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.

Health care needs a jolt of innovation. Here’s how we’re approaching it at HHS.

Image of markers and a graphic that reads - Make Things

Credit: Juhan Sonin and Involution Studios

The Chief Technology Officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is, in a lot of ways, the chief innovation officer. My team brings a can-do, creative spirit to HHS that a lot of people associate with startup companies.

What I can tell you now that I’ve been in the job for over a year is this: the passion, tenacity, and creativity that we associate with entrepreneurs can be found in government agencies. It can also be found in communities of people living with rare, life-changing, or chronic health conditions. The fire in the belly burns just as strongly among patients and caregivers as it does among startup founders.

When I arrived at HHS last year, I brought with me the spirit of the empowered patient movement.

I had spent 15 years doing fieldwork in online patient and caregiver communities, tracking a pattern of people who used the internet to network, to join together and demand access to their own data. They showed all of us the point of technology in health care.

In working with communities of people living with rare and life-changing diagnoses, like Moebius syndrome, I began to see a new pattern: people sharing their designs and modifications of physical objects. Ways to feed a baby born with full facial paralysis, for example, or modifications for people with low dexterity.

So, as the Chief Technology Officer, I decided to expand my office’s definition of technology to include medical and assistive device innovation. I’ve spent the last year exploring the intersection between the Maker movement and health care.

Here are the forces I see at work in the landscape:

  1. Industrial-strength manufacturing tools are becoming cheaper, easier to use, and more widely available.
  2. Access to new manufacturing capabilities, such as rapid prototyping using 3D printers, creates new opportunities for individuals and small businesses.
  3. New funding mechanisms and opportunities, such as crowdfunding, incubators, and accelerators, enable new entrants.
  4. Social media enables inventors to share their ideas with potential users for design feedback, funding, and distribution.
  5. A return to craft and “making” as a mainstream activity gives people the skills and creative confidence to demystify devices and solve their own problems.

What could happen to boost – or mute – the impact of each of those forces?

What might we learn if we push open design principles and tools out to the edges of the network, where humanity lives, where unexpected discoveries happen, where engineers meet artists?

What will happen when everyone has access to the tools and information they need to solve their own problems — and share their ideas with others?

We must walk together toward solutions, toward the possibility of sustaining health, toward new or improved medical and assistive devices.

We must keep trying – and talking with each other – making things with our hands and solving problems, sharing ideas and data.

This is the alchemy of technology.

You can watch my recent keynote from the 2016 Stanford MedicineX Conference here and learn more about my work in exploring the intersections of the Maker Movement and health care here

This blog is a cross-post from LinkedIn.

Invent Health: The National Week of Making

A makerspace at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX

The MakerHealth™ Space at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX. It is the first maker space in the country designed for health care providers.

A big part of my role as the Chief Technology Officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is to create space for innovation.

I help run the HHS IDEA Lab, which was established in 2013 to improve how HHS delivers on its mission. Our strategy, in a nutshell, is to help our colleagues set audacious goals and then invite people to assist, from inside and outside of the federal government.

In alignment with this vision, we launched an initiative called Invent Health, designed to empower inventors to create tools for better living and better clinical care. We are widening the definition of “technology” to include hardware, medical and assistive devices, because we believe that the democratization of design and manufacturing tools is going to follow the same path as we saw in the democratization of access to information and data.

For example:

The widespread popularity of 3D printers has created an opportunity for the production of custom-designed assistive devices like prosthetic hands and arms. E-NABLE is a network of volunteers who will take an order, for example, from someone who has lost their fingers or has a birth difference, but would like to be able to pick up an object. This peer-to-peer community shares open-source prototypes and publishes their design files in the public domain so that anyone can copy and improve on their ideas.

The National Institutes of Health’s 3D Print Exchange is an online portal to open-source data and tools for discovering, creating, and sharing 3D-printable models. This platform also enables the sharing of designs for on-demand, low-cost prosthetics and assistive devices. The goal is to empower researchers, clinicians, and the public with high-quality, informative models that inspire new discoveries that transform science and health care.

We are at critical inflection point in our history where we are in a better position than ever before to leverage the American spirit of invention to create ways for people to live more independently, in better health, and with greater dignity.

Indeed, the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, which is dedicated to the study of invention in American history, decided to challenge kids to think of a real-world health problem and come up with a solution for it. Hundreds of kids submitted designs and prototypes for inventions like a frostbite warning system or a “gripper glove” for people with low dexterity.

We have so much to learn from unexpected partners: kids, parents, patients, caregivers, and other people both inside and outside of health care.

