By Kerry Hilton (HCB Health), Bob Palmer (JUICE Pharma), and Jay Carter (AbelsonTaylor)


Whether you attended SXSW, sent a surrogate colleague, or just followed along via tweets and blogs, you know that 72,000 artists and innovators descended upon Austin, Texas, for another big event. Every year, there seems to be the unstated challenge that the previous year must be topped. As a participant, you hope for it. As a contributor and sponsor, you push yourself to achieve it. That’s what we refer to as the X factor at SXSW. And in 2016, three healthcare advertising agencies came together to create a wide new range of possibilities for the ever-growing Health and MedTech Track. This experimental program at SXSW would require all of the agency partners, along with MIT Hacking Medicine, to work as one team to rethink healthcare. We’re proud to say that we did just that. Let’s examine six X factors that produced some amazing results.


Through collaboration, brainstorming and outreach, AbelsonTaylor, HCB Health and JUICE Pharma partnered with the MIT Hacking Medicine team. It was a new concept for all of us, cramming a traditional 48-hour “hack” into a four-hour portion of our three-day session. In this scenario, our definition of the term was broader, as in Hacking: A creative application of ingenuity. And of course MIT had perfected the process with a three-part mantra that describes just how to do a hack: Break it down. Build it up. Make it better. On day one, we began breaking things down by examining the latent needs of patients with chronic disease.


Before you can begin problem solving, you must first better understand the problem. So we began with an interactive workshop to identify “latent needs” — issues and problems that customers face but often don’t know how to confront. These conversations yielded solutions for making daily living easier for those with chronic health conditions. Experts at Mad*Pow helped us understand how to dig into what patients are really saying with better research techniques. Real patient influencers gave us insights into their lives, and one such patient living with type 1 diabetes showed us her very own open-source closed-loop artificial pancreas. Talk about patient empowerment.

From there we moved to digital trends in human-centric problem solving through a holistic approach to design — taking inspiration from real people, working within technological constraints, and considering every product touch point as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users. And that was just the morning! In the afternoon we brought all this learning together with an innovative interactive session on journey mapping. In small groups, audience members crafted a journey map for a patient diagnosed with prediabetes who was looking to feed her family a healthier diet.


Let’s move on to Day 2 (as if Day 1 weren’t enough). We warmed up our brains by tapping into a panel of experts in the area of Design Thinking for Health. It was a standing-room-only experience in which we heard the best ways to explore which ideas are worth pursuing, what the principles of great design are, and how to create a specific process to uncover problems and discover solutions. Michael Jarjour from Otsuka Digital Health discussed how digital technology is being used to improve care for patients with mental health issues. Adam Falat from Walgreens discussed how his company thinks through user experiences by first thinking of his audience as health seekers rather than users or consumers. Participants then tested their learnings through a four-hour “MIT Hacking Medicine Hackathon,” in which they pitched “pain points” and identified approaches to address systemic clinical needs. Teams dove into their challenges with enthusiasm, using the principles of design thinking for patients with chronic conditions and mental health issues. After extracting all these big ideas, the best hacks were awarded prizes for their approach and ingenuity.


From big thinkers come big ideas and the need to get them sold into the marketplace. That’s why on Day 3 of our event, teams — along with other tech startups—returned to learn the best way to pitch their concepts to the healthcare industry. What makes an idea worthy of investment and commercialization? What are the best techniques to sell that idea to a company? A lively Q&A panel gave solid advice on how to approach investors, what types of investors to choose and the need to create a solid, credible team. After all, if you can’t exploit your idea, then that’s all it will ever be.


Now that teams had heard best practices, it was time to witness the pitch process in action with a series of Shark Tank-like competitions called the “Barracuda Bowl.” In this lively exchange, tech startups pitched their healthcare solutions and business plans to investors and venture capitalists. We watched as startup founders discussed a range of fascinating ideas. Winning ideas included an exoskeleton designed to help elderly patients maintain their mobility, a digital health platform that helps healthcare systems match and discharge post acute care patients to the right place of care, and a noninvasive monitor to track brain oxygenation levels of newborn babies. The exchange provided real-world examples of the value that our time together had produced, further proof that creativity must be encouraged, challenged and nurtured.


It’s amazing what can happen when innovators come together with the common purpose of rethinking healthcare. We knew going into this process that there would be some interest and participation. We just didn’t know there would be so much. We knew there would be interesting ideas that came from the “hack”; we just didn’t realize the caliber of innovation would be so high. The agency partners were left asking a bigger question: What would it look like if big pharma implemented hackathon thinking as a standard practice for solving their big issues? Imagine breaking down a problem without the barriers normally associated with large bureaucracies. What else can technology do to improve the lives of patients? It’s clear that a disciplined approach creates better-than-expected outcomes. The future of innovation will come through the kind of X factor we experienced at SXSW.