The Invent Health Initiative: Invention and Innovation in Emergency Preparedness

Dr. Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), opened our Invent Health Town Hall at the end of January with a perspective on innovation that set the tone for the day:

“It is really a lot easier to get to ‘yes’ if you don’t have to go through ‘no’ first.”

The Invent Health initiative is designed to empower the small-scale inventors (the government employee, the nurse, the patient, the computer scientist, the engineer, the designer) by connecting them to resources and to communities that will guide them down avenues of “yes” as they navigate a path toward findingand sharingsolutions to home health and clinical care challenges. Watch Dr. Lurie in the video below as she shares her stories, experiences, and perspectives on health innovation in government. But we also want to hear from you, the inventors and the makers, the builders and the dreamers, as we publish the second in our Invent Health blog series. Tell us a few things:

When has the word “yes” made a difference in how you pursued a project, an idea, or an invention designed to improve your health or someone else’s?  What opportunities exist to innovate in the health care space during emergency situations?  What are some examples that you have seen?

Visit our blog post on Medium to leave us your thoughts. Not sure how to leave a response? Read this.


And tune in below to view Dr. Nicole Lurie’s Invent Health Town Hall talk:

GUEST: Dr. Nicole Lurie,  Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).


LOCATION: Invent Health Town Hall, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, Washington, D.C.


[1:38] Dr. Nicole Lurie came to ASPR in 2009 and is a champion of innovation at HHS. HHS IDEA Lab Blog

[1:54] “First thing that I was pretty struck with going out to disasters is, as one public health officer said, ‘All of these people came out of the woodwork and we didn’t know they were there.’ Health departments in general have no idea who lives in their community.”

[3:36] “Fast forward to now, we have a system we just did it in Flint, where within a couple hours of request, CMS is a response agency, and it now makes available in real time, sets up a password protected Web site, has the names and addresses of everybody who’s got water-dependent durable medical equipment and people have gone and knocked on the doors of all of those people, like people who have dialysis and at home and people who have tube feeds, and made sure that they have safe water.”   Flint, Michigan Water Crisis (Wikipedia) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)

[4:59] “How do we make it so that your equipment sends a signal [in the event of an emergency]?”

[5:36] “We then learned that every device manufacturer has it’s own source code and so you can’t have a universal device. We had to solve that problem. We went out to NIST. National Institute of Standards and Technology. And we explained to them what the problem was, they got behind it. And they just voted on a data standard two weeks ago for durable medical equipment….By the end of the year we ought to have an international standard for how these devices transmit.”

[6:28] Dr. Lurie talks about the 2013 idea challenge for emergency response which was designed to help communities support patients who depend on durable medical equipment (DME), such as oxygen concentrators and portable ventilators, during emergencies. The challenge sought inventive ideas on how to create a system that, in emergencies, could signal the location and status of the life-sustaining equipment. With this information, patients and caregivers can prepare and respond to prevent low batteries in emergencies.

[6:52] “Two years after I sponsored this competition, I got a letter in the mail from a guy named David Li and he said, ‘Hi, my name is David Li, I’m a 16 year old student in Long Island and two years ago I entered your competition, and my dad had to open an account for me because I wasn’t 18, and I won $2,000. And I took that money and I bought a bunch of other equipment, and I set up a prototype device and I’ve tested it in my community, I have a patent pending, here’s my publication, I want to tell you about it.’” We in the HHS IDEA Lab love this story and shared it with our colleagues at the Smithsonian who invited me to speak at the kick-off of their prize competition focused on young inventors. See: Kid Inventors Focus on Health (HHS IDEA Lab)

[8:00] My Preparedness Story: Staying Healthy & Resilient” Video Challenge (

[8:18] ASPR Blog: What would you do if you knew and HHS emPOWER Map (

Kid Inventors Focus on Health

On Sunday, January 17, I spoke at the kick off event for the 5th annual Invent It challenge at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This is the first year that the challenge is oriented around a topic – health – and I was thrilled to be part of it as we roll out the Invent Health initiative here at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation challenges kids (ages 5 to 21) to come up with a creative solution to a real-world problem. Just as we teach in the HHS Ignite Accelerator, the Invent It challenge instructs kids to think about a problem, sketch a solution, then build and test a prototype. Then kids’ innate curiosity and enthusiasm take over, yielding ideas like a way to scrape your windshield from inside your car or, more seriously, a better tourniquet.

Arthur Daemmrich, Director of the Lemelson Center, and Tricia Edwards, the Center’s Head of Education, interviewed me on stage about the role that innovation plays at HHS and health and human services more generally. In the audience were two teams of young inventors as well as kids and families visiting the Museum that day.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

AD: Healthcare is incredibly complex and it is daunting to think about inventing a new medicine or medical device. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and private companies spend billions of dollars in research. What is missing that makes an invention challenge like this worthwhile? Susannah speaking at Invent It kickoff

SF: At HHS, we recognize that great ideas can come from unexpected sources. We try to open as many doors and windows into our work so that people outside the lab, outside our offices, can see in and help us. One way we do that is through our HHS Competes program. We have run over 100 prize competitions under the America COMPETES Act, enabling us to get the word out and engage the public; offer our colleagues a more nimble, less costly way to acquire new tools and ideas; stimulate innovation in new or stagnant markets.

AD: What public health inventions or innovations are needed for communities in the U.S. and for those in developing countries?

SF: Our public health challenges range from the personal to the global. On an individual level, we need to find ways to help kids and families  choose healthy foods to eat and to get enough sleep – two building blocks for good health. On a global level, we are looking for ideas related to clean air and water, which affects everyone, around the world, but especially in low-resource countries.

AD: What role can young people play in inventing solutions to these problems? Can you share an example of young people who are inventing in the health area?

SF: Yes! In 2014, HHS held a prize competition focused on how first responders in a natural disaster can figure out who they need to rescue first, based on the location of electricity-dependent medical equipment like a ventilator. When the power goes out, the clock is ticking. We often don’t know if the person using a ventilator was evacuated or if they are still stuck in their high-rise apartment. Before we send a firefighter up 30 flights, we’d like to know if that person and their medical equipment are still there. We figured there were creative solutions that we had not yet thought of, so the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response sponsored a prize competition. The minimum age requirement for our competitions is 18, so a 16-year-old student on Long Island entered using his father’s name – and came in third! David Li, the student, used his prize money to further develop his wireless tracking idea and wowed us all this summer by presenting an upgraded prototype. He, by the way, was inspired by his experience as a volunteer in a nursing home during Hurricane Sandy. That is exactly what we are hoping to build toward: an Innovation Nation. Young people can contribute to solving health challenges.

TE: How can kids contribute to solving problems? Kids are creative. They haven’t yet been told “that’s impossible” so they try stuff that an adult wouldn’t even dream of. That’s the kind of thinking we need in health and human services. People who ask why? And why not? We want kids from all over the world to push our thinking.

TE: What advice do you have for young inventors who want to make a difference, but maybe don’t know how?

SF: Great inventors are like great entrepreneurs. They solve their own problems. Nobody knows better than you how to solve a problem that you personally see, like how your little brother or sister just can’t seem to remember to brush their teeth every night or how your grandma or grandpa has trouble navigating a bumpy sidewalk when they try to go for a walk outside. Think about the problems that you see in your own life and start there. Ask people questions and listen to what they say, especially if it’s not what you expect or what YOU think. That’s the golden ticket to innovation.

Meet the winners of the 2016 Global Invent it Challenge winners here.