Carle Illinois College of Medicine hoping to foster healthy competition with 'Make-A-Thon'

Carle Illinois College of Medicine hoping to foster healthy competition with 'Make-A-Thon'

URBANA — About 7.7 billion people live on Planet Earth, and to health experts at the University of Illinois, that's a world of untapped potential.

On a mission to transform and democratize health care, they're throwing open the doors to the UI's innovation labs to attract the best ideas from students, "citizen-scientists" and everyday folks to improve human health.

The Carle Illinois College of Medicine is sponsoring a "Health Make-A-Thon" through March 11 to solicit ideas from the public and bring the 10 best to fruition over the next year. Winners will receive $10,000 to use at the UI's Health Maker Lab — a system of 17 "maker labs" across campus with 3-D printers and other equipment to make prototypes of anything from molecules to medical devices to building designs.

"We very much think of this as health broadly defined," said chemistry Professor Martin Burke, associate dean for research at the new medical school. "That includes everything from a brilliant idea for a new medicine at the molecular space to an inspiring mural on the wall of the pediatric emergency room to inspire hope among kids and their families as they take on a really tough challenge."

The Health Make-A-Thon is open to anyone who lives in Champaign County or works at Carle Health System or the UI, whether they have medical expertise or not. It's designed to give everyone from children to senior citizens a platform to say, "There's a better way to do this," Burke said.

"It can be anyone, and we really mean anyone," said Burke, who hopes to expand the competition worldwide in coming years. "There are zero requirements. Age, background, education, where you come from — it doesn't matter. Best idea wins."

'Dolphin tank'

The medical school and its partners in engineering and health sciences want to empower "outside-the-box thinking" to improve human health, he said.

"The concept is that society wins when we level the playing field," he said. "Anytime barriers to innovation exist, we're missing out."

Contestants — either individuals or teams — can submit an idea by answering three questions on an online form at

— What is the health-related problem you want to address?

— What is your idea for solving this problem?

— How will your solution affect the health of individuals, families or communities?

Submissions are rolling in, Burke said.

The hope is to draw 200 entries. A panel of experts will choose 20 finalists, who will pitch their ideas at an April 13 event at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

Then 10 winners will be chosen to receive a specially forged "maker coin" worth $10,000 to use at the UI's maker labs — from biology to engineering to architecture — to create a prototype of their idea.

They also will be given two UI mentors to provide advice and guidance, drawn from the panel of experts who will judge the competition. The group includes academics from across campus who partner with the medical school, as well as industry leaders, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and community leaders. Burke likened it to a "dolphin tank," rather than the "shark tank" concept where ideas are torn apart to pinpoint problems.

Even the finalists who aren't selected as winners will be able to network with experts at the pitch session in April, he said.

"Our goal is to make as many of the innovators successful as possible," he said.

The rules note that the UI will own the intellectual property for ideas that are developed using university resources, to maximize public benefit. That's the same mechanism used for students and faculty researchers who invent something through their university research, Burke said.

The innovators will work with the Office of Technology Management to write a patent, if needed, which will be owned by the UI. If the product ends up being successful, benefits will flow back to the inventors, and "everybody wins," he said.

'Global epicenter'

Burke wants Champaign County to become the "global epicenter of democratized health innovation," with an annual competition drawing entries from around the world.

The 7.7 billion people on the planet share a common goal — to be healthy — and "we firmly believe there's so many great ideas out there that are not getting heard," he said.

For the last 2,000 years, medicine has been a top-down profession, with a tiny percentage of society defining what health care can and should be, he said.

"We see this as a turning point where ... for the next 2,000 years, things can actually be done very differently, in which everyone is empowered and meaningfully enabled to participate in health innovation," he said.

This is the first public competition using the Health Maker Lab. In December, the college held a trial contest with medical students, assembling them in a room for a day to answer the question, "What if healthy living was as simple as looking in a mirror?"

The winning idea was the "Health Concierge," where patients would be given an iPad, or download an app, to use the entire time they're in the doctor's office, to fill out required forms, report their symptoms and learn more about their own health.

"The idea to is 'gameify' the wait time, but as patients read the articles and answer questions at the end for comprehension, they're learning about their condition, which increases their likelihood of taking their medications, following the doctor's instructions, and investing in their overall health long-term," team member Samantha Houser wrote in a report for the school's website.

The students are working with the Health Maker Lab to create a prototype, said College of Medicine spokeswoman Libby Kacich.

The medical school is hosting several community meetings to publicize the Health Make-A-Thon, including Saturday at the Douglass Branch Library, 504 E. Grove St., C, and Feb. 27 at the Common Ground Co-op at Lincoln Square in Urbana.

It has also reached out to local schools — a group of students at University High School is already working on an idea, Kacich said.