As a direct response to the serious issues presented by the COVID-19 crisis, MIT students were stirred to do something they know well – hack – and in just a matter of days organized the MIT COVID-19 Challenge, a virtual hackathon to address solutions for this global pandemic. The inspiration for this is MIT students, themselves, who were feeling suddenly set adrift with the closing of campus and cancelation of in-person classes for the remainder of the school year. The COVID-19 Challenge was a chance to empower some of the best and brightest students in the world to take action at a time when uncertainty was a more common emotion.

The first Challenge took place online over the weekend of March 21 & 22 and featured nine teams comprised of 43 members of the MIT community (students, alumni, staff). The event was a successful proof of concept that a weekend hackathon could be effective even without participants congregated in the same physical space.

The next step was to hold a second event, and planning began immediately for “Beat the Pandemic,” a two-pronged program to take place over 48 hours from the evening of Friday, April 3rd to Sunday, April 5th. Two parallel themes were organized – protecting vulnerable populations, and helping health systems – and this time this time the event would be global in nature – open to all – the best way to address a global pandemic.

The interest and response was remarkable. More than 4500 people applied to participate along with 500 mentors requesting to take part, representing 96 countries and 49 U.S. states. The pool was equally divided between 50% students and 50% professionals ranging from engineers, scientists, and business people, as well as physicians, nurse practitioners, and EMTs who used their limited down time in this health crisis to take part in such an important group effort. To best manage the process, Challenge organizers pared the pool down to 1500 total to take part in the weekend.

To kick off the weekend, Bill Aulet, Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center, provided a warm MIT welcome to participants from around the world. At the Trust Center, we tell our students that entrepreneurship is a “team sport” so Challenge participants were broken out into teams on the opening night, with each focused on one of 10 tracks that were assigned within the two overarching themes. Initial ideas were pitched this first evening giving participants the chance to select the specific idea or concept they would be working on over the two days. A total of 238 teams were off and executing on developing solutions.

On Saturday teams met virtually with mentors to receive guidance and refine ideas, as well as take part in “How to Pitch” workshops, continuing to develop, research, network, connect, and iterate their proposals. Practice pitching took place on Sunday morning with mentors providing final feedback before the final pitches in each of the 10 tracks and two themes were delivered that afternoon. Following deliberations, the judges, including a Trust Center Entrepreneur in Residence, Kosta Ligris, announced 40 winning teams on Sunday evening, which can be viewed online.

Winning teams included:

  • CovMD, a telemedicine platform that connects doctors from countries that have passed the surge of infection to patients in countries where the healthcare system is struggling to triage patients at home,
  • iPool, which developed an intelligent algorithm for pooled COVID-19 testing, and,
  • Medlynk, which developed a model that pulls from multiple live data sources at the county level to allow hospitals to predict their PPE burn rate and identify those hospitals in critical need.

The Challenge could not have been as successful without the support of its more than 30 global partners who signed on and shared their expertise through the panels of judges. Our funding sponsors included Takeda Pharmaceutical, athenahealth, Johnson & Johnson, and the Healthcare Sector Practice of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Winning teams received $500 cash, Amazon Web Services credits, and the access to clinical and industry partners to catalyze their solutions.

This last item is why the Challenge is so important. Ideas are just ideas unless there is a plan to execute upon them. The work done during the weekend of the Challenge is now being developed through the connections that were made. These solutions address real-world challenges currently being faced and can now be explored and ultimately implemented at a rapid pace thanks to the tireless efforts of so many committed individuals who sacrificed their personal time to address the needs of the greater good.

The MIT COVID-19 Challenge efforts are led by two MIT Sloan MBAs, Stephanie MacConnell (the Healthcare Sector Practice Leader for the Trust Center) and Alfonso Martinez (an MIT delta v 2019 cohort member), and MIT Postdoc Freddy Nguyen, along with the assistance of a small army of other committed volunteers. Resources from across the Institute have helped to make the Challenge a true MIT-wide initiative and the Trust Center is proud to sponsor the event.

Watch a recording of the award ceremony online.