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Hack-a-thon yields ideas to combat opioid crisis

Members of a hack-a-thon team called Ally worked on their presentation Sunday at District Hall.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Nineteen teams pitched ideas — ranging from mobile treatment vans to wristbands that monitor for overdoses then distribute medicine to stop them — to combat the country’s rising opioid epidemic during the final leg of a three-day opioid hack-a-thon on Sunday.

After identifying 68 challenges inherent in the public health crisis that causes 78 deaths a day in the United States, teams formed Saturday, worked around the clock, and began delivering three-minute pitches Sunday afternoon before a panel of six judges at District Hall.

At stake: $5,000 to help five winning teams turn their conceptual innovations into reality.

Kevin Woghiren, 28, wanted to make sure people can obtain information, for example about where to buy needles or about supervised highs, simply and securely when Internet activity can easily be tracked. So he and his team, Ready Access via SMS, created a text-message search engine that allows someone to get information without going online.

“All you need is a phone with SMS functionality — texting — and a phone number,” Woghiren, who works in cybersecurity for GE, said Sunday in an interview before pitching his idea to the judges. “That’s it and you have ready access to information.”


The summit, hosted by the GE Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, brought together politicians, police officers, medical clinicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, and people whose lives have been impacted by drug abuse to tackle the problem.

“This is an opportunity to innovate and think differently about this,” said David Barash, executive director and chief medical officer of the GE Foundation’s Global Health Portfolio.

Barash said the GE Foundation made a $50 million philanthropic commitment to Greater Boston and $15 million of that goes toward health initiatives. When the company started talking to people about the community’s needs, the opioid epidemic kept coming up, he said. And the idea came about to do something different.


In April, the foundation partnered with the hospital’s Consortium for Affordable Technologies (CAMTech) and its Global Medicine Program to host a hack-a-thon focused on the Zika virus. One of four winners from that hack-a-thon is about to have a product ready to market, said Barash.

Dr. Geren Stone, program director of the Global Medicine Program, said he started the opioid hack-a-thon a bit skeptical until he saw that real-world applications would result.

“It’s a huge problem, and I think there’s a lot of systemic things that need to change — stigma, laws, criminalization. What could we contribute other than advocating and talking?” he said. “But seeing the concrete, really tangible solutions some of these groups are really focused on, a lot of solutions are already on hand.”

Part of that comes from bringing together people who don’t normally sit side by side in the same room, he said.

Friday was all about identifying challenges. There were high-level policy discussions by Governor Charlie Baker and Michael Botticelli, director of the National Drug Control Policy, Boston police officers, family members, and people in recovery gave testimony about the ravages of opioids.

On Saturday, participants wrote two-sentence challenges. One woman wanted to create a way to signal when an overdose was happening within 750 yards of an Albany Street homeless clinic; one man wanted to develop a way for people to have access to Naloxone, which is used to treat an overdose to narcotic medication, “in a visible perhaps wearable device that decreases stigma,” according to the hack-a-thon’s website.


And on Sunday, the teams pitched their ideas. Deirdre Houtmeyers, president of St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children in Uphams Corner, and her team, HORSE, pitched an idea to use five horses at a Boston park for equine therapy. Dr. Katrina Ciraldo and her team, USS SafeSpace, wanted to create a supervised drug injection facility on a boat in international waters.

Aubri Esters, 31, and her team, MATMobile, wants to create and launch mobile treatment vans staffed with medical personnel to visit areas known for drug use. Esters, who describes herself as an “unashamed former drug user,” started her team’s pitch with a fictional account of life on the street. She described a person having a choice between waking up sick from withdrawal in the doorway of a 7-Eleven versus going to a mobile treatment van and receiving a two-day supply of Suboxone with a follow-up appointment for treatment.

“The MATMobile van team . . . empowers active drug users to take back control of their lives while educating people on safer injection practices,” Esters said.

The judges’ choices are expected to be announced Monday.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.