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At HubWeek hackathon, one team ties together breathing and music

Rosana Pineda Guzman spoke at a HubWeek competition Thursday on ways to use music to improve health.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

A patient sits in a hospital bed, trying to regain her lung capacity after surgery. As she blows into a medical device, her phone shows an encouraging animation and plays a satisfying electronic harmony that increases with the strength of her breathing.

The video demonstration of a product called “SPRYTHM” helped its creators take home a $30,000 prize on Thursday, as part of a HubWeek business competition that asked contestants to find novel ways to use music to improve health outcomes.

Dr. John Pearson, a University of Utah anesthesiologist who led the winning team, said the project is putting a twist on the incentive spirometer, a device that measures how deeply people can breathe. The devices are supposed to help patients practice improving their breathing, but they often go unused.


“Music provides this soothing, calming effect for patients, and really engages people in a different way,” said Pearson, whose team has been working on the project since April.

The competition, which organizers believe was the first-ever hackathon devoted to music and health, is the kind of event particularly suited to this year’s redesigned HubWeek, the three-day Seaport District ideas festival that wrapped up Thursday.

Dr. John Pearson discussed his team’s winning idea. The team took home a $30,000 prize. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Organizers streamlined the fall festival as part of an effort to create year-round conversations that lead into the multiday event. Teams with the hackathon began working together in the spring through Berklee College of Music, which winnowed the field to four finalists that continued developing pitches through the spring and summer.

HubWeek was cofounded by The Boston Globe, Harvard University, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Joy Allen, chair of music therapy at Berklee, said the long horizon for the project showed in the ideas that made it to the final stage.

“Where they were four months ago was very different from where they are today,” said Allen, who coordinated the hackathon. “It’s a day-and-night difference.”


The other finalists were ALMA, an application-based service that seeks to help music therapists connect with patients remotely; Muser, which uses a wearable sensor to help understand patients’ physiological responses to music therapy; and EvrHome, which helps people who leave their homes for health reasons to create music-enabled virtual-reality maps that keep them connected to the space.

Annette Whitehead-Pleaux, an assistant professor at Berklee who worked on Muser, said technological solutions like the one her team envisions could help expand the reach of music-based therapy in treating conditions such as anxiety.

“We live in a pill-driven society where we are looking for those fixes, and we are seeing more and more that’s not the way to go,” she said.

A judge questioned a team pitching its idea to use music to improve health outcomes.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.