Islanders’ Innovative Spirit on Display at Hackathon Event

June 10, 2018

Last winter, Roosevelt Island resident Joan Brooks responded to a call asking seniors to submit ideas for small, 3D-printed objects that could make everyday life easier for older adults. Brooks suggested a device that could prevent choking deaths among seniors who live alone.

 

“We literally wrote down on yellow sticky pads what our ideas were, or what our concerns were,” says Brooks of the brainstorming process. “Then, about a month ago, someone called me and said, ‘I read your idea, and we’d like to get in touch.’” 

 

The person on the phone was My Linh H. Nguyen-Novotny, assistant director at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Clinical & Translational Science Center (CTSC), and one of the organizers of the second annual Health Innovation Hackathon, an interdisciplinary contest that pairs health professionals with engineering students and challenges them to come up with new solutions to medical issues. The teams are given 48 hours to create something useable and then an additional two weeks to finalize the design. Winning teams receive funding to further develop and test their prototypes.

 

On June 1, the Choke Rescuer, the device Brooks inspired, was one of eight projects presented at the competition’s final showcase. It joined an impressive collection of entries including a custom prosthetic hand, a digital doctor’s kit, and a tech solution to help refugee mothers with breastfeeding. 

 

Jorge Sanchez (left) holds the Choke Rescuer, with Joan Brooks and teammate Acuzio Dai.

 

Bringing an Idea to Life

 

“They don’t think there are any devices that can help a person by themselves from choking. They were very excited about it,” said Brooks. “So here we are.”

 

At the showcase for the Hackathon, held at the Weill Greenberg Center on York Avenue, Acuzio Dai, a Cornell graduate student in engineering, stood nearby demonstrating how to wear the Choke Rescuer. It is an adjustable belt, similar to the kind pregnant women sometimes wear to avoid back pain. An attached device sits right above the navel. When activated, the device performs the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge food that may be stuck. 

 

“I met with Joan after work one day,” says teammate Jorge Sanchez, a research assistant at the Weill Cornell Clinical Translational Science Center. “I asked her if she would prefer a device on her face, under her table, or that you would wrap around your waist. She liked this device the best. She doesn’t eat at her table. She eats on her sofa watching TV.” 

 

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, choking is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death for people over 65.

 

Although the Choke Rescuer didn’t win the event’s top prize, Brooks said she was proud of the awareness her contribution made. 

 

From Different Backgrounds

 

The Health Innovation Hackathon is a collaboration among Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, the CTSC, and the Weill Cornell Tech-in-Medicine student group. 

 

Team members are recruited not only from different medical fields, but also from different sectors of technology, including software programming and engineering, and different institutions, including Cornell Ithaca, Cornell Tech, Hospital for Special Surgery, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Hunter School of Nursing, Hunter College, and Cooper Union.

 

The opportunity to collaborate with other experts in vastly different fields was one of the things that drew Dr. Christopher Liu, another Roosevelt Island resident, to the event. He was part of a team that created the Endoscoop, a customizable endoscopic tool for gastroenterologists, which was awarded third place.

 

Liu, who lives in Southtown, is the assistant director of the Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. 

 

As a doctor, he explains, he is used to working with other doctors to solve problems. “We are all used to working with people just like us.” 

 

The beauty of the hackathon, he says, was the ability to have interactions with people who work in a different field and to find a common language. “We got to see how people from different backgrounds come up with solutions and do things in different ways. It really fosters an intellectual exchange of ideas and I think facilitates bringing together people of different talents to really solve a problem.”

 

One of those connections even happened to be an Island neighbor. He and fellow Endoscoop team member Dr. Raj Narayan, who is a surgical resident at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, were surprised to discover they both live in the same building, though they had never met. 

 

Other members of the team were engineers, including an undergraduate student at Cooper Union. “In our case, I could imagine what the medical surgical challenges were,” says Liu of his team, “But, the engineers were familiar with the actual materials that could be useful to solve the problem. I could picture what the tool was supposed to do, they could think of design and how to make it collapsible, how to design the scooping parts.”

 

Liu also says there’s a thrill to having to work so quickly, especially since advancements in medicine typically take years. 

 

“This type of setting, where you’re expected to create a prototype in the matter of a weekend, is an exercise in committing to ideas and selling them to others,” he says.

 

The Winning Team

 

The competition’s grand prize was awarded to team MyophonX, which invented a device for patients who can’t speak. It applies machine learning to face and neck muscle signals to recognize patient-specific silent speech in individuals with no voice box. 

 

One member of their team, Milan Gunasekera, will be attending Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in the fall for electrical and computer engineering. The SUNY Stonybrook graduate says he lucked into joining the winning team while visiting the MakerLAB@Cornell Tech to check out the lab’s 3D printers. 

 

“It was serendipitous that he came to meet me on the day of our final showcase for the 3D Printed Life Hacks workshop,” says Niti Parikh, who runs the MakerLAB. “I told him to stay a little longer and introduced him to a bunch of people. That’s how he got involved with the Hackathon. Making connections with people is what happens all day long in the MakerLAB.”

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