How VA Gets Innovators to Focus on Veterans’ Challenges 

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One event helped a severely injured veteran use a utensil on his own—for the first time in 12 years. 

Hackathons—and the meaningful strategic partnerships they can spark—help the Veterans Affairs Department turn innovation that only seems imaginable into reality, a VA official said Tuesday.

At the Veteran Health Administration’s second annual Innovation Experience event in Washington, Suzanne Shirley, an entrepreneur-in-residence through the VHA’s Innovation Ecosystem, highlighted some of the impacts the solution-centered hacks have inspired over the last year.

“How through innovation can we achieve the extraordinary?” Shirley asked. “It’s a question I ask myself every day. But it’s more than a question—it’s a quest, it’s a journey.”

With a decade of experience driving process improvement and innovation across the agency, Shirley was one of several insiders to shed light on the cutting-edge approaches stakeholders are taking to drive powerful solutions for America’s vets and those who serve them. Hackathons, she explained, are fast-paced events or “design sprints,” that bring together hundreds of problem-solvers from diverse professional and academic backgrounds. Together, they form teams to solve specific challenges over the course of what usually spans just a few days.

The agency has led many individual hackathons over the years, but as EIR, Shirley helped launch a broader national initiative to partner with academic institutions and introduce VA-centered events in major cities across the nation.

“We can’t do this alone. Achieving extraordinary results means working with extraordinary people, extraordinary partners,” Shirley said. “So around this time last year, I called on [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], [Georgia Institute of Technology] and George Washington University, and I asked them to help us explore some of our most complex challenges. Within a few days, I was on a plane, entering their world of imagination.”

VHA formed strategic partnerships with the universities and also engaged innovators, program leaders and partners throughout the agency to introduce the speedy, solution-driven events in new areas. The hackathons usually kick off by posing a variety of challenges for the teams to solve. Examples might be finding an alternative for an amputee veteran who wants to swim with their child but cannot use their prosthetics in the water, or storage options outside of backpacks, for veterans in wheelchairs who cannot reach around to grab their bags. 

“When we ask for help in exploring some of our toughest challenges, the response is overwhelming,” Shirley told Nextgov after her on-stage presentation. “They want to do this and they are joining a community with us to serve veterans.” 

Throughout her discussion, Shirley revealed some of the unique technological solutions that came out of this year’s series of national hackathons. 

At George Washington University,  a combat veteran with a high-level spinal cord injury took the stage and asked 300 students if any of them would consider designing him some sort of arm support that would give him lateral twisting. His ultimate hope was to eat with a utensil on his own for the first time in 12 years. A team of “driven young students” came together and worked with the veteran throughout the weekend, and also in the months after the hackathon, as Shirley put it, “to bring what he imagined into his new reality.”

Months later in Boston, for MIT’s Hacking Medicine event, one VA medical provider asked for help in exploring solutions to counter the sense of isolation that veterans feel when they leave the military, which is also a serious risk factor that contributes to rising suicide rates. Members of the community united to design a digital application that allows veterans to build peer communities based on commonalities they share, such as the time and location of their service, their ages and also shared experiences. The app’s makers then took the solution beyond the hackathon to one of VA’s technological accelerators and plans to pilot the tool in a local VA medical center in the coming year. 

And later, at the MIT and Samsung-hosted Grand Hack event in the nation’s capital, hackers turned their focus from veterans to those who care for them. They worked to design a biometric solution aimed at tackling physician burnout. Another team also designed a “disruptive solution” to help veterans prepare for changing Food and Drug Administration regulations around hearing aids. 

But the innovation hasn’t stopped at hackathons. Shirley said now that people are learning about the VA’s innovative drive, they are proactively reaching out to test their own emerging technology. She offered up a student-led team from Virginia Commonwealth University as one example. They designed a new kind of pressure bandage and, having connected with the agency’s innovation ecosystem, they’re working with VA surgeons to engage in customer discovery. 

“Universities are catching wind of what we are doing and they are contacting us,” Shirley said. “So this is just the beginning.” 

The VA’s Innovation Experience, or iEX, will continue for another full day Wednesday and debut many other technological advancements the agency is working to implement. It also includes a “Shark Tank” competition, which enables VA employees to share the practices and products they’re developing and compete for a chance to test or debut their technology at the agency’s facilities nationwide. Further, iEX will also exhibit a variety of the agencies’ latest technological breakthroughs across emerging technologies, including 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, device applications, virtual reality and telehealth.

Together with the hackathons, Shirley said such events create a stronger sense of community among industry and academic stakeholders, VA leaders, and the veterans that they serve. 

“The value of these events—it’s not just about infusing our healthcare system with early-stage solutions and industry innovation, it’s not—it’s about the community that’s being developed,” Shirley said. “We are not alone in our mission to serve veterans. Leaders from academia, industry and healthcare all over the world are stepping up to join us.”