Jumpstarting Innovation at HHS: Ignite Launches its Sixth Round with a 3 Day Design Sprint

HHS bootcamp

Teams selected into the HHS Ignite Accelerator learn and apply core design and entrepreneurial principles taught by our partners from the University of Maryland.

The sixth round of HHS Ignite has now officially taken off!

Last week, 13 teams descended on the Hubert Humphrey Building to jumpstart projects addressing important problems or opportunities that affect how the Department ensures the health and well-being of Americans. They are starting their journey in Ignite, the Department’s internal innovation startup program for staff that want to improve the way their program, office, or agency works. Over the next three months, the sixth cohort of Ignite teams will run the gamut of HHS’ broad mission, from improving medical device review, to easing research grant applications processes, to spreading opioid abuse education and interventions, and on and on along other key mandates.

Despite running five rounds of the Ignite program, and already having seen 71 distinct sets of opportunities, personalities and approaches, it is still refreshing and pleasantly surprising to see most teams either wholeheartedly, or at least cautiously, adopt the entrepreneurial mindset and methods taught by our teaching partners from University of Maryland Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Over the three-day-long design sprint, or Boot Camp as we call it, teams learned and applied core design and entrepreneurial principles such as developing empathy through unstructured interviews, synthesis through tools such as journey maps, and ideation and testing through sketches and prototyping. They also gained key aspects of the Lean Startup framework, which guides them through identification of key stakeholders and development and testing of hypotheses surrounding their needs.

Jonathan Bush

Jonathan Bush, Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder of athenahealth, presents to teams at the Boot Camp.


Continuing our legacy of having powerful guest speakers for Boot Camp, we presented Jonathan Bush, the Chairman, CEO, and co-founder of athenahealth. Jonathan shared important insight into the entrepreneurial thought that initially steered athenahealth’s early strategy and how it stumbled onto its ultimate business model of automating inefficient and repetitive processing of federal health care paper forms. His talk moved to focus on the ways that federal or state government contributes to administrative requirements on providers. And while not everyone in the audience necessarily agreed with his every view, Jonathan’s fiery presentation was instructive (and generous) in exposing his honest frustrations, providing valuable insight on how industry might view the demands of working with government.

Fortunately, one of our teams in this cohort just happens to be addressing an opportunity that intends to reduce those very burdens on physicians as they interact with the single largest payer in our healthcare system, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The intrepid group, led by CMS’ Jon Langmead, is seeking ways to incorporate a variety of physician feedback into policies and/or communications that directly addresses their needs and pains. CMS will actively assess the  means and types of data they are receiving, synthesize the data into useful information, and, create actionable information to better serve providers.

Like the CMS team, Ignite teams expose their passion for making government operate more effectively and efficiently; they are addressing an opportunity with far-reaching potential and should be lauded for the efforts they will put forth as they navigate a complex system in order to make difficult but important change. Over the next three months, teams will be tasked with learning more than they care to about all the players in their ecosystem, where there is common ground, and what kinds of solutions will satisfy which needs and motivations that they uncover along the way. By the end of the Ignite journey, we hope but don’t expect every Ignite team to discover the ultimate solution to their challenge; however, what they learn along the way is most important; the value Ignite teams create almost always comes in unexpected ways, just as it did for Jonathan and athenahealth.

Innovation as a Problem Solving Tool in Government

A team supported by the HHS Ventures Fund developed a data-driven approach to public health emergency investments.

A team supported by the HHS Ventures Fund developed a data-driven approach to public health emergency investments.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) faces an increasingly complex mission amidst rapid technological change.

It has been my honor to serve as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), working with and supporting colleagues across HHS to improve operations and more efficiently deliver services to the American people. As I close out my time here, I’d like to highlight the accomplishments of our front-line public servants.

The Office of the CTO is charged with promoting innovation and open data across the Department. Our approach to the challenge of creating a culture of innovation is to help HHS employees and leaders shine a spotlight on a problem, and then invite people from the private sector to contribute their expertise. HHS employees also use our programs to test and develop their ideas in an entrepreneurial environment.

Our programs include:

Ignite Accelerator: Empowering front-line HHS staff to test new ideas

• 71 teams have participated, with 13 new teams starting their training on January 30.

Ventures Fund: Investing in and scaling internal innovations that dramatically improve HHS’s capabilities

• 11 projects supported, with a record number of applicants now being considered for the 2017 round.

Innovates Awards: Celebrating trailblazers from across the Department

• 50% of awardees had partnered with organizations outside of government.

Entrepreneurs-in-Residence: Recruiting outside talent to solve complex challenges

• 21 entrepreneurs have joined HHS to complete a tour of duty and we are currently recruiting for a systems architect.

