Novartis Challenge Shows There Are Still Entry Points into Mobile Health Market

With winners announced and organizers now regrouping to analyze the next stages, the Novartis mHealth Challenge - held last weekend in San Francisco and giving away over $40,000 in prize money - has demonstrated that for developers looking to aggregate APIs together into a health-focused, consumer-facing end-product, there is still plenty of room to enter the growing market. ProgrammableWeb spoke to Cheryl Cheng, one of the organizers of the hackathon and winners from to see what other API developers can learn from the outcomes.

"It's only been three days since the event, so we are still decompressing, everyone is still reeling from the workload", shared Cheryl Cheng, partner of early stage venture fund BlueRun Ventures and co-founder of BrandGarage, which organized the Novartis mHealth Challenge hackathon. (BrandGarage events provide an open Platform where venture firms like BlueRun can work with industry partners like Novartis - a Fortune500 pharmaceuticals company - to make new connections and drive innovation.)

The challenge offered up Novartis data, a Library of APIs and a selection of wearable tech to developers to encourage them to design a solution aimed at the caregivers of patients with heart failure. Heart failure causes one hospital admission every 30 seconds and results in the premature death of up to 5.1 million people a year in America alone. While Novartis works to create pharmaceutical treatments directly for patients with heart failure, in this challenge, they wanted competition entrants to focus on the patient's 'ecosystem': their care-givers who were often responsible in daily life for helping a patient monitor and manage their health and health care.

"This was the beginning of the conversation for Novartis. They brought a big team out, there was a lot of senior support from the company," said Cheng. "What's unique about the events we do, is that we create a catalyst that helps the startup community get a deeper insight [into enterprise problems] and helps established companies connect with the technologists."

By this measure, the event was a success: around 160 developers turned up to compete (out of 200+ registrations), and 46 teams submitted competition entries by the end of the weekend. won the grand prize of $15,000 while other entrants shared a further $25,000 in prize money, in addition to Jawbone giveaways and other sponsor prizes.

"A broad range of APIs were used. The Validic API aggregates and standardizes data from sources like Fitbit and Jawbone, so competing teams definitely used that to build things like if your heart rate or blood pressure varied greater than say, 20%, that would send an alert. Mashery brought a bunch of APIs, and several contestants used the indoor mapping Micello API for hospitals for solutions where you could remote monitor a loved one going to a hospital appointment, or if you needed to make your way to an appointment in a clinic in a big hospital.

"There was also a lot of use of sensor tech APIs, including those from iHealth Labs, that could monitor heart rate, weight, blood pressure. Remember the competition focused on clients with heart failure, who tend to be older, so they are not really interacting with a smart phone but could wear a wearable tech and press a button."

Understanding who the end customer would be for the tech solutions proved crucial to the winning entry. took home the grand prize of $15,000 by creating a specific avatar-product aimed at supporting care givers to navigate the health needs of patients with heart failure. Adam Odessky, CEO of told ProgrammableWeb:

"We used the Tropo API to send text messages, Validic API to read data from medical devices, along with our own platform to drive the conversation with patients. What we know based on our previous health experience is that many chronically ill patients are elderly and prefer more of a personal touch in interactions, even when there's an abundance of technology available. So we tried to adapt our conversational technology to give these patients a more empathetic experience while still asking for valuable data to make key clinical decisions."

For developers looking to break into the mobile health and wearable tech space, the event shows the potential of choosing hackathons that are supported by an industry player. And there is no need to wait for a hackathon to get started. One of's competitive advantages was that they are already working on health solutions, and were able to draw on their experience and platform tools to create a unique solution that fit the competition's weekend-based challenge.

With a changing focus of hackathons towards solving more real world problems, the growth in mobile health and the advances in wearable tech, developers can now use APIs to create their own entry points into this fast-growing market.

Be sure to read the next Events article: Bulletin Launches First Developer Contest, Monthlong Challenges