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University hosts health hackathon for innovation

This weekend, Duke hosted its first Triangle Health Innovation Challenge—a health hackathon that brought together students, engineers, clinicians and business professionals to collaborate on complex medical issues.

At the Triangle Health Innovation Challenge, or THInC, teams proposed novel solutions to some of the biggest issues in medicine, from post-traumatic stress disorder to diabetes. The pitch that earned the $4,000 grand prize was a device that tracks exercises done by physical therapy patients.

“Our motivation behind this is there’s so much talent in the Triangle, but they’re groups of people that never get to talk to each other,” said Tanmay Gokhale, a Duke MD/Ph.D. student and one of the founders of THInC. He said he hoped the event addressed this lack of collaboration.

THInC was inspired by a talk given last Spring by Lina Colucci, Pratt ‘12, who is now a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her talk, Colucci discussed an initiative that she previously co-directed—MIT Hacking Medicine—which prompted the four founders of THInC to bring a similar event to the Triangle.

Of the 127 participants at THInC, 89 percent were students of some sort—undergraduates, graduate students, medical students and business students primarily from Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, Gokhale said. The other 11 percent were staff and faculty from the universities as well as working healthcare professionals and engineers in the Triangle.

The participants began pitching ideas Friday, then divided into 15 teams. During the Saturday and Sunday portions of the event, the teams met with clinical, technical and business mentors to help them refine their problem statements and products.

“It was really great that we had mentors—that was probably the most helpful aspect. We could sit down with them and bounce off ideas,” said senior Kayla Falk.

The teams then presented their solutions to a panel of judges experienced in business and medicine, who evaluated the products based on their clinical relevancy and business potential.

The team that designed the winning physical therapy tracking device—called Tiba—was composed of three Duke undergraduates, two UNC undergraduates and one Duke graduate student.

According to the team’s pitch, 90 percent of patients are sent home to do physical therapy exercises, and doctors and insurers do not have a way of knowing if they are doing the exercises correctly—or at all.

The team explained that Tiba will provide data that can be sent to physical therapists and insurers to improve treatment. Real-time feedback from the tracker can help prevent injury, noted Mihir Pershad, a senior at UNC.

“It also gives patients incentive to practice exercises,” said Dhruv Patel, a Duke freshman, alluding to the success of similar devices like Fitbit in motivating people to exercise.

The second-place prize of $2,000 was awarded to Breeze, a breathing exercise device designed to help patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and the third place prize of $1,000 was awarded to Tornado Scheduling, a product intended to decrease the wait time for patients when seeing their physicians.

Several participants emphasized that the event was successful in connecting students from across the Triangle.

“It was really cool to connect with people with similar passions and to watch people from different backgrounds come together on a single project,” said THInC participant Emma Miller, Trinity ‘11.


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