Competes: Tapping into the ingenuity of the American people to solve problems

• 140+ prize competitions have attracted 9,000+ participants from across the U.S to source solutions.

Health Data: Unleashing the power of open data to improve health and human services

• 3,000 data sets are now publicly available, up from 30 in 2010.

Invent Health: Identifying emerging opportunities and challenges in health and technology

• Stimulated a national conversation on hardware innovation in health.

Buyers Club: Modernizing IT acquisition by testing new methods

• 100% of directly-supported projects awarded contracts to small businesses.


Read case studies and examples for each of these initiatives (PDF).

cover page for report "Innovation as a Problem Solving Tool in Government"

We have made significant progress in helping teams and individuals think of new ways to tackle important challenges. But there’s much more that can be done. As you read about each program, I invite you to consider how innovation and entrepreneurship might continue to help HHS better deliver on our mission to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans.

Spring 2017 Ignite: Selecting the Teams

We have selected the 6th Round of teams into the HHS Ignite Accelerator, the Department’s internal innovation startup program for staff who want to improve the way their program, office, or agency works.

This round we accepted a total of 108 proposals; from that pool of proposals we have selected our final 13 accepted teams. This post is meant to illustrate the selection process.

This post builds off previous explanations of the Ignite selection. Here are the links to our methodologies for Spring 2016, Winter 2015, and Summer 2015.

We received 108 proposals

Each team that submitted project idea identified a project lead, and we asked for that person’s Agency (or as we call it here in HHS, that person’s Operational Division [OpDiv]). Below, we breakdown the 108 proposals by OpDiv.

  • ACF = 5
  • AHRQ = 2
  • CDC = 12
  • CMS = 4
  • FDA = 19
  • HRSA = 15
  • IHS = 9
  • NIH = 27
  • OS = 15

A couple of notes:

  • Previous Rounds saw submission numbers of 82, 65, 72, 74, and 42, respectively.
  • There were applications from nearly every OpDiv.

These 108 proposals were scored by 20 Reviewers

The reviewers were comprised of previous Ignite team members and close collaborators on past projects from the Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

  • Amy Wiatr-Rodriguez, ACF
  • Dan Stowell, CDC
  • Leigh Willis, CDC
  • Jennifer Tyrawski, CDC
  • Carin Kosmoski, CDC
  • Roselie Bright, FDA
  • Bethany Applebaum, HRSA
  • Dan Elbert, HRSA
  • Paul Lotterer, HRSA
  • Vinay Pai, NIH
  • Nick Webber, NIH
  • Malini Sekhar, OS
  • Dan Duplantier, OS
  • Katerina Horska, OS
  • Damon Davis, OS
  • Mark Naggar, OS
  • Bonny Harbinger, OS
  • Kate Appel, OS
  • Kevin McTigue, OS
  • Will Yang, OS

Each proposal was scored 3 times

We worked with 20 reviewers, separated them into 7 panels, and then distributed the 108 proposals across the panels. Thus, each proposal was scored roughly 3 times. We used the average of the 3 scores to make a finals score that we used in our analysis.

Each reviewer received standardized guidance for scoring proposals. Naturally, there was some variation in each reviewer’s scores – some harsher, some lesser. Thus, we used Z-scores to normalize the scores. See more about that below in the section called: “There Were Three Ways A Project Idea Could Advance”

We asked each individual to self-identify if they should recuse themselves. There were no identified conflicts and no recusals.

Each proposal was scored based upon defined criteria

Each proposal was scored on a 0-100 range based upon our communicated criteria:

  • The project’s alignment to the Office, Agency mission [20 points]
  • The proposal’s explanation of the process, product, or system to be addressed. [60 points]
  • How well the proposed solution aligns with the communicated problem. [20 points]

Beyond the scoring rubric, reviewers were asked on a binary scale: do you think this proposal should be considered to become a finalist? Each Reviewer was also asked to provide brief comments on the proposal that help justify their score.

There were three ways a project idea could advance

The following were ways in which a proposal was able to advance:

  • The top z-scores overall
  • Review Panel unanimously votes to advance it
  • Wildcards picked by IDEA Lab staff

Z-scores are used as a way to control differences in reviewer scoring. For instance, out of a score of 100, reviewers on Panel A might score teams on average 70, whereas reviewers on Panel B might score teams on average 85. In this case we see that Panel A is harsher, whereas Panel B is less harsh. Now, the raw scores are different, but they both happen to say the same thing – average. Thus, the Z-score accounts for that variation. Here’s the wikipedia article on z-scores if you’d like to learn more.

