile phones) and new devices for augmenting phone technology. They used these solutions to both screen for conditions and provide full real-time data generation, collection and analysis.
These perhaps more ambitious solutions showed the difficulty in entering our industry, where a proposal needs to generate validated data, you move into the study side of our industry, for example whereas a simple fitness app can just count steps and maybe the user gets fitter, if you want it to provide therapeutic impact, you then hit the realm of trials and studies to truly prove the impact your idea may have. This is where early ideas and start-ups will need support from the life science and healthcare industries to avoid a significant barrier to innovation.
There are a lot of areas and ideas submitted in this space, it really highlighted the importance of the support system around patients. The ideas tackled many challenges including education on the condition, helping find access to the support systems in the healthcare ecosystem (end of life care, how to get grants and support), support for the family and the carers and many more ideas. It is a timely reminder that whilst tackling these conditions with science and technology is vital, supporting the patient and carers to manage their condition daily should not be overlooked.
- Enhance / improve the system
This nicely dovetails to the support side, but again the ideas looked to change and improve the systems that work to bring new solutions to established diseases and the long term care involved thereafter.
Looking at the ideas some common themes emerged, there is the challenge around data, both the infrastructure and tools to generate and collect data and the longer term challenge of making the data accessible and usable for collaboration. On top of this, if one does improve the system and the data access, making sure people are aware and able to access the services required (this is the support part too) must not be forgotten.
For example, I particularly liked one idea which looked to be a guide to how to get the financial support you need whilst managing your condition, things that can make your life easier that will have a positive impact on the patients mental health and well-being.
The thing that most stuck out to me was how many ideas looked to decentralise the healthcare provision.
Central health authorities commonly look to tackle population health so the fact that many of the entries also tried to address this makes sense. Equally, in this regard the power of collaboration will be key in my opinion, there are many components to this and the entrants covered many of these from diagnostics focused toolkits, patient support solutions, health and wellbeing ideas and behavioural change solutions. Whilst pharmaceutical manufacturers compete traditionally on the medication and therapeutics, there is in my mind opportunity to work on these areas as an industry and collaborate with the public health organisations globally who all tackle this in a myriad of ways.
How could Pistoia Alliance help bring ideas like this to fruition?
We have launched our own Innovation Seed Fund, which aims to support early stage ideas that may develop into an opportunity for our membership (and future members) to collaborate to help solve challenges such as these or even simply support idea generators like these entrants to succeed in their efforts.
If we are to look at these ideas as signposts to where the industry collaborating together can make a difference, this event showed a number of potential areas for future collaboration. Typically an industry effort tries to build the enablers for future innovation, so what are the areas we saw here?
It’s all in the data – where is the data?
A lot of this comes back to the data challenge. Pistoia Alliance already has a number of data initiatives, from our FAIR toolkit, through to our AI Centre of Excellence. Decoupling what is an area of competition for companies from what is pre-competitive can be uncomfortable for each organisation but the capture, generation and availability of data is an important one that can be worked across boundaries and this event showed some of those opportunities.
Missing / biased datasets – whilst having your own perfect dataset may give an advantage in the short term, one team who weren’t a finalist (but one of my favourites) highlighted the issue of co-morbidities and how to capture drug – drug interactions, again this hints at an opportunity for company to company data sharing and collaboration.
Open datasets – it will take a lot of effort but surely more people working on common datasets in the long term can break or at least augment the traditional model to allow the industry to accelerate research and development by having great baseline data to all work from? Alternatively providing access to diverse unbiased open data to enable ideas like these to be more easily tested would help increase the speed with which new ideas and technologies can be introduced. Given the stunning collaboration demonstrated by the industry around COVID-19, can we sustain and accelerate those efforts as an industry post the pandemic?
Integrated healthcare / R&D – Decentralisation of Healthcare
There were many solutions looking to better integrate the system supporting the patient. As per the analogy of how robotics can free up workers from tasks they don’t need to do, so can better integration of the system to allow the shift of healthcare along the chain towards the patient (where applicable) which can both alleviate the burden on HCPs and understand and improve the processes and pathways therein. Pistoia Alliance and our membership are well placed to build certain parts of that process and provide the tools and understanding to support this shift.
Team Agglomorate highlighted “Africa’s silent killer” as detailed in the Financial Times, discussing the launch of the Lome Initiative and its aim to tackle the scourge of counterfeit drugs in Africa. It is estimated that between 10-30% of medication is counterfeit with the underlying danger that incurs. Their solution was access to wider healthcare through telemedicine and as such healthcare professionals prescribing guaranteed non-counterfeit medication.
In light of ideas like this from team Agglomorate and continent wide initiatives such as the Lome Initiative, the pharma industry itself has a crucial part to play. Could a collaborative effort from the industry support this, at least in the way technology solutions can be brought in to support this?
This area is not a single solution problem, however technology can be one part of this and here collaboration can be highly effective: for example, perhaps our own blockchain efforts could address this in part? Surely 10 companies working together here is better than each one individually? The economy of scale could have an impact in supporting countries and regulatory agencies, giving them the arsenal of tools and support they need.
One final note, whilst not one of the finalists, team Purifyre intrigued me with their circular economy model, this was the first time I’d seen a team in a hackathon consider green solutions to a problem, it wasn’t clear whether their proposition would work but I liked the concept and model; using the PPE used in our Covid times and recycling that to make filters for indoor biomass usage which are known pollutants and cause significant respiratory problems. We as in industry should definitely focus our attention on environmental impact of our solutions and ideas and consider how we can build the circular economy into our own efforts.
If you have an idea on how to get the industry collaborating to solve healthcare or life science focused challenges like these ones, do get in touch with the innovation team via firstname.lastname@example.org or to get involved why not:
Visit our webpage: https://www.pistoiaalliance.org/innovation/
Submit an idea for a future project: https://www.pistoiaalliance.org/innovation/#idea
Find out more about other ideas already submitted in our wiki: https://pistoiaalliance.atlassian.net/wiki/spaces/IC/overview?homepageId=804847768
We look forward to hearing from you!
David Proudlock, Innovation Consultant, Pistoia Alliance