Detroit and Windsor Join Forces for Cross-Border Health IT Hackathon

Detroit’s first-ever, cross-border healthcare IT hackathon kicks off this evening, as teams from around Michigan and Canada gather at Wayne State University to develop their mobile app and startup ideas before they then spend the weekend refining them. On Sunday, the teams will pitch their ideas at a demo day; at stake is more than $30,000 in prizes.

Hacking Health Windsor-Detroit has been organized by the TechTown accelerator in Detroit and, the WEtech Alliance regional innovation center and Hackforge co-working space, both in Windsor. Paul Riser Jr., TechTown’s managing director of tech-based entrepreneurship, said healthcare is a sector where Wayne State sees a lot of opportunity for metro Detroit entrepreneurs, and part of the purpose of the hackathon is for healthcare practitioners to mingle with software developers and tell them where the industry’s pain points are to see if they might be interested in solving them.

“Above and beyond the cross-border aspect is the notion of getting healthcare professionals in a room who have ideas around IT solutions,” Riser said. “But a great doctor can’t also be expected to also deliver those solutions. That’s where IT-oriented minds come in.”

The event begins tonight with a pitch clinic, where those with potential mobile health ideas will share their thoughts and form teams. Saturday, teams will spend the day brainstorming and developing their ideas, and then the weekend culminates with a demo day open to the public at 2 p.m. Sunday, where judges will choose the winning ideas.

Riser said WSU has committed to host a Hacking Health event annually, with the venue alternating between Detroit and Windsor, and said the event wouldn’t be possible without the participation of regional sponsors such as the New Economy Initiative, Henry Ford Health System, and the University of Michigan’s Fast Forward Medical Innovation.

Irek Kusmierczyk, the director of robotics and youth programs for WEtech Alliance, said the need to start cultivating a regional approach to healthcare was one of the reasons for co-hosting Hacking Health. “We’re competing against other innovation centers around the world,” he added. “We need to get our act together and break down barriers.”

Riser agreed, saying, “We can look at two disparate healthcare systems in the same region—where else in the world could you do that?”

WEtech Alliance, one of 17 regional innovation centers in Ontario, works with companies that have an innovation or technology component, Kusmierczyk said. Like TechTown, it provides mentorship and it catalyzes research and development relationships between startups and local universities to help the companies grow.

Kusmierczyk called the Kitchener/Waterloo area of Ontario the “Silicon Valley of the North”—it’s where BlackBerry is based—and because of that, it churns out a lot of tech talent. Meanwhile, Windsor has large automobile and robotics sectors, and Kusmierczyk said he’d like to see better recruitment of IT talent from Waterloo to help bolster Windsor’s ecosystem.

“Our IT sector is small but nascent,” he said. “We’re hoping to change that. A lot of talent leaves after graduation, and we want to attract those jobs that will keep them here.”

Both Riser and Kusmierczyk see a lot of regional opportunities in health IT and mobile health especially. Kusmierczyk said that, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the mobile health sector is expected to grow to $23 billion by 2017. “There are great hospitals here and in Detroit, and we want to tap into that,” he said. “I see Hacking Health as a doorway to connect in meaningful ways to establish networks and a regional mindset.”

Riser echoes that sentiment: “I’ve seen a number of indicators that there is a great opportunity here, and we’re looking at building a much broader strategy to leverage Hacking Health solutions and create a platform to sustain those ideas,” he said. “Possibly, we’ll even do a more structured program in the future to build out the business models around these ideas.”

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