While we rely on statistical methods, we also recognize that the process shouldn’t be left to math alone. Thus, we have a wildcard slot. Wildcards were picked by Kevin McTigue and Will Yang – the HHS Ignite Program Leads. We combed through every proposal, rigorously analyzing and fervently debating proposals that we felt were eligible for the wildcard category.

We interviewed 34 project ideas for Ignite

During this stage, we further identified applicants through 25 minute conversations. The applicants were given an opportunity to pitch the Program Directors for 5 minutes and converse for 20 minutes on their problem identified, solution, background for solving the problem, team background, and general clarity of direction.

We selected 13 project ideas for Ignite

We selected 13 teams for the Spring 2017 Ignite Accelerator. This was the most difficult selection process yet, and we are excited to see those who are willing to test new ideas. We wish we could have accepted more teams, and hope to do so in the future. To all those who submitted proposals, keep pressing on and innovating to better serve the American people.


Welcoming the Newest Teams to the Spring 2017 Ignite Accelerator

What if your ideas had the potential to transform how HHS delivers on its mission? What if you had the support and guidance to explore and test that idea?

During the Fall of 2016, we posed these questions to employees at the Department of Health and Human Services and solicited proposals for the HHS Ignite Accelerator Program, our 3-month internal innovation startup program for staff within the Department that want to improve the way their program, office, or agency works.

We received a record 108 applications. We thank those that boldly applied to Ignite.  This was the most competitive selection process yet, due to the sheer number and quality of proposals.

Today, after careful selection, we are delighted to announce the 13 teams invited to join the Spring 2017 Ignite Accelerator:

  • Building Communities of Practice to Unify OA Processes and Communications. Led by Lila Lee at ACF.
  • Enabling the CMS Physician Engagement and Burden Reduction Initiative through Improved Data Systems. Led by Jon Langmead at CMS.
  • Learning from Past Actions through Sentinel Event Review. Led by Cara Altimus at FDA.
  • Unique Device Identifier App. Led by Heather Valadez at FDA.
  • Improving Health Outcomes by Increasing Coordination of HHS’ Investments in Training & Technical Assistance (TTA) for Health and Human Service Organizations. Led by Robert McKenna at HRSA.
  • Convert Audiology Services to Paperless. Led by Jennifer Imboden at IHS.
  • A Virtual Partnering Platform to Advance NIH-funded Biomedical Technologies to the Marketplace. Led by Gary Robinson at NIH.
  • NLP-based Portfolio Analysis. Led by Bishen Singh at NIH.
  • Your Healthiest Self: NIH Research for Living Well. Led by Tianna Hicklin at NIH.
  • Enhancing Scientific Peer Review Using an Integrated Electronic Approach. Led by J. Bruce Sundstrom at NIH.
  • Bridge DC. Led by Joel Adu-Brimpong at NIH.
  • Community Opioid Consultation Toolkit. Led by Chad Edinger at OS.
  • Pilot for Establishing Infrastructure for Publicly Released Research Data. Led by Daniel Janes at OS.

Over the course of three months, teams will hypothesize, formulate problem statements, and scope solution-sets to turn their ideas into minimally viable products.

For those unfamiliar with the program, the Ignite Accelerator Program will teach selected teams entrepreneurial methodologies, provide access to a new network of fellow innovators, provide coaching from mentors, and ultimately push participants slightly out of their comfort zone as they explore problems and transform their ideas into solutions. And starting in January, the selected teams will be attending a Boot Camp to kick-start their 3 month journey.

Stay tuned, and please join me in congratulating these teams!

Making It Stick: Applying HHS IDEA Lab Principles for Lasting Change

Think Outside the Box!

Like others who have participated in HHS IDEA Lab programs like the HHS Ignite Accelerator, I felt refreshed and inspired after learning the entrepreneurial, lean startup based concepts that are taught to teams. I practiced them regularly during my time in Ignite, but after the program ended, I felt the natural tendency to revert to the status quo back at my office. And I really didn’t want to let that happen. So, I didn’t.

To give a bit of context, I have been working as a software development project manager at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for seven years. In 2013, I had the good fortune of being part of a project team that was selected for the Ignite Accelerator. Our project involved prototyping and then building an online repository for biomedically-relevant, 3D-printable files, called the NIH 3D Print Exchange. My responsibilities included fulfilling many of the project management duties for the team, but given the short timeline and the freedom to experiment within the Ignite framework, I was able to work in a less formal way than I normally had for my previous projects.

