Health Hack-a-Thon

Students at Hack a thin

“Brainstorming” is not a strong enough word to describe the intense activity that defined HealthHacks RI 2016, the health and wellness hack-a-thon held at the University of Rhode Island earlier this month.

“Brain-typhooning” might be a better description, given the energy and creativity in evidence at URI’s Makerspace—a new resource of high-tech tools for collaborative thinking and design at the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons.

You come up with an extraordinary idea that might not seem possible and try to make it possible.

“It’s really all about experimenting. It’s exposure to failure,” says hack-a-thon competitor James Gannon, a sophomore studying electrical engineering and Spanish in the International Engineering Program. “You come up with an extraordinary idea that might not seem possible and try to make it possible.”

The Colleges of Engineering, Health Sciences, and Business Administration, the Research Foundation and the Ryan Institute for Neuroscience as well as industry partners—including Slater Technology Fund, Optimity Advisors, EpiVax, Kenyon Industries and Doctor’s Choice—sponsored the hack-a-thon. It involved students, scientists, faculty and business leaders from Rhode Island and beyond, drawing 30 students from three universities, 13 industry mentors and countless URI staff and faculty.

Nick DeLuca, a junior studying computer engineering and German in the International Engineering Program, was a member of the URI team that placed third in the competition. The team developed a wearable monitor that senses when a person’s vital signs are abnormal and sends text alerts to family members and emergency dispatchers. “We worked on it for almost the entire 48 hours,” says DeLuca. “We had very little sleep.”

DeLuca and Gannon say the impromptu team makeups proved particularly beneficial. “It was a unique opportunity to work together with people from different backgrounds who didn’t know each other well and to come together to create something that can help people,” DeLuca says.

Gary Liguori, dean of URI’s new College of Health Sciences, served as a hack-a-thon judge. He was impressed that such great ideas could come to fruition in 48 hours. “This type of energy is infectious,” he says.

Gannon—whose team developed a wristband that tracks wearers’ activity levels and syncs to a smartphone app so users can set goals and share data with health care providers—would agree. “If we walked out with anything, it was a big idea we can develop further.”

DeLuca’s team will get to do just that. The students are fine-tuning their device for a presentation Nov. 2 in Providence at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, a HealthHacks RI partner, along with MedMates. “We are looking for opportunities to take it to the next level,” he says.

During the hack-a-thon, the teams drew inspiration and expertise from mentors, including Dr. Johnny Luo, founder of Doctor’s Choice; Dr. Wendy Nilsen, program director for Smart & Connected Health, National Science Foundation; Ryan Maguire, creativity and entrepreneurship professor, URI College of Business; and Josh Daly, mentor with URI Start-Up Program/Accelerator/Resource Center and counselor at the URI’s Small Business Development Center.

“I would love to see more of this and for the Academic Health Collaborative (a consortium of the Colleges of Health Sciences, Pharmacy and Nursing) to take the lead,” Liguori says. “In fact, the Collaborative’s leadership is already discussing some exciting student competitions for this spring, so stay tuned.”