Hacking for a Cause: Wound-care app Wins $30,000 at First Local Healthcare Hackathon

Steve Thijssen, far right, describes his team's AVy app during the 2019 Healthcare Hackathon awards presentations at Glenn Auditorium in Cape Girardeau.

For most people, the term "hacker" conjures intangible imagery; things like cryptocurrencies or swirling lines of binary code. But in practice, "hacking" is little more than problem solving. It's looking at a problem, evaluating the technological resources at hand, and then leveraging those resources in new and creative ways.

Take, for instance, the struggles of the health care industry. Keeping people healthy is an arena chock-full of difficult -- that is to say, interesting -- problems. In fact, it's hard to imagine a field that has been more prominently examined in human history. Which means it's also ripe for some outside-the-box thinking.

That was the thought process behind last month's healthcare-themed hackathon, hosted by the Marquette Tech District Foundation (MTDF) in conjunction with Saint Francis Healthcare System with $50,000 in prize money on the line. During the event, more than 100 participants organized into teams to spend the weekend building software programs that would, if implemented, solve a specific health care problem or make patients' lives easier in some way.

Participants in the 2019 Healthcare Hackathon work together to design a human assembly line to optimize production of paper airplanes during a team building exercise at Glenn Auditorium in Cape Girardeau.

The software was judged according to a range of criteria, including user interface, creativity, execution and problem-solution fit.

The winning project came from Ashwin Kumar, who built a wound-care app that would allow patients to consult remotely with physicians, sending photos of their wound sites for monitoring and advice.

Kumar told the Southeast Missourian that one of his main objectives was helping to increase access to health care, a traditional challenge for rural populations like that of the Missouri Bootheel.

"There are some additional factors, such as the distance for patients to travel to the nearest provider, and how comfortable patients and providers are with using and trusting technology," Kumar said. "The increasing burden on health care systems to provide care for an increasing population of patients means useful technology solutions are even more valuable."

For his winning idea, Kumar was awarded $30,000.

Other winning software pitches included apps to help patients stay on schedule while taking medications.

The problems the hackers tackled are the same real-world challenges health care providers like Saint Francis Healthcare System are actively working to alleviate, which explains why Saint Francis president and CEO Maryann Reese said sponsoring the event was a natural fit for her organization.

"We have lots of problems in health care, and I think this event will not only benefit Cape Girardeau, but our region and our nation," Reese said. "Google 'hackathon', and you see Yale, MIT, New York City. Now, you'll see Cape Girardeau."

The event was not the first hackathon the Marquette Tech District Foundation has hosted, as smaller such events have been part of their annual Techfest celebrations in past years. This hackathon was, however, the first to feature a specific focus and sponsor.

But if Marquette Tech District Foundation program director Chris Carnell has his way, it won't be the last. There are plenty of problems facing the community and plenty of motivated hackers ready to ply their brain power toward solving them.

"The hope is that we can continue to have an annual type of event like this with Saint Francis, but also do this type of event with other organizations throughout the region," Carnell said. "There's no reason we couldn't have multiple hackathons throughout the year that were building technology throughout Southeast Missouri -- really cool technology in Southeast Missouri at that."

And the focus of such events, he said, is broader even than the problems being assigned. It's also an integral part of fostering an ever-increasing tech industry in Cape Girardeau.

The health care hackathon drew talent from across the country and beyond; the second-place winners traveled all the way from the Netherlands to compete. That kind of draw is critical to the recruitment process.

"The success of building a technology sector takes a concerted effort, so we're proud to partner with Saint Francis," said Chris Carnell, co-founder of Codefi and director of programs for the MTDF. "Attracting, developing and retaining talent are critical to this initiative. And you have to give talented people tough problems and innovation technology to work on."