At some point early on in the Ignite program, I had a revelation. I think it had something to do with realizing that I was doing something for years that could be done differently (and done better). Or maybe it was that the methods being taught were becoming commonplace in the business world, and I learned that it was possible to adopt and apply similar ways of working within a government setting. Whatever it was, I decided to completely change how I go about my day-to-day work. And since 2013, I’ve diligently been trying to bring these changes into my organization. My primary motivation was that my old way of working was simply less effective than what I was doing within Ignite – and it was something that I never wanted to go back to.

Ignite’s “lean” approach may seem intuitive, but it was very different than the way I had been trained and even had become certified to work as a Project Management Professional. In the past, I would often painstakingly conduct upfront planning, formally gather requirements, and rigidly set schedules and budgets before starting a project that might last many months or even span years. I would follow standard processes and document everything meticulously. Yet, months into the projects, I would find that I had eschewed my plan, that my requirements had changed, and that I wasn’t meeting the original schedule and budget milestones. I often felt discouraged, and assumed I needed more training and practice. So I focused on trying to do the same things, but better.

My experience in Ignite made me realize that I had been working to refine what was, at least for me, the wrong approach. The formal processes simply didn’t fit with me or my organization, and I have come to accept that both I and my projects are better off if I adopt a new way of thinking and working.

So I shifted my focus to Ignite-based principles, and especially on spending time early on in projects doing the following:

  • developing clear problem statements and value propositions for stakeholders
  • creating, testing, and refining hypotheses continually
  • building prototypes or minimum viable products, using design thinking and related techniques, with the goal of getting the most critical components of the system “right”

All of this this led me to have more regular and meaningful communication with prospective users of the systems my teams were creating, to regularly solicit feedback from stakeholders on prototypes, and to reduce project risk by developing software in more bite-sized chunks rather than trying to build the entire system at once.

Around the same time as my Ignite project, I also came across a movement called agile software development that was gaining traction among professional software development groups, and that was related to lean startup. (Those practicing this methodology even have a manifesto!) Everything in my professional life started to converge, and my eyes were opened to what was, to me, a much more practical and effective way to do my job.

Looking back, I can say that these principles not only feel right, but they actually work! The NIH 3D Print Exchange project was developed more quickly and became more successful than any other project I’ve worked on. (In fact, it won numerous awards, was covered in dozens of media outlets, and even resulted in an invitation to an event at the White House to showcase our work!) Over the past few years, I have coordinated other development teams that have created other products using these Ignite-inspired approaches, and each has unequivocally displayed enhanced outcomes.

Based on this success within Ignite, I lobbied for broader adoption of these approaches across my 40-person office at the NIH, which has led to group training sessions, adoption of tools and techniques to support our new way of working, and the certification of multiple employees in the various roles associated with agile software development. I’m extremely optimistic about what our organization can achieve as we establish better ways of working by understanding our users and by applying agile, startup-based methods to our work.

I certainly cannot take full credit for this transformation, and I readily admit that I am very fortunate to work in an open, risk-tolerant work environment, with colleagues and managers who were receptive to, and who have become champions of, these new ways of working.

I urge those of you who have participated in Ignite – and even those who haven’t – to consider questioning the status quo and being open to these refreshing ways of working. While adopting lean/agile and design-thinking-based approaches may be uncomfortable at first, you just might find that something “clicks” for you as it did for me. If it does, I encourage you take the initiative to find ways to make these changes stick in your organization. While they won’t come overnight, I think you’ll learn a lot and ultimately find great benefits in making a similar transformation in your work!

If you want to explore this further, including additional strategies and examples of other transformations toward more lean and agile ways of working, both inside and outside the federal government, please sign up for the HackRedTape email list. Also, don’t forget to learn more and consider applying to the Spring 2017 round of the HHS Ignite Accelerator! (Applications are due November 14th!)

An Open Letter to HHS Innovators: We Want to Hear Your Ideas for Change Today

Fellow HHS Innovators —

The sixth round of the HHS Ignite Accelerator starts in Spring 2017, which means we are now accepting your ideas about how to solve problems at HHS that you care about.

Personally, it is beyond exciting to see new ideas spring forth from our colleagues across the Department.

By applying to Ignite, you are putting forth yourself and ideas for how HHS might better deliver on its very important objectives. As we head into administrative transition, it’s also an opportune time to show incoming leaders and staff that they are joining an organization that has engaged problem-solvers — pragmatic people who want to do the right thing for the American Citizen, for their HHS colleagues, and for the cause of Health and Science across the globe.

What we’ve experienced through our three years, five rounds, and 71 project teams that have joined the Ignite Accelerator is that the spirit of innovation is alive and well amongst our ranks, but, in order to thrive, still needs: cover from a risk-averse culture; coaching and methodology that ensures sound solutions and strategy; access to a diverse network for advice and encouragement; and access to HHS senior leaders for feedback and further support.

