Novartis picks hackathon challengers, preps for final showdown at SXSW

Novartis' generic drug division Sandoz recently finished its second hackathon to gather proposals for digital healthcare solutions from around the world. (Novartis)

Novartis' Sandoz unit is ready to hack at South by Southwest this spring. The three finalists from the Sandoz Healthcare Access Challenge (HACk) will hone and present their digital solutions during the spring event known for music, film and digital innovation.

The selected entrepreneurs—from the U.S., Uganda and the Netherlands—will participate in a four-day digital accelerator program before their final presentations to vie for the one winning slot. That winner will take home a €20,000 prize and gain Sandoz's support in bringing their idea to life.

Sandoz’s second HACk, the contest this year drew more than 400 entries from 80 countries, a significant increase from its 2017 pilot, with its 150 submissions from 30 countries. The Novartis unit opened submissions in October and picked 10 entries for judging by its offices and teams around the world before deciding on the final three.

The Sandoz innovation challenge was born from the company's general mission to draw digital solutions for local healthcare issues around the globe.

“We’re not asking how to get help or solve a Sandoz-specific business issue,” said Steffen Kurzawa, global head of communications and CSR at Sandoz. “We asked people to step forward with what they perceive as the most pertinent healthcare issue in their home country and what ideas they have to address it.”

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Those ideas ran the gamut from fledgling ideas and basic healthcare needs to developed products and sophisticated data algorithms. The insider favorite, for instance, was The Mobile Clinic from Uganda. Sandoz employees backed the solution, which proposes a digital app to connect women to mobile clinic emergency services for childbirth. More than 25 women in remote areas die each day from childbirth complications.

The U.S. contender, from MetaMe Health, is an irritable bowel syndrome prescription digital therapeutic based on hypnotherapy. The mobile app connects patients to digital therapy sessions, offers support and tracks progress.

The third HACk finalist comes from Social Genomics in the Netherlands. It’s building a smart social network using matchmaking algorithms based on genomic patient data. The network is designed to help people with rare and undiagnosed diseases find new treatment options, scientific research and other patients like them around the world.

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While Sandoz will not own any of the HACk ideas, Kurwaza said the pharma still gets far more out of the crowdsourcing effort than it puts in.

“As a (global) business organization, you don’t necessarily get to see what are the burning questions in local communities or in any given country,” he said. “What we find from the HACk is very good insight into what are those issues—what trends are shaping up and what are people concerned with,” he said.

Kurwaza added, “We believe there is a great role for digital to play in healthcare—a role that will at the least complement conventional pharmaceutical wisdom and maybe in some part even replace it.”

Sandoz is part of a group of pharma companies including Johnson & Johnson, Astellas, Novo Nordisk and Merck that have adopted the crowdsourced innovation challenges that have surged in the industry over the past few years.