Wednesday, August 11, 2021

My First Hackathon

By Esther Nakkazi

The first Hack-a-thon I attended ever was at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) in August 22nd-24th 2014. For curiosity sake, I never knew what happens at a Hack-a-thon but I was told teams made up of engineers, entrepreneurs, professors, clinicians come up with innovations that impact on global health to save millions of lives in just 48 hours!

After the opening speeches on the first day, as if to clear their heads, in the evening, everyone took to the dance floor, dancing, hands up in the air, swinging and jumping to African drum beats as if there was no work the next day. But the programme was clear, teams had 48 hours to come up with innovations and prototypes.

At this Hack-a-thon, four continents were represented; America, Europe, Asia, Africa so you can imagine the dancing strokes each of them pulled out. Then it started getting dark, then it started raining, the beer river ever flowing and they kept on dancing almost until dawn including Dr. David Bangsberg, Director at Mass General Hospital (MGH)’s Centre for Global Health and his team.

The music from the big speakers could be heard reverberating loudly across the University campus bouncing to other hills around, Mbarara being a hilly area. Looking at them, dancing away, maybe the visitors were thinking ‘the locals think we came with the rain, let us dance to it,’ while the locals thought; ‘these are great visitors, they have come with the rain! Let us drink and dance to the blessing.’

But for sure, the next morning the second annual medical technology Hack-a-thon in Uganda started promptly at 8.30 am. The winning team came up with an idea of a neonate hydraulic mechanical baby scale. They won $1,000, a seed fund to move the idea forward but five other teams won cash too.

“It is novel and can be tested,” said Dr. Bangsberg to the young enthusiastic students while announcing the winning team. “We have never had these many ideas. You have all won in the area of rapid innovations,” he added.

Most of the ideas and prototypes presented for the day were to address road safety while others were towards new born and maternal survival. Software applications for efficiency in health facilities were made but ultimately all efforts were geared towards saving more lives around the world.

This time 29 projects were presented up from 23 projects last year when the first Hack-a-thon was held at MUST and at least 200 clinicians, engineers and entrepreneurs came up with functional ideas and viable business models to commercialise their innovations that have the potential to transform health in Uganda and around the world.

It was organised by the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) Uganda and MUST in partnership with MGH’s Centre for Global Health. Other participating groups were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard Medical School and Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in India.

Hack-a-thons are a new way of coming up with innovations, they can be a messy process that generates ideas, which offer health care solutions that are commercially viable. 

Most of the participants at the MUST Hack-a-thon were students from the various Universities in Uganda most of them supported by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and this time round more local companies supported the event.

Events like Hack-a-thons ‘emancipate fear from young people who also become better thinkers,” said Professor Frederick Kayanja, the Vice Chancellor, MUST. He also recognised that innovations raise the profile of a University just as they are crucial to solving Africa’s problems because ‘the beneficiaries are all those who will be patients at one time or another’ which is all of us at some point.

For students ‘it changes the mindset about their education. People who did not think they were innovators become innovators,’ explains the director CAMTech, Elizabeth Bailey. And entrepreneurship skills are learnt because teams create viable business plans, she added.

In this game, failure is totally acceptable. “We believe in ‘failing fast’ nobody wants to put time and energy into something that will not work. It also offers a neutral space where people do not fear failure,” says Bailey who was so enthusiastic about the business models from all the projects.

Earlier in the day, the Mbarara University of Science and Technology co-creation laboratory was opened. Dr. Data Santorino, a lecturer at MUST and the country director CAMTech Uganda said the laboratory would give the students exposure to clinicians, entrepreneurs and offer technology support as well as basic materials like timber, mortars and electronic devices to produce functional prototypes.

Kristian Olson from Medical Director of CAMTech, was impressed that almost all teams this time round at the second Hack-a-thon made a prototype. Some used used disposable cups, straws, empty tins etc “The fact that there is so much drive and to see that many people want to solve their own problems is intangible,”said Olson.

“In time the co-creation lab gives the students a chance to learn from failures as they pivot towards success,” said Dr. Santorino.

With these kinds of events the two professors (Bangsberg and Kayanja) concurred that Mbarara University for Science and Technology could be the next Silicon Valley because it has all the right ingredients; clinicians, entrepreneurs, engineers and solid partnerships from India and the United States.

“Innovation is not a one person affair. As African innovators we need partnerships that support our weak areas. There is a lot we can contribute to Global Health because we understand global health problems better,” said Dr. Santorino.

“My dream is to see an ecosystem where an innovator can take an idea, find the right expertise to ideate it, test it, move it with small seed capital, scale it with cooperate sponsorship,” said Bangsberg.

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