The next round of Ignite promises to be full of wonderful teams and will feature a couple of new wrinkles. After each round of Ignite, we speak with newly minted Ignite graduates and ask for candid feedback about the Program. Based on that feedback, this round, we are further customizing our instruction and support to better support teams. We’ll be matching coaching based on where in the project life-cycle and risk spectrum our teams find themselves. To support further this, we anticipate selecting around 10 teams this round. Although we were able and fortunate to support more teams previously, we are scaling down for a customized approach this round.

We are ecstatic to begin the next round of the Ignite Accelerator because we get to watch as passionate colleagues reject the status quo, realize amazing possibilities and create impactful opportunities; we get to witness their gradual realization that the selflessness and idealism that brought them to a career in government might yet yield the fundamental rewards they had been seeking all along. And when we are met with heartfelt thanks, we know we are doing the right thing, too.

On behalf of your friends at the IDEA Lab, thank you for your courage and for sharing a spirit of adventure, idealism, and generosity as we enter our next phase together.

Will Yang

Program Director, HHS Ignite Program

HHS Innovation Day: Innovation is a Force for Good

photo of panel discussion during HHS Innovation Day

photo credit HHS Chris Smith

Recently, Secretary Burwell called on HHS employees to reaffirm our efforts to improve the Department and the way we deliver services to the public. She reminded us that when an individual has access to health care or the essential community services that we help provide, they feel more secure, stable and ready to face the significant challenges that we confront as a nation.

The work that we highlighted at our recent HHS Innovation Day sits squarely in that mission path. Innovation is a force for good in this Department and in the federal Government. I was honored to host this event and to help showcase the Department’s efforts to promote new approaches and creative thinking to our work.

Here are my take-aways:

1. Start small. Build up. Stay close to your customer.

Internal teams who were part of the HHS Ignite Accelerator, a three-month internal innovation program presented their final projects. Their work ranged from improving the Department’s consumer engagement efforts to a new system at the National Cancer Institute to collect data from patients and feed it directly into clinical research systems.

[SIDE NOTE –  If you are interested in our Ignite Accelerator program, stay tuned for more information on our next round! ]


2. Innovation should be at the core of our efforts to strengthen public health

Dr. Califf shared his insights on innovation in health care and at the FDA.


3. Progress happens outside our comfort zone

A spirited discussion around impact, insights and lessons learned from colleagues who have used new approaches to tackle critical challenges at CDC, CMS, NIH, HRSA and the HHS Office of Global Affairs.


4. Be brave enough to bring your ideas forward. Creative thinking is a muscle we must exercise

In the morning, I had the privilege of interviewing Cristin Dorgelo, Chief of Staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) around creating change at scale across government which transitioned into a standing-room only introduction into design thinking in government led by Innovator-in-Residence Ann Kim.

We are living through an era of extraordinary change: from the advent of the internet to the spread of 3D printing to the genomic revolution. We need innovation to help transform health and health care for the better and for all. We need that just as much in government as we need it in the health care sector. That power sits within all of us and it starts with a willingness to learn more, to be open, and to say why not?

You can view all of the sessions from the afternoon portion of HHS Innovation Day here.

This is a cross post from

The Secret to the Perfect Project Pitch: Practice in an Elevator

Two elevators shown in the lobby of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building

In the Hubert H. Humphrey building in downtown Washington, D.C., it takes between twenty and thirty seconds to go up eight floors in an elevator—give or take a stop or two.

On any run of the mill day, those floors are the forgotten seconds it takes to get from the first floor to your office door. It’s the amount of time it takes to get in a few sips of the coffee you brought in from the Starbucks down the street. Or the time it takes to listen to a couple more verses of your favorite iTunes, Spotify, or Pandora song.

Or. It’s just the right amount of time to pitch your next big idea.

At the beginning of March, twenty-three teams were selected for the Spring 2016 Ignite Accelerator, the Department’s internal innovation startup program that provides coaching and support to help HHS Staff take their big ideas from conception to tested prototype. All twenty-three teams recently completed a three-day Boot Camp, an event that’s part training and part design-sprint to kickstart their 3 months’ effort.

A crucial part of their training has been learning how to communicate their project to a number of different audiences, including stakeholders, end-users, decision-makers, fellow entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and senior-level government officials. Throughout their three-day Boot Camp, teams were reminded to have an “elevator pitch” in their back pocket at all times, because you never know who you might run into and when you might need it.

