COVID-19 Hackathon: Common Goals, Uncommon Solutions

 

A medical face shield that monitors doctors digitally for signs of getting sick. A virtual waiting room app to help avoid spreading coronavirus germs among patients. A quick at-home kit with computerized support that could help consumers test and track their immune systems for antibodies against the virus that causes COVID-19. Bayer colleagues work across divisions, continents in COVID-19 hackathon.

These are just a few of the ideas developed by Bayer employees at a recent coronavirus hackathon put on by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sponsored in part by Bayer’s crop science division, which had so many interested employees it held a spillover extension hackathon complete with its own judging and awards.

While scientists around the world are working to find ways to fight the coronavirus, dozens of experts from Bayer participated in the hackathon to help develop fast, implementable solutions to help slow the spread of the virus and the disease it causes.

“Bayer is full of passionate experts across divisions looking to volunteer their time and brainpower to help find ways to fight the spread of the virus that is affecting their communities and customers,” said Mark Sparks, Vice President and Global Head of Digital Platforms for Bayer’s crop science division. “Data scientists, programmers, researchers and analysts – we all have something to offer, and this hackathon really showed Bayer employees going above and beyond to find solutions.”

Bayer colleagues from across divisions participated in the hackathon, many taking advantage of Bayer’s expanded U.S. volunteerism policy to support Bayer employees who contribute time and talent to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Participants formed teams on a Friday evening and worked around the clock for 48 hours, ultimately pitching ideas to judging panels who could help connect ideas with resources for bringing them to life.

“It was exhausting physically but really exciting personally,” said Vinod Das, a Bayer programmer who participated in the hackathon from his home in New Jersey.

“I joined Bayer because I wanted to solve problems – in our communities and around the world,” said Tai Seung Jang, a senior data scientist in Bayer’s crop science division who led a team of colleagues in the hackathon. “I told the team you don’t need a data science background to solve problems, just dedication and teamwork.”

Here are a few of the hackers’ innovative solutions.


  • Vinod Das, a systems developer and technical contributor for Bayer, led a team of three “hackers” who developed a plan for an at-home kit that would help consumers test and track their immune systems for antibodies against the virus. From his home in New Jersey, Das teamed up with two non-Bayer team members who shared his interests -- a programmer from Chile and a medical physician from Saudi Arabia. Together they worked around the clock for 48 hours to build a program, link it to a hardware solution, and present it to a team of MIT judges.

    “The goal was to develop an easy way to track immune systems status. It’s a blood test, a software application and a $10 piece of hardware that ultimately could help you decide if your immune system is strong enough to go out. This could be expanded for immune system testing beyond COVID-19 in the future.” 


  • A team of crop science division employees created a digital system that works with physicians’ personal protective equipment to track and monitor healthcare professionals for signs of getting sick. The system would use internet-of-things technology to track temperature and other conditions, alerting healthcare workers through an LED light if they need to stop and check for symptoms. The idea for the shield, along with an interactive data dashboard tracking COVID-19 data, was created by data scientists Tai Jang (South Korea), Saeed Mirshekari (Iran) and Smiruthi Ramasubramanian (India), digital project manager Mandy Makowsky (U.S), plant breeder Maria Mateos Hernandez (Mexico), and bioinformation pipeline engineer Ahmad Sadeque (Pakistan).

    “The smart face shield is a working idea that can be manufactured quickly in scale for a low cost,” said Mirshekari. “In addition to providing a fast solution for protecting the vulnerable population in the front lines, the sensors designed in this innovative device can also provide lots of insightful data that can be used to understand and defend the future pandemics more effectively.”


  • Cristina P. Estepa Gonzalez, a global market access and pricing innovation expert in the pharmaceutical division, worked on a team that created a “digital waiting room” app that could help patients avoid waiting rooms – and the germs that often linger there. The app, which layers onto existing doctors’ office scheduling software, allows patients to check in, wait in their cars or other isolated spaces and receive text messages when their physicians are ready for each appointment.

    “Waiting room could be deadly,” said Estepa, who participated fromshe said from her home in Berlin. “You can’t use telemedicine for certain conditions, so how do we help make it safer for people who still need to go to the doctor?”

    She is a participant in the Bayer Innovation Network, an innovation training program on systematic inventive thinking (SIT) and innovation coaching.

    “Bayer is transforming into an innovative and collaborative company. It is a very positive trend that socially responsible initiatives like this are encouraged,” she said. “My home country of Spain has been hit hard by this. I’m a single mom and although is hard to find the time, it’s important to help fight this pandemic – not just for our generation but for our kids and parents.”
  • Two teams of crop science employees created plans for digital systems to help communities manage the impacts of COVID-19 – and possible future disease outbreaks. The first included a web-based platform to match service providers with specific needs of underserved residents and businesses looking for support while under stay-at-home orders. Providers who could help with everything from tools and masks to pet care and emotional support would be matched with individuals and businesses with specific needs.

    The second, an infectious disease alert system, paired a disease tracking and prediction model with mobile- and web-based applications to alert communities that are at risk. The same model could be used to provide disease alerts for other illnesses such as influenza.

Several of the teams said they are working to connect with others from MIT, Bayer and other third parties to pursue possible development of their ideas.

In the meantime, family members are encouraging them to do so – with a few more breaks than the hackathon provided.

“When it was over, my five-year-old jumped on my shoulders and laughed,” one participant said. “It was a nice reminder of one of the many reasons we have to come together and contribute whatever we can to this fight.”

Team member Mandy Makowsky said the event was a chance to be part of a larger effort to make a difference.

“In these times of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, there is a feeling of helplessness when the world seems to be in utter chaos. At the very least, the solidarity among a large group of people who want to help is a boost for morale. It feels good to leverage our own unique strengths against a common global problem.”