Photo courtesy of Cleveland Medical Hackathon

Photos courtesy of Cleveland Medical Hackathon

Nothing defies people’s expectations about Cleveland as a rustbelt city more than the fact that it is one of the nation’s top centers for healthcare and medical research. The world-famous Cleveland Clinic certainly contributes to this reputation, but University Hospitals and MetroHealth systems also consistently earn high ratings for patient care and innovation — joining other hospitals, medical schools, and bioscience incubators (e.g., BioEnterprise, Health Tech Corridor). Cleveland’s healthcare sector has grown over 20% in the past 15 years, making it the area’s largest growth sector employing over 177,000 people in a region of just over 3 million.

Yet Cleveland is a place that has never quite given up on its manufacturing past. We still make things here. And that spirit has evolved from the factories and steel mills of the past into a burgeoning tech start-up community, strong engineering educational institutions, abundant Maker/hackerspaces and an innovation culture based more in hardware than software.

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Bringing together making and medicine should be the goal of a medical hackathon. Getting people together in a room that normally don’t talk to one another, creating an unlikely conversation — that’s the real strength of a hackathon, and this is the perfect place to hold one.

Dr. William Morris, the Associate IT Director at the Cleveland Clinic, summed it up: “We really have an opportunity here to leverage the creativity and innovation of an entire community. Cleveland has all this untapped potential in various institutions and you see that unleashed at this event on some very real challenges in the community and in medicine.”

The Cleveland Medical Hackathon (September 26–27, presented by Nesco Resource) was a gathering of medical, engineering, software, design, and entrepreneur communities. The event really built on the strengths of the region and also on a larger mission than many hackathons. This group wasn’t as focused on launching companies or product; they were here to help people.

Amy Sheon, who directs an open data project to support community health, headed up the event’s Community Health & Wellness track. Including community health was an important factor in connecting the participants to urgent health problems.

“With a 24-year difference in life expectancy across 8 miles of Cleveland that surround some of the best health care systems in the world, we clearly need innovation to connect the dots,” said Sheon.

As part of the community health and wellness track, competitors were encouraged to use local community health data made available at Health Data Matters to create solutions focused on ways that social, economic, environmental, and behavioral factors affect health. Could records from a half million phone calls that have come in to the United Way 2-1-1 Call for Help line and from more than 30,000 deaths examined by the Office of the Medical Examiner enable us to better meet residents’ needs or to predict changing health trends? Sheon helped garner participation from public health departments, experts, and community health advocates in addition to the techies, docs, and nurses attending.

I wish I could tell the story of every one of the 21 projects that came out of the event (see a full list here), but the first place winner (IQ Sensor Solutions) demonstrates how the worlds of engineering and medicine can come together to create something unexpected and exciting.

IQ Sensors is a wearable blood pressure monitor that utilizes a flexible 3D printed nano-tube sensor to measure stretch, force, and/or temperature. It has been in research & development for the last four years at the University of Akron.

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The IQ Sensors hackathon team set out to measure blood pressure through a wearable device that a patient could put on their arm. The flexible sensor would mimic a traditional sphygmomanometer (blood pressure cuff) and then send real-time blood pressure readings to an app. The sensor and electronic components are mounted on the bicep, eliminating the need of an airbag.

“We brought the idea with some hardware items with us and added deep experts in the medical field to our team.” says Kyle McKee from LeanDog Inc. “Then the team went into overdrive and not only built a device; but also wrapped a solid business case around it.”

The five-person team that jumped on this project had a mix of industrial, medical, and software backgrounds: Mike Hoffman, Cleveland Clinic; Kyle Reissner, Rockwell Automation; Kyle McKee, LeanDog, and Dr. Morteza Vatani, The University of Akron as well as Ryan Jefferis, a recent bioengineering graduate student from Cornell University. Medical and technology mentors from the Cleveland Clinic, Validic, and Emanate Wireless also assisted the team, and within the 24-hour period they had successfully produced a working prototype in which the flexible sensor communicated via the cloud with an iOS app.

Kyle McKee led the technical solve by having the team use a Spark Photon microcontroller, which is a very low-cost ($19) board that has onboard Wi-Fi. Morteza’s sensor has to run from 12–24 volts, so they had to find some small, high-voltage batteries. They found some 12v camera batteries that fit the bill perfectly. The team used a basic voltage divider to step down the signal to an acceptable range for the photon. On the software front, they built a Cordova app using AngularJS. All of the signal processing was written in JavaScript.

“The idea’s genesis was around connecting elements created outside of healthcare with something that’s valuable inside of healthcare… then of course making it. We discovered this application of the sensor can be tremendously valuable across the board” said Kyle Reissner from Rockwell Automation.

One of the goals of the hackathon was to begin to make sense of the huge amounts of data coming into the medical world through wearables. The IQ Sensors team worked with many of the medical professionals onsite, who stressed the need for improvements in patient outcomes and not simply measurement and data collection. This pushed the team toward blood pressure monitoring outside physician visits, which could verify medication is being taken and evaluate how well a treatment is working in real time.

“Finding a new, feasible, and possible application for a technology is sometimes as hard as its development,” Dr. Morteza Vatani reveals about his 3D printed stretchable sensor. “At this hackathon we discovered a great medical need and in 24 hours built out something that brings it forward.”