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A Blizzard of Ideas at a Hackathon for Health

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Winter Storm Jonas paralyzed much of the East Coast of the U.S. on the weekend of January 22nd. But there was an even bigger blizzard taking place at the Penn campus that weekend: a blizzard of ideas.

The PennApps XIII Hackathon is the nation’s first student run college hackathon, and this year it included approximately 1200 participants from 133 colleges, 31 states, and 13 countries. These students came together for a marathon weekend to compete, ideate and exercise a vast array of technical skills. Our R&D Digital Solutions team at Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Care Companies (JJDCC) was proud to be the lead sponsor of the healthcare track. Now to be clear, a “hackathon” refers to the good kind of hacking, not the malicious kind. In this context, hacking means coming up with rapid, clever and even unexpected solutions to important challenges.

So, why is a diabetes company sponsoring a college hackathon? It’s part of our R&D effort to stimulate innovation by tapping into top academic institutions and their on-campus innovation efforts. Hackathons provide an opportunity for our team members to gain exposure to new ideas, creative thinking from young minds, and lead us to think about our toughest challenges in new ways. In the process, our team of engineers also gets to build critical mentoring skills as they help the students understand more about diabetes, and the technologies we use to build digital solutions for managing it.

We were blown away by the number of students who really wanted to dig deep into understanding the specifics of diabetes and the patient experience in order to dream up clever, highly impactful digital solutions.

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Raj Mills, Tom Schaible and Michael Weinberger introduce the JJDCC challenges at the PennApps XIII Hackathon

Our team posed 3 challenges to the students:

  • First, we asked students to use our OneTouch Reveal (OTR) Application Programming Interface (API) to develop an entertaining, gamified app for patients with diabetes. The winning team developed a web and mobile game that allowed children with diabetes to nurture a virtual pet. The health and growth of the fish depended on the good diabetes- related habits of the player.
  • The second challenge tasked students with using data warehouse attributes to develop a creative predictive algorithm. The winning team developed an algorithm which used data mining and machine learning to predict whether or not glucose readings of a patient would be extremely high, high, low, or extremely low in the next 20 minutes.
  • The final challenge was the most open-ended: create any digital app that improves the daily life of a patient with diabetes. For this challenge, we had a tie. The first winning team developed a character who would “follow” you via mobile and web applications to track and encourage a healthy lifestyle. The second winning team developed a way for patients with diabetes to replenish their supplies automatically via a mobile application and with digital connectivity to other logistics companies.

In all, twenty three amazing teams submitted hacks to meet the J&J challenges. Over the course of less than 48 hours from start to finish, these teams conceived ideas, developed working mobile apps, web apps, and android watch apps, and craft creative ways to pitch their creations back to us. We’re currently evaluating the winning ideas to determine whether they can be leveraged either into existing product development efforts – or even into new ones.
All the participants did phenomenal work. But thinking back over the whole snowy weekend, our JJDCC team was the real winner.

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We learned an incredible amount. We were reminded of just how much small teams of bright people can accomplish when they have the opportunity to remove themselves from life’s distractions and focus on a common goal. We also realized that the Generation Z talent pool has phenomenal, formidable skills – and they’re extremely eager to put them to work for companies like Johnson & Johnson. Finally, being snowed in on campus the entire weekend meant that our JJDCC digital R&D team was able to bond and get to know each other even better.

We were invigorated and inspired by the PennApps Hackathon, and look forward to bringing some of that inspiration back to the work we do every day for patients with diabetes all over the world.

Rajasi Mills leads the Digital Solutions Systems Engineering team at Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Care Companies. The Systems Engineering function consists of requirements development, testing, technical operations, and product lifecycle management. Raj holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Drexel University, Masters of Engineering in Engineering Science from Penn State University, and a Graduate Certificate in Systems Engineering & Architecture from Stevens Institute of Technology. Prior to joining J&J in 2012, she spent 18 years in the defense and aerospace industry. Raj also currently serves on the March of Dimes, Mid Atlantic chapter Board of Directors.

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