What is an elevator pitch? It’s a concise, clear, plain language explanation about a project you are working on and why it should be funded or supported by an influential person, company, or agency. The pitch is given in the amount of time it takes to ride a series of floors in an elevator.

Bright and early at 8:30 a.m. on the third and final day of each Boot Camp, IDEA Lab staff took the the concept of an elevator pitch literally, brewing up the ultimate communications test—Boot Camp teams ended up “accidently” riding the Humphrey building elevator with HHS Chief Technology Officer Susannah Fox (all her idea). After introducing herself, she asked each team: So what are you working on? The teams had the length of the elevator ride—eight flights, 60 seconds at best (it was the morning rush after all)—to answer the question.

I got to ride along as a fly on the wall as teams presented their pitches to Susannah. Here are some things I learned by watching them:

DO introduce yourself. In the excitement and adrenaline of the moment (oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m talking to…), it can be easy to forget this crucial and important first step.

Even though you’re short on time, DO give your organization’s full name instead of the acronym—not everyone is familiar with the alphabet soup that makes up the names of many government agencies.

Now that five seconds have gone by, DO get straight to the point. What is your project about, why is it important, and what sets it apart? And…GO!

In the middle of all this information (15 seconds in!), DO mention the specific problem you are trying to address. This provides your listener with an understanding of how your project fits in a larger story and why it’s important that you find a solution.

DO speak clearly and use plain language. You might be freaking out on the inside (the elevator keeps going up, the seconds keep counting down), but stay calm on the outside. Chances are the person you are pitching has never heard about your project before. Explain complex terms, try not to use slang or jargon, and speak clearly and with confidence.

DON’T get caught up in the details of the technology you are using or want to use, but instead highlight the business need for your project and the benefits of that need.

Before it’s all over, before you hear the mechanical elevator voice announce your floor, DO ask for a follow-up opportunity. That could mean exchanging email addresses or getting the names of others who would be interested in your project.

After it’s all over, after you’ve stepped through the automatic sliding doors, DO take a deep breath. You did it!

In the video below we captured Carin Kosmoski from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pitching her Ignite Accelerator project—NIOSH Nexus: Helping NIOSH employees make connections of who does what where.

HHS Ignite Accelerator: We’ve Published the Pages of this Round’s 23 Projects

Photo collage comprised of a top photo and a bottom photo, both of which show boot camp teams smiling

The teams in Boot Camp Alpha (top) and Boot Camp Bravo pause for group photos after completing their 3-day training and design sprint.


A month ago, we announced the 23 teams that had been accepted into the Spring 2016 Round of our HHS Ignite Accelerator, our 3-month internal innovation startup program. Since that announcement, each team has gone through a three day Boot Camp. Part training, part design sprint, our Boot Camps are a mix of lectures, workshops, and brainpower focused towards figuring out what problem or problems the team want(s) to work on, and how to prototype and test against that problem to learn what works.

During these three days, teams refine their project scope, hone their pitch, and maybe even change their team makeup. We posted a separate blog post on the Boot Camp itself. This blog post is a report on the fruits of labor.

Here are the 23 projects of the Spring 2016 HHS Ignite Accelerator, listed in alphabetical order:

Addressing NPDB Perceptions: Exploring physicians’ perceptions and use of medical malpractice reports.

ANA’s DataQuest Project: Liberating ACF’s existing Native American data to improve reporting and understanding of Native children, families, and communities.

ANA Grant Application Toolkit: Identifying and developing tools and strategies to enhance the grant application success of emerging Native organizations.

The ASA Project Management Skills Bank: Guiding project managers through the project planning phases to assist them in bringing their project to successful completion.

Cloud Caffeine: Catalyzing cloud adoption at NIH to enable science, anywhere.

CMS FOIA and Correspondence Online Request System: Reducing time and saving money by creating an online entry system for FOIA requestors and correspondence to the CMS Administrator.

Coordinating and Collaborating Across TPP Programs: Exploring how to improve the Teen Pregnancy Prevention grantee experience across three federal Agencies (CDC, OASH, and ACF).

Know Your TANF: Developing tools for stakeholders to explore and share state TANF data to inform policy decisions.

Increasing Kidney Transplant by Reducing Discards: Providing transplant physicians with better information on kidney quality and expected outcomes to inform decision-making and reduce the risk of discard.

Initiative for Translational Discoveries: Tracking and predicting the bench-to-bedside translation of biomedical knowledge to inform decision-making with data.

The PIMC The Medicine Wheel Project: Improving access to health and healing at Phoenix Indian Medical Center (PIMC).

NIOSH Nexus: Helping NIOSH employees make the connection of who does what where.