Imagine what will happen when everyone has access to the tools and information they need to solve their own problems  – and share their ideas with others.

On Thursday, June 23, all of the organizations mentioned above – and many more – will be represented at Making Health, an interactive event at the Leavey Center at Georgetown University showcasing how healthcare practitioners, patients, designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other tinkerers are creating these types of healthcare solutions. Part of the National Week of Making, this event is open to anyone interested in this intersection between the maker movement and health and the way in which it’s changing people’s lives.

Please join us for a full afternoon of exhibits, demonstrations, and short talks, all setting the scene and providing the opportunity to meet the innovators who are making a difference, one idea at a time.


And if you’re interested in learning more about the maker movement in health, I share in this video why we’re shining a light on this important topic.

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

The Invent Health Initiative: Hardware Innovations for the Low-Resource Environment

A young man holds up a foldable microscope in a remote area.

The stories behind the hardware innovations of health—the bootstrapped, handmade, homemade tools that have helped patients solve challenging home health or clinical care problems—have served as a focal point for our Invent Health Initiative.

These stories extend beyond tools designed for direct use by the patient. What about the health care providers or researchers who are working in low-resource environments and need proper tools to assess the health of their community? In today’s Invent Health blog series post, we’re putting a spotlight on one such example that looked to solve the problem of getting clinicians and scientists who are working in low-resource environments access to a fundamental diagnostic health tool—the microscope.

Health workers in these types of resource constrained environments need accurate diagnostic tools, but often don’t have the means to pay for—or ship—expensive and delicate equipment. Manu Prakash, who runs a bioengineering lab at Stanford University, created a foldable paper microscope that is powerful enough to detect E.coli bacteria yet costs less than a dollar to make. It is not yet available for use, but it represents a possible future for low-cost, easily-distributed scientific tools.

When I traveled to Galveston, Texas last month for a meeting co-hosted by NASA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), a convergence of designers, clinicians, architects, engineers, scientists, and other experts, all gathered to talk about one common mission: how to sustain human life in extreme environments. It was clear from our conversations that the overlap in the problems identified—whether health-related or otherwise—in extreme environments (the harsh realities of space, a hurricane-ravaged city, a developing country), found solutions in the ingenuity and outside-the-box thinking of our fellow cross-agency, cross-government, cross-profession, cross-industry colleagues.

When have you found a collaboration between what were initially thought of as incongruous partners been incredibly, and surprisingly successful? Have you ever had to patch together a solution in a low-resource environment? Tell us your story about how you hacked the answer to a question with limited resources and materials.

If you are intrigued by the themes we are exploring, check out the calendar of events associated with the National Week of Making. On Thursday, June 23, HHS IDEA Lab is teaming up with the MedStar Institute for Innovation and the National Institutes for Health to create an interactive exhibition of how the maker movement is affecting health care. If you live in or near Washington, DC, please join us!

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

Photo credit: The Next Gen Scientist on Flickr

Invent Health: Finding Common Ground

Photo collage (top left, astronaut holds a 3D printing tool; top right image of ice bergs; bottom right image of flooding; bottom left image of buildings destroyed)

How many times have we heard people say, “If we could put a man on the moon, we can fix XYZ health care problem”? Or: “Hey, it’s not rocket science, right?”

So, when I met Dava Newman, the Deputy Administrator at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and began a conversation with her about innovation at our agencies, I was eager to learn how to apply their famous “horizon mission” spirit to health and human services. We found common ground on many topics, but most particularly the development of new “hardware” such as sleeker spacesuits (Dr. Newman’s specialty) and in the principles of open innovation for new medical and assistive devices (part of our Invent Health initiative).

Our teams quickly identified another shared mission: to sustain human life in extreme environments. The power-, mass-, and volume-constrained setting of the International Space Station (ISS) is not unlike the challenges we face when setting up a remote health clinic, either here in the U.S. or abroad. We set out to explore the overlap between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and NASA, with a particular focus on innovative design and creation of devices and the built environment.

On April 11 and 12, HHS, NASA, and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, TX, convened a symposium, “Space Matters in Health.” This post is the first in a series to share the lessons we learned.

From the HHS side, we invited colleagues from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control who could share insights from their work in global health, citizen science, and technology transfer. NASA invited engineers, flight surgeons, and life sciences experts. UTMB invited clinicians who specialize in long-term polar expeditions, an architect who helped build their new state-of-the-art facility, and nurses who are involved in the creation of the first makerspace in a hospital.

