Hackathon a Crash Course in Health Innovation

Sep 18, 2015
Carolyn Morris

Hillary Chan tries out the Calmstress device. Hillary Chan tries out the Calmstress device. Photo by Josh Wahler. It was a social weekend for University of Toronto master’s student Hillary Chan – but far from a relaxing one. She and over 90 people she had never met arrived at a conference room in the MaRS Discover District on a Friday in early September, where they were told to form teams. Chan, who is doing a master’s in translational research in health science, joined forces with Erica Tiberia and Hongbo Wu both MSc candidates in Medical Biophysics, as well as an industrial design student from OCAD and a layperson with an interest in technology and health. Armed with ideas, skills, access to industry mentors and a kit containing two motors and a programming platform, they were given 34 hours to build a robot that could improve health.

This frenetic weekend was hosted by Get Your Bot On! Robotics Hackathon, an annual event focused on transforming ideas into physical prototypes. The forum brings together people from a range of backgrounds – from technical experts to professionals or students in health-related fields. Industry partners provide access to and information about a variety of hardware and wearable devices, and technical mentors provide teams with support. The Faculty of Medicine’s Health Innovation HUB (H2i), as well as U of T’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and the Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics, were proud post-secondary partners supporting the GYBO! organizers and students participating in the challenge.

“We’re preparing our students to think outside the classroom,” says Professor Joseph Ferenbok, director of the Faculty of Medicine’s new MHSc in Translational Research, and also co-director of H2i. “This type of opportunity mobilizes our knowledge base within the faculty, to engage with the broader community and find new ways of impacting human health.”

Chan is in the first master’s cohort of the Translational Research Program (TRP). She has an undergraduate in health and disease, and a drive to transform some of the important insights gleaned in research into real-world solutions. For her, the hackathon was a crash course in the first steps of commercialization.

“You prototype, think it’s good, try it on and realize it doesn’t quite work. Then you try again,” says Chan, whose group set out to make a wearable harness for people with anxiety-related disorders. The device would detect the beginning of a panic attack and respond by activating a pulley system to push on pressure points on the collarbones and sternum and calm the user down through physiological means. “We had to pitch our ideas first to the audience, then to the high-tech companies to access new hardware and to mentors. It was also great to learn about managing conflicts in an interdisciplinary team, and handle the problems that would come up when you’re pressed for time and creativity.”

Problems such as realizing half-way into the second day that the brain-signal-sensing headband they wanted to use to determine stress levels was not working well with their prototyping platform. After much frustration, they decided to switch to a simpler, if less sophisticated, solution – a pulse monitor that would detect a rise in heart rate. Then there was the frantic rush to fix mechanical and programming glitches that kept cropping up in the final hours before the deadline.

Finally – with the help of child car-seat straps, packaging foam, Velcro, a small length of string, copious amounts of blue duct tape, and a lot of patience and persistence – they were able to make their “Calmstress” gadget work. Their team won best design for human interaction.

“Making your design concrete is a really important step in the development process, and a real gap in the commercialization process,” says Get Your Bot On! founder Adriana Ieraci. She’s hoping that this type of event, that makes technology and robotics accessible, will help move more ideas from concept to creation.

U of T is building on the hackathon concept to launch a year-long Hacking Health[care] for Innovation event. H2i, along with the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL) and Engineering’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery, is partnering with the university’s affiliated hospitals to identify design challenges, promote innovative entrepreneurship and test novel solutions for health system improvements. So stay tuned for more ingenuity from students around campus.


The Faculty of Medicine’s Health Innovation HUB (H2i) offers mentorship and early-stage advice for health-oriented ventures. Its work is made possible with support from the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and the Ontario Centres of Excellence. If you have an idea you think would improve human health, find out how to apply for H2i support.  You can also find out more about the Translational Research Program at TRP.utoronto.ca

Get Your Bot On! Robotics Hackathon is an annual event, open to anyone with an interest in creating things. Sign up for the mailing list to find out about the next robot-building opportunity.


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