The Partnership Alignment Information Response System (PAIRS): Creating a sustainable cross divisional collaborative approach for consistent delivery of meaningful resources and support to Head Start and Child Care Grantees.

Project CURE: Delivering tailored information to recipients with different needs that they will use to make healthier workplaces.

Project REAQT: Improving drug quality through rapid response and early collaborations with industry.

Putting Consumers at the Center: Empowering HHS staff to engage consumers throughout the process of public-facing resource creation.

Rapid Opioid Alert and Response (ROAR): Preventing opioid overdose by linking heroin users to life-saving resources and information.

Rethinking Lead Poisoning Prevention: Improving the effectiveness of CDC’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

Scribe: Building a robust system to allow collection of patient-reported outcome data directly from patients on the web and feed it directly into clinical research systems.

Shakespeare Electronic Health Records Project: Earlier detection of patient harms using big data techniques on electronic health records (EHRs) free text notes.

Sourcing the Crowd: Improving patient input in AHRQ’s report-making process.

System To Prevent GBS infections (SToP GBS): Providing clinicians patient-specific recommendations to prevent Group B Strep infections in newborns through electronic medical records.

The #Unsuck Training Initiative: Exploring ways to improve the learning experience for HHS staff.

Our 3-Day Boot Camp: Part Training. Part Design Sprint

A photo collage that highlights the boot camp experience

(Clockwise L to R) Boot Camp teams have a breakout session with their Coach; teams work through a design thinking workshop; various rough-and-ready prototyping materials.


The HHS Ignite Accelerator is our 3-month internal innovation startup program. Department staff compete to get in. They bring a problem worth exploring and the Accelerator program provides the opportunity for them to carve out and test one or more solutions to those pressing challenges.

Each round of Ignite begins with a 3-day Boot Camp. Over the past couple weeks we ran Boot Camps for the 23 teams recently selected into the 5th Round of the Ignite Accelerator.

Over the last year or so we’ve been working with a number of agencies that are looking at launching their own versions of Ignite. We’ve been focusing on supporting the efforts at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. While these agencies have either already or will soon be launching their own innovation accelerator program, there have been many others that have expressed interest. (Not wanting to put the cart before the horse, I won’t name them here.)

This blog post can be read generally, but it is written particularly for those other agencies. The goal of this post is to document this part of our journey and serve as a useful starting place for others out there looking to venture in a similar direction.

Teams had to pitch to get in.

In the fall we solicited project ideas from the staff of HHS. We had about 100 initial applications submitted, from which about 50 finalist teams were identified. Starting in December, those Finalist teams received training and support to explore their project idea a bit further. In particular, they were asked to interview their customers to gain a better understanding of the problems and were provided access to IDEA Lab office hours and the network of Ignite alumni. Then in February, all 50 teams pitched to get in. From those pitches, we selected 23 teams. We have much more written up on this blog post which goes over our selection process

(In a fun and visionary parallel program, HRSA ran their own idea incubator program timed to line up with our finalist stage: The 7 HRSA teams selected into their program went through a customer-focused discovery stage. At the end of their 3 months, on their Demo Day, each team pitched for support from their leadership and pitched to get into the HHS Ignite Accelerator.)

Our Boot Camp is partly a training.

The Boot Camp introduces teams to some simple problem solving tools and techniques through lectures and workshops. These tools and techniques go beyond just their particular project and (theoretically) can be used towards any problem they’re facing within their office.

But where training begets knowledge, experience begets wisdom. The best way to grasp the concepts is to apply them. The best way to learn how to swim, after some basic lessons, is to get thrown into the deep end. Plus, there’s a lot to do! We don’t have time to sit in meetings thinking about the right way forward. We must move.

It’s also part design sprint.

Each team leaves with a very early-version prototype and project plan. Those prototypes and plan may change along the way, and infact pivots (so long as they are supported by customer and stakeholder feedback) are encouraged! But we advocate getting to the testing stage quickly.

Teams mapped out their ecosystem, honed the scope of their project, and created “rough and ready” prototypes (those that take less than an hour to create) of solutions to problems they’ve identified. The best prototypes are the ones that can be tested with users. For some, this is a simple website mockup. For others, it’s a revised process workflow.

We have Coaches and Instructors to support the teams.

If you bring smart people into the same space with enough time work and sufficient tools to work with, amazing things happen. That’s one of the basic principles behind any working session, and our Boot Camp is no exception.

We bring 3 types of people together to make our Boot Camp happen: The project teams (of course); they bring the problems and ideas. Lead instructors; they provide the high-level training. And Coaches; they provide individualized guidance to each team.

