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TechnoStorm takes on global health

Two-day “hackathon” fosters science-based global health solutions

TechnoStorm seeks science-based tech solutions to global health challenges such vaccine delivery. (Photo by Julien Harneis via Flickr)

They’re hunkering down for two days of intense development with an IT start-up-style “hackathon"—but they're not building a new social media app.They're using science to create solutions for global health problems.

“We wanted to use the hackathon idea, but adapt it for science-based products,” said Richard McAloney, director of technology management at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Optical Sciences (IOS). “With a hackathon in the IT sector, it’s easy to spend a weekend and produce a product. We believe you can get good science tech-based products out there in a similar format, but you’re not going to be able to produce a new device by the end of the weekend. You can produce a plan for moving forward.”

TechnoStorm, the institute's inaugural two-day science “hackathon,” will gather students from an array of backgrounds to develop proposals for new global-health related technologies based in the physical sciences.

More than 40 participants from the university and across Canada have already registered, said McAloney, adding the event is drawing students from across a range of disciplines such as global affairs, medical biophysics and e-health innovation. Many took part in the IOS’ summer program, Techno, which helps participants develop and launch their own start-ups. TechnoStorm is geared towards graduate students, but McAloney says it will involve students at all levels as well as mentors and guests who will drop in throughout the weekend to help out the core working group.

“The idea is to hopefully have people from our large network drop by and interact, to help the group, guide them and give them input,” he said.

U of T President David Naylor will attend the TechnoStorm launch event Jan 25. Also taking part in the launch will be Ken Simiyu, program officer for Grand Challenges Canada—the catalyst for TechnoStorm.

Grand Challenges Canada’s ‘Stars in Global Health’ program provides up to $1 million in funds for proof-of-concept and implementation of projects improving global health conditions. Its submission deadline gave IOS the motivation it needed to execute what McAloney hopes will be “the first of many” TechnoStorms on a range of topics.

“We’ve been floating this idea of a non-IT-based brainstorming session for a long time and the problem was what topic to tackle,” said McAloney. “It just literally came together with this call for proposals.” 

By the end of the weekend, McAaloney says he hopes participants will have developed four or five proposals for the ‘Stars in Global Health’ program, while having the chance to work with people from different disciplinary backgrounds and expand their networks.

“I really believe this will get people to think big—and think about solving big problems,” said McAloney. “Here it’s in the field of global health but hopefully it will carry forward to everything we do. Show students they can tackle the big things—and don’t be shy.”