Hacking for Better Health

Inaugural event draws dozens of Yale students committed to creating innovative solutions to global health problems.

What would motivate a 7-year-old boy to give up his birthday party and all the presents that come with it?

The same idea prompted a young couple to forego their wedding party and inspired still others to pedal bicycles across the United States, climb tall mountains and sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

In each case, the people were inspired by the promise of better health for others. They raised money for a New York-based nonprofit that brings potable water to 20 countries around the world, improving living conditions and health outcomes for people they never met.

The potential of better global health similarly inspired more than 50 Yale students (and an additional 100 students who were on a waitlist) to spend five hours Friday evening dissecting global health issues and devising practical—and novel— approaches to persistent problems. The first (and potentially annual) Global Health Hackathon drew undergraduates and graduates from throughout the University with a shared commitment to improving health outcomes. 

The event was sponsored by InnovateHealth Yale, a new program housed at the Yale School of Public Health that encourages student collaboration across disciplines to harness the potential of entrepreneurship to address the looming health challenges of the 21st century. The program will culminate this spring with the $25,000 Thorne Prize, seed capital to further develop a student health idea that has particular promise.

Breaking into small groups, the student hackers grappled with an array of complex health issues, among them the growing rates of childhood obesity, insect-borne diseases, poor sanitation, the lack of healthy food options in many urban areas and even how to improve hand-washing rates to reduce the spread of diseases.

Their pitches at the end of the evening to a panel of judges varied from the creation of apps to encourage daily exercise, hospital-based social networks and wearable water sensors that allow people to tell good water from bad.

“The Hackathon was a slam dunk,” said Ruchit Nager, a joint-degree student at Yale College and the School of Public Health. It was a unique opportunity, he said, to engage with colleagues from widely different backgrounds and professional training on the health topics that they all care about.

Martin Klein, director of InnovateHealth Yale and an associate dean at the School of Public Health, welcomed the gathering to Becton Hall and noted that Yale students have a strong tradition of health entrepreneurship. YSPH graduate Margo Klar, for instance, received a grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a ceramic device to reduce the risk of infection when cutting umbilical cords. Jennifer Staple-Clark started Unite for Sight while still a Yale undergraduate. Today, the organization supports eye clinics worldwide and has sponsored nearly 75,000 sight-restoring surgeries. Another Yale College graduate, Louise Langheier, co-founded Peer Health Exchange to address the problem of underfunded and understaffed health programs in public high schools nationwide. 

Social entrepreneurship can also happen much closer to home and on a smaller scale. Klein cited his former classmate at the School of Public Health, Eric Triffin, M.P.H. ’86. Triffin worked as a public health professional for an area health department, but took his commitment to healthy living to another level. Triffin dons a pea costume (and, alternately, a carrot outfit) to promote healthy eating habits, particularly among children. He remains a distinctive presence at public events in the New Haven area. 

“It is innovative. It could be scalable, and it could be sustainable,” Klein told the students. “Eric also has the one quality that is important to all social entrepreneurs: He has guts.”

The Hackathon began with a talk by Cubby Graham of chaity:water, the organization that works to bring clean water to places where people drink and bathe in water that is often filthy and teeming with pathogens.

“[Clean] water changes everything,” Graham said. “It restores hope. It restores dignity. It restores life.”

Though his organization is relatively new (it was formed in 2006), it already has raised $100 million for a range of international projects and provided access to clean water for some 3.5 million people. It has attracted the support of companies like Google, cultural figures such as singer Justin Beiber and the attention of a 7-year-old boy who decided to skip his traditional birthday celebration and instead solicited funds for chaity:water. He raised $22,000.

John-Paul Julien, a student at the Yale School of Public Health, said he was drawn to Friday’s Hackathon because of his interest in both entrepreneurship and improving health outcomes.

“Improvements to our health care system and health systems throughout the world will result from innovative and creative approaches to health care setup and delivery,” Julien said. “These innovations will require coordination and cooperation from many different industries.”

Julien, in particular, wants to find ways to improve the inpatient hospital experience.  A family member who spent several weeks in the hospital described the loneliness that she encountered while there. He believes that innovations can be developed so that the hospital experience is more enjoyable for patients and beneficial for hospitals as well. He is currently working on a social networking platform that connects patients during their time in the hospital and allows them to give real-time feedback on their hospital experience.

Nager, meanwhile, is involved in two global health research projects. He is working at healthmap.org to use Twitter data as an epidemiological signal for the spread of infectious diseases. He is also involved in an effort to find solutions for the vaccine cold chain distribution system, so essential vaccines can be delivered to the most hard-to-reach regions. 

After several hours of preparation Friday, the students presented ideas to a panel of judges, including Kaveh Khoshnood, associate professor at the School of Public Health, and Rob Bettigole, managing partner at Elm Street Ventures. Khoshnood was impressed with the students’ commitment and creativity.

“I was thrilled to see students rise to the challenge presented to them and in just a few hours of intensive team work generate novel strategies,” he said  “Tackling pressing global health challenges of our time requires more than wishful thinking.  We have learned over and over that waiting for governments and funders to adopt and adequately fund progressive health policies and programs is futile. We need to roll up our sleeves, get organized, partner with the business community and tackle these challenges with creativity, commitment and financially sustainable solutions.”

In addition to the Thorne Prize, InnovateHealth Yale is working to develop a course that will be taught jointly by the Yale schools of public health and management on social entrepreneurship that will launch in the spring of 2015. It also sponsors summer internships for students and is bringing successful social entrepreneurs to campus to discuss their projects and wisdom with students. Friday’s Hackathon was sponsored by Connecticut Innovations. 

Graham told the student entrepreneurs that there are many ways that they can help to improve health.  

“What is your story going to be?” he said. “You have the opportunity to make a significant impact. Don’t miss the opportunity.” 


This article was submitted by Denise L Meyer on January 27, 2014.