Friday, January 24

Inventathon competition inspires development in healthcare problems

Glass walls covered with colorful graphs and business models divided the teams as the members typed furiously on their computers, developing their solutions to one of six proposed healthcare problems.

Eighteen hours into the 24-hour event, participants scribbled on the walls with Expo markers as they refined their products, which addressed medical challenges such as managing patients at high risk for HIV and reducing readmission rates for patients with chronic kidney disease.

During the second annual Inventathon competition, students worked together to find solutions to unmet medical needs. The competition took place over the weekend at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA and was co-hosted by the UCLA Business of Science Center, UCLA Center for Advanced Surgical and Interventional Technology, UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior.

This year, the event had more than twice the number of participants it did previously, with a total of 175 individuals, or 38 teams. Participants included undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. Coordinators also wanted to focus more on mentorship this year by providing about 50 mentors from industries such as medicine, business and technology who could advise the participating teams on their projects.

“The challenge is really understanding the clinical need, rather than having a blurry vision of what the need is. So having the doctors here is a major help,” said Dan Wilkinson, a participant and graduate student in the UCLA Materials Science and Engineering Department.

Sean Young, executive director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, said he thinks students have an increased interest in creating medical technology because it is easier to build than it was before.

“Back when I was born, if you were building technology it took a lot of time, a lot of money, and it was difficult to do,” Young said. “Now we have the ability to build technologies within 24 hours.”

The purpose of creating the Inventathon was so all students – no matter what career aspirations they have – could still get involved in the competition, said Shyam Natarajan, co-founder of the Inventathon and assistant director of entrepreneurship at the UCLA Center for Advanced Surgical and Interventional Technology.

“It’s a fun, free and easy way for people without any sort of background in medicine, design or entrepreneurship to come together and learn about the innovation process,” Natarajan said.

As part of the competition, students can pitch ideas for any solution, ranging from an app, to a device, to a drawing, as long as it addresses one of the medical needs.

Daniel Yazdi, a second-year student at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine who was on the winning team last year, said he and his friends came to this year’s competition to learn more about medical technologies.

“We really came into this competition not with the goal of winning, but we wanted to learn something new,” Yazdi said, “(I’m) restrengthening (concepts) I learned as an undergrad and reapplying them to novel approaches.”

Yazdi won first place in the Inventathon again this year with a different team, using a device that measures abnormal brain signals to more easily monitor chronic kidney disease.

Bhavik Merchant, a fourth-year business economics student who was on the winning team last year, said he liked the Inventathon more than normal hackathons because it focused on specific problems.

“The Inventathon focuses on how to get products to patients,” Merchant said. “And it’s a lot more fun,” he added, smiling.

Yazdi’s team spent until midnight brainstorming and reading literature in order to create a viable product. In the 24-hour competition, he got just 10 minutes of sleep.

After last year’s Inventathon, the winning team used the office space it won to work on its lung cancer device and make connections with industry professionals.

Although not every team wins a prize, participants may gain valuable experience by learning to generate solutions under time pressures, a trait that’s necessary to combat any medical crisis, Young said.

“It’s only something like this, where you have a collaborative environment with multiple different types of expertise that you can find a solution in a short time frame,” Young said.

Daniel Margolis, an associate professor of radiology and one of the Inventathon mentors, said he thinks students gain valuable lessons from the Inventathon that may help them in their future careers.

“I think that the participation in and of itself is far more valuable than whether or not you win,” Margolis said, sitting in a room filled with countless caffeinated drinks and snacks for the participants. “It’s inspiring to see the potential of the students at UCLA and what will be the future of health care.”

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