New Yale Student-Led Innovation Hub Wins Treatment Track at National HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon to Address Opioid Crisis

Matthew Erlendson and his teammates could scarcely believe what they were hearing. On stage, the Chief Data Officer of the Department of Health and Human Services had just announced that Origami Innovations, was one of three winners at a code-a-thon focused on finding data-driven solutions to address the national opioid crisis.

The judges unanimously selected the team from the new Yale student-led innovation hub as one of three winners among more than 50 entrants, including teams from established tech powerhouses like IBM. Erlendson, a fourth-year medical student at Yale University, had co-founded Origami Innovations just a year earlier. His teammates included Jack Cackler, a developer and data scientist at Palantir, Sachith Gullapalli, a software developer at Google and recent Yale alum, Dr. Frank Lee, a pain physician and Johns Hopkins professor, and Dara Rouholiman, a chemist, researcher and data scientist based at Stanford.Origami Innovations team photo

Over the course of the 24-hour code-a-thon, the team had developed a real-time predictive tool to help local hospitals, emergency responders and policymakers predict spikes in overdoses, so they could muster an adequate supply of overdose reversal drugs and better allocate resources to the locations in most need of help.

“The mission of Origami Innovations is to focus on solutions that move the conversation from how the world ‘should be changed’ to how the world ‘can be changed,’” Erlendson said.

Erlendson and another Yale medical student, Kirthi Bellamkonda, founded Origami to empower students to use human-centered design to make meaningful, real-world impact in the lives ofothers.  Among their ambitious plans: a division that works with students, patients and researchers to design health care companies; a venture arm to help companies born within Origami access the funding they need to grow; and an innovation hub and startup studio in downtown New Haven  where students can get mentorship and funding for their ideas, projected to open in mid-2018.

Erlendson and Bellamkonda were excited to hear about the HHS Opioid code-a-thon because its mission to bring together a range of different stakeholders and community members to create life-saving solutions paralleled their own mission. The Origami team was struck by the decision by Bruce Greenstein, HHS’ Chief Technology Officer, and Dr. Mona Siddiqui, the agency’s Chief Data Officer, to bring human-centered design into a tech hackathon. This seemed like something new, something inspired—Origami, naturally, wanted to be a part of it.

They quickly pulled together a team, and were thrilled when their application was accepted. However, unlike many of their well-resourced competitors, the student-led Origami team relied on funding and general support from New Haven community stakeholder HealthVenture, a digital health foundry and venture fund.

Before the code-a-thon, team members spent a day participating in the Stanford Medicine X led Design-a-Thon, an interdisciplinary workshop that offered insight into the national opioid epidemic. They were joined by other Yale students, including Bellamkonda, Lina Vadlamani from the Yale School of Medicine , Valentine Quadrat from Yale’s School of Management , and Lan Duan from the Yale School of Public Health, as well as Alexandra Winter, an equine surgeon and data scientist.

Knowing the value of listening to build empathy and find solutions, the group paid close attention to the testimonies of Ashley Elliott, a recovering addict, and Joe Riffe, a chronic pain patient and responsible user of opioid pain medication who works as a first responder. Additionally, they spoke at length with a father, Bill Williams, who lost his son to addiction.

Williams was struck by the fact that the Origami team really seemed to hear what he was saying.

“The larger teams thought they had solutions,” he said. “But they weren’t focusing on ‘what questions should we be asking?’”

Several members of the Origami team had firsthand experience with opioid addiction’s toll. As a medical student, Erlendson held hands with patients going through the agony of withdrawal; he’d also lost a close relative to addiction.

In New Haven, where many of the team members are still in school, an overdose spike in June 2016 led to 12 people being rushed to the Yale-New Haven Hospital within a few hours. The hospital didn’t have enough of the overdose reversal drug, Narcan, to meet the spike in need. The city was also in short supply, and couldn’t get its hands on enough medication in time. Three patients died.

During the code-a-thon, over 70 datasets from federal, state and local agencies were made available for teams to use. Instead of taking a traditional top-down approach, the Origami team decided to use smaller community level data sets to find a ground-up solution. They focused on a specific problem: Narcan shortages during spikes in overdoses. By analyzing Connecticut data, they recognized that an increase in overdoses in one community was often followed by a similar increase in neighboring communities. Their concept: a tool enabling hospitals, first responders and policymakers to better allocate resources by using a real-time prediction model for opioid overdoses.

Dr. Larry Chu, Executive Director of Stanford Medicine X, helped organize the event and was one of the judges. He called the Origami team’s ability to listen to stakeholders like Williams “really ingenious.”

“Sometimes the best, most creative use of technology is not about applying a lot of resources,” Chu said. “It’s about how can you solve a problem when you don’t have a lot of resources?”

The Origami team is putting the prize money toward validating the model, acquiring more data sets, and continuing to build the application. They are meeting with Connecticut policymakers, emergency responders and hospitals to implement the new data tool. Eventually, the team hopes it can be used across the country.

“So many students have these brilliant minds waiting to contribute to tangible solutions,” Erlendson said. “It’s just about empowering them to take those first steps.”