Since every day is potentially an Apollo 13 “square peg in a round hole” challenge in the lives of people living with disability, whether because of a birth difference, an injury, or age, we included experts from DIYability and the AARP. Current and former IDEO employees brought a creative, design-thinking spirit and an active-duty service member of the U.S. Army provided perspective on how innovation happens in the field of combat. We were thrilled to include a member of the Made In Space, Inc. team, which designed the first 3D printer for the ISS (and who also works for Field Ready, a humanitarian group).

For this first post, I want to share one lesson learned: We had more in common than we could have imagined.

In reading the biographies of all the invited guests, I noticed that people used different terms to describe their work in similarly challenging and remote environments, whether on Earth or in space. Words like:

  • Extreme
  • Hostile
  • Austere
  • Resource-limited
  • Power-, mass-, volume-constrained
  • Isolated

The bottom line for all of us: We can redesign the system. We can redesign the devices we use and the buildings that surround us. We can’t redesign human beings or the environment. We must engage in “human-in-the-loop” testing (a NASA phrase) to ensure that we never sacrifice the human in service to the machine.

Further, it was our colleague from the AARP that drew the circle even closer by pointing out that the isolation that someone may feel while on a mission to Antarctica or to Mars is similar to the isolation experienced by many older adults who live alone and do not have a team of people looking out for them. What lessons can we learn – and apply – across all the work we do? How might we empower people in those resource-limited, isolated situations to make the best of the materials they have on hand – or to improve their capability to create new tools on the spot?

Stay tuned for more updates and lessons learned from our trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and UTMB in Galveston.

Featured image photo credits: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr; Reeve Jolliffe on Flickr; United Nations Development Programme on Flikr; and on Flickr

The Invent Health Initiative: Hardware Innovations Hard at Work

vegetables and peppercorn seeds scattered on a cutting board

As a part of our invent health blog series, we’re featuring examples of hardware innovations—both new as well as those improving or finding new uses for physical objects that already exist—that have helped enable people to live more independently, in better health, and with greater dignity.

Today we’re featuring examples of assistive devices for cooking and eating.

For example, people with hand tremor are often unable to keep food on a fork or spoon. An inventor created—and tested with the support of a grant from the National Institutes of Health—an assistive device that counteracts the tremor, allowing people living with conditions such as Parkinsons to feed themselves.

Cooking is another challenge that can be overcome for people living with disability. The Amputee Coalition is a nonprofit organization that educates people about how to navigate the kitchen using adapted tools such as spring-loaded scissors, L-shaped knives, and single-handed cutting boards.


Share with us: When have you seen examples of hardware innovations improving someone’s ability to cook or eat? Tell us your story if you’ve ever created an assistive device or improved upon existing technology that made someone’s everyday tasks—once an impossibility—now accessible.  


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

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 (

The Invent Health Initiative: Empowering Inventors to Create Tools for Better Living, Better Clinical Care

Six people stand with items in their hands at the Invent Health Initiative Town Hall.

HHS Chief Technology Officer Susannah Fox with speakers and attendees of the Invent Health Town Hall held on Thursday, January 28. In their hands are just few of the many items brought in by the speakers to illustrate how the maker movement can improve health.

What does it mean to invent health? How might we empower small scale designers, builders, and developers to find creative solutions to challenges we see across the landscape of health and human services? What can we do to help build toward an Innovation Nation, where engaged and empowered individuals are at the center of health care? What will happen when everyone has access to the tools and information they need to solve their own problems—and share their ideas with others? These were some of the questions that propelled me and the HHS IDEA Lab team forward as we launched the Invent Health initiative at a town hall event held on Thursday, January 28. The initiative seeks to empower inventors both inside and outside government to create tools for better living and better clinical care. One way we hope to do this is by opening up as many channels of conversation as possible, inviting patients, caregivers, makers, big businesses, small businesses, and government agencies to come together as we all work together to invent health. With this post we are starting an Invent Health series on this blog and Medium as a way to share and spread the stories, videos, and examples of those who are making strides in this field. We want to hear your voices and there are a number of ways you can participate in, as well as follow, the conversation:

  • Visit this post (and future Invent Health blog posts) on Medium where we’ll take your comments and questions in the responses;
  • Use the #InventHealth hashtag on Twitter when you see great examples of hardware innovation in health care;
  • Visit the HHS IDEA Lab Storify page for curated conversations around this topic.

One of the core functions of the IDEA Lab is to create space for innovation. By posting and sharing what we are seeing, we hope to provide you with opportunities to make connections, collaborate, discuss, share, and, ultimately, invent.