The teams selected into Ignite.To keep a proper teacher-student ratio, we ran two Boot Camps: Boot Camp ALPHA for half the teams; Boot Camp BRAVO for the other half. Here’s a list of the 23 projects in this Round of the Accelerator.

In our experience, larger teams end up spending more time on consensus building and less time moving forward and just trying things out to see what happens. Ignite is a program that requires teams to move quickly and with agility so as to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. So we ask teams to limit the number of attendees per team to 5. We tell them that the optimal team size is probably 3.

We have a contract with faculty at the University of Maryland’s Academy for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. They’ve been running our Boot Camps since we introduced the concept a couple years ago. Each Boot Camp has been different from the one previous, and this Round is no exception. We worked regularly with them over the last few months to design the agenda and approach.

Each team selected into Ignite is assigned an Innovation Coach. Our Coaches are individuals with some design and/or entrepreneurship experience. Many of them are former participants in the Ignite program. All but one is an HHS employee. That one is Daniel Yi of the Department of Justice which is considering launching their own innovation accelerator program. The job of the coach is just that: To coach. They do not provide (too much) subject matter expertise. They do not make decisions for the team. They do not help the team prototype. They guide, poke, ask, nudge, and shine lights on various paths forward. They reinforce over and over again the basic principles of problem identification, gaining customer empathy, and scoping the goals of a project to be more obtainable within the mere 3 months of the program.

It’s a mix of lectures, workshops, and more.

Many teams enter the boot camp with a general direction but still a fuzzy idea as to what exactly they’re going to do over the 3 months of the Ignite Accelerator. The three days of the Boot Camp offers a huge opportunity to hone in on the particular problem(s) they’d like to solve. (“You can’t boil the ocean in only 3 months!”).

There are two general methodologies that underlie the Boot Camp curriculum: Design Thinking (PDF) and Lean Startup (PDF). We try to avoid the labels since the core principles underlying the methodologies are so similar, but as a short explainer: These are both problem-solving methodologies used by businesses, small and large, to ensure that products and services are developed in a streamlined manner to meet real human needs.

The agenda is a mix of lectures, workshops, feedback sessions, end-user interviews, and time to just work. Day 1 is more structured. Day 2 slightly less so. And the bulk of Day 3 is for the teams to simply work. You can download the full three-day agenda here (PDF). At the end of this third day, each team reports out, presenting their revised project pitch, prototypes, and goals to the other teams.

An important component of the Boot Camp is that of asking questions. Each team is asked over and over again to explain their project direction and justify their path forward. It’s through tough questioning we hope to uncover together the best path forward.

Teams tell us that a primary benefit of the three day Boot Camp is simply the luxury of focusing on their single effort all as a team for a full three days. Beyond the lessons and the access to other innovators from across the Department, simply having the mental space to work uninterrupted provides the opportunity to see things in a deeper light and make true meaningful even transformative progress, rather than simply working through a task list of to-dos through a series of 30 minute meetings.

Teams gave elevator pitches. Literally.

On the morning of Day 3, the teams found themselves “accidentally” in the elevator with HHS CTO Susannah Fox. She politely introduced herself, asked what they were working on, and then casually hit the button to take them to the 8th floor. An elevator pitch ensued. On an actual elevator. It was one of the new things we threw in this time. And it was so literal that it worked!

What Happens After the Boot Camp?

In the end, teams leave with a refined project direction, a deeper understanding of their stakeholders, and at least one prototype to test.

After the Boot Camp ends, the teams are back in their real world. Over the course of the next 3 months, they will be contributing about 50% of their total time towards their project. Through a series of weekly check-ins with their Coach and monthly check-ins with UMD Instructors, the teams will continue to work with their stakeholders and customers to explore their problem area, iterate on possible solutions, and test them in a meaningful way.

This is all building up for the big pitch! On July 14th, the teams will come back to D.C. to present to the world and to HHS Leadership the fruits of their labor: What they did, why they did it, whether or not it worked, and what they want to do next.

Over the last 4 Rounds, we’ve seen 48 teams give that pitch for follow-up funding and support. About two-thirds of projects have received support of some kind. We’ve had one project convince the White House Office of Management and Budget to roll out their effort federal government-wide. Another was recently included in the President’s budget. A handful have received support from our HHS Ventures Fund. Some have been integrated into White House-led projects. And so many others have quietly been getting implemented in their home office.

We look forward to seeing what this cohort of projects can accomplish.

Additional Resources

In case you’d like to dive into more, we’ve posted all slides and information presented to the teams on the following “Materials for Current Ignite Teams” micro-site. In particular, check out the “Boot Camp” tab.