Creating an Alexa Challenge for the Real-World Problem of Diabetes

$250,000 is a drop in the bucket to a pharmaceutical company. But as the Alexa Diabetes Challenge demonstrated, a $250,000 total cash pool prize from Merck and Company can deliver tangible solutions to a real-world problem like diabetes. The Alexa Diabetes Challenge was the topic of a session held yesterday at this week’s Voice Summit 2018 conference. The challenge winner Anne Weiler from Wellpepper, Robert Dribbon from Merck, Sara Holoubek from Luminary Labs and Dario Rivera from Amazon shared their personal experiences in developing and competing in the Alexa Diabetes Challenge in a panel discussion yesterday.

A Specific Solution to a Specific Problem

Many of the Alexa accelerator competitions center around engaging the consumer, essentially solving one of Amazon’s main current problems with its voice assistant. But few competitions focus on a single, specific problem that is a real-world challenge today, with or without a voice-first device. Merck & Company saw it differently. The company saw an opportunity to use an Alexa competition to improve diabetes care for the 27 million Americans who suffer from the chronic condition. Merck tapped Luminary Labs to create an Alexa competition with a total cash pool prize of $250,000 to encourage developers to create an Alexa-based solution to improve the quality of life for those that have recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

Creating a Challenge to Spur Creativity and Real Solutions

Holoubek from Luminary Labs discussed the process of creating an Alexa challenge that would facilitate creativity while also creating tangible solutions that could be used by healthcare providers and diabetes patients. This included a two-day boot camp at Amazon headquarters in Seattle and a three-month virtual accelerator where the five finalists worked closely with coaches and mentors in the healthcare and technology industries. One step of the development process that stood out was the patient panel. Each team met with a patient panel that consisted of a diverse range of chronic diabetes patients, ranging from working professionals to the homeless. According to Weiler, it was the “most powerful moment” of the entire experience.

Keeping the End User in Mind

Weiler also stated that the patient panel was important because it made her see the end goal of the competition. It wasn’t about developing the perfect product, it was about developing the perfect product to help those with type 2 diabetes. This tends to be a problem in the technology industry as a whole – not everyone is technology savvy or inclined. Giving the finalists access to the real end users allowed them to see how patients would react to their solutions, providing them the opportunity to create a solution that could change lives, instead of just their own. Another way Merck achieved tangible results was with its all-star panels of judges. Again, this was a diverse group, ranging from revered medical professionals like John Brownstein, CIO of Boston Children’s Hospital, to those that have been directly impacted by the disease, like Michele Tuck-Ponder of the Diabetes While Black social movement.

Real Results

Even the Demo Day audience was different than your typical Alexa competition. In addition to technology and healthcare evangelists, patients from the patient panel also attended. After months of development, Wellpepper took the grand prize home for its Sugarpod concept and device. Sugarpod is a multimodal voice-powered solution which allows diabetes patients to easily record their daily experiences, including mood, diet and medication doses which gives healthcare providers the ability to review and track their patients’ progress. It also included a voice-activated scale prototype which not only records the user’s weight, but also contains a foot scanner at its base which scans for diabetic foot ulcers.

For Weiler, it was important that the solution be multi-modal for the patient experience. “Sugarpod uses voice to interact with the scale, and also for other tasks in the care plan. When someone weighs themselves, they can also check off other tasks in their care plans. During the day, if someone is at work, a mobile device may be a better interface, but in the evening at home voice can be used to complete any tasks.”

The quality of the five finalists and the final product demonstrate that Alexa competitions can be used to find real solutions for real problems. It also shows that running a quality competition is about more more than the cash prize. It’s about each step of the process. And most importantly, it is about keeping the end user, in this case, the patient, in mind the entire journey.

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