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Innovators at MGH brainstorm ways to help fight Ebola

Scientists, entrepreneurs seek out quick solutions

Jim Wright discussed his team's idea, the "Veinfinder” — a low-tech way to help find a vein for needle insertion in patients — at the Stop Ebola Hack-a-thon at Massachusetts General Hospital. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As the Ebola crises rages on in West Africa, more than 100 scientists, clinicians, and entrepreneurs gathered in Boston this weekend for an intellectual exercise with a large goal: To change the world in 48 hours, or at least make a start.

The Stop Ebola Hack-a-thon brought thinkers from the worlds of medicine, engineering, design, and business together under one roof to identify problems in the fight against Ebola and quickly brainstorm innovations that could provide near-term solutions.

The event, hosted by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Global Health, asked scientists to think like entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs to think like scientists, all against two pressing clocks — the weekend-long event, and the march of the epidemic.


“These are catalytic events that compress the innovation cycle,” said Kris Olsen, the medical director for CAMTech, the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies at MGH, one of the partners for the event. “People have ideas and skills but don’t know how to move it forward. When you compress that cycle, you can leapfrog it to where they really can go forward. We want to fail as fast as possible and move forward with the good ideas as quickly as possible.”

Audience members and participants at the Stop Ebola Hack-a-thon watched a presentation. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The weekend began with several presentations from people who have worked on the front lines of the epidemic — including some who just finished their quarantine period — and progressed to the idea phase, where participants pitched possible solutions to particular problems. Those 45 innovations were whittled down to 17, and teams worked late into the night to try to turn those ideas into something approaching a workable concept.

A big theme that came up again and again was the practical aspects of working in an environment where transmission of the disease was such a concern. Many of the innovations addressed the hot and cumbersome suits clinicians must wear and offered solutions that could allow for monitoring and treating patients at a safe distance.


The concepts ranged from the seemingly simple, such as installing windows on treatment tents so family members can visit an infected loved one, to the technically complex, such as using facial-recognition software to link patients with their medical records.

The issue of working within the cumbersome personal protective equipment came up again and again, and ideas addressed issues such as overheating and dehydration in the suits, headaches from the restrictive hoods, and — a big one — fogging of masks due to sweat. One team proposed a wearable cooling system. Another simply floated the idea of getting organizations to buy baby shampoo, which they say prevents fog on the inside of masks.

On Sunday afternoon, the teams made their final presentations and a panel of global health experts chose two ideas: RESCUE, a rapidly deployable containment unit that could work quickly in rural areas, where the epidemic is now spreading; and ProxiME, a wristband that monitors a patient’s temperature and heart rate and sends alerts to a clinician’s pager.

Elizabeth Bailey, the director of CAMTech, said her group typically wants big ideas, no matter how long they might take. But with Ebola, they are stressing near-term potential.

“Because of the urgency of the Ebola crisis, the stress was on how quickly you could implement these things in the field,” she said.

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.