This year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco saw Novartis kick off a new innovation initiative that taps into the health-tech ecosystem to find solutions to healthcare challenges. As sponsor of the conference’s first global virtual hackathon challenge, the drugmaker doled out two awards to startups, including prize money and other benefits.

The virtual hackathon challenge was the first of what Novartis hopes will be a series of open innovation challenges, aptly named the HealthX World Series, in which the company asks developers, designers, hackers, and marketers from around the world to find approaches for improving patient care.

The inaugural challenge involved finding solutions that empower heart failure patients and ultimately save lives. Heart failure (HF), a life-threatening disease that affects 26 million people worldwide, is also the leading cause of hospital admissions for adults over 65 across the western world, costing a whopping $108 billion each year in treatment costs and hospitalizations.

Novartis has a long history in the cardiovascular space. It markets a treatment for HF, the medicine Entresto, and this isn’t the first time it’s turned to the tech sector for innovative ideas to support patients and caregivers with the disease.

For the TechCrunch hackathon, Novartis challenged entrants to develop a digital solution, over the course of six weeks, that would help patients better monitor, manage, and predict the worsening HF symptoms in an attempt to help those patients take better care of their health and stay out of the hospital.

Rather than look for diagnostic devices, Novartis was specifically on the hunt for affordable solutions. At the end of the term, the drugmaker got to select the winners. Other non-health companies posted challenges as part of the TechCrunch hackathon, too, including Visa and United Airlines, and in the end healthcare was very well represented among all finalists, a sign health is moving the consumer tech space right now.

“We were pleasantly surprised to see healthcare representation all over TechCrunch, including the talks, the demos in Startup Alley, and even the virtual hackathon finals (which was open to all categories),” Ronny Hashmonay, head of innovation & life cycle management, innovation & product life cycle for Novartis, told MM&M by email.

Startups were judged on the impact of their solution, its innovativeness, sustainability, feasibility, and the overall quality of their presentation. The final five entrants from the Novartis challenge presented their startups on stage in front of five judges at the Novartis booth at TechCrunch Disrupt. As per TechCrunch rules, winners included one mature startup which had developed its solution before the hackathon but customized it during the challenge, and another which developed its solution from scratch during the term.

Veta Health won the contest for mature startups, Wavy for its new hack. Both walked away with a $12,000 prize, as well as membership in the Novartis Biome, a company run innovation initiative which gives the startups access to guidance, mentorship, expertise, and/or de-identified data.

“[Data] is one of the really difficult things for startups to [access],” said Fabio Gratton, one of the contest judges. “You can’t prove your solution or test your algorithm without doing a study to collect data. So for Novartis to share data with the startups was brilliant.”

It’s also a smart value proposition for the pharma company, said Gratton, who is co-founder & CEO of inVibe Labs. Because the data may come from people who take its products, any resulting innovation is more likely to be aligned.

Veta Health’s solution is one that’s already on the market helping patients deal with other chronic diseases, and the firm had previously done a proof of concept in HF. The platform, which looks a lot like other consumer products, allows patients to track things like their respiratory rate and fluid retention and share that information immediately with their doctor. The company’s smartphone app can then offer patients personalized guidance and educational content to help them along their own personal care journey.

The company’s HIPAA-compliant platform has already proven capable of reducing hospital readmissions by 75% and patient satisfaction by 80%. Patients who go home with the solution also report feeling less anxious about their condition because they have the app there to guide them through their treatment.

“The HF Challenge [drew] several high quality and practical proposals that could be implemented in the near future,” said Hashmonay. “We are very encouraged by the response and we are initiating talks with some of the winners—Veta Health—to co-develop a potential solution for HF patients.”

Wavy tackled the difficulty in getting patients to log daily activities, especially patients who are 65 or older and reluctant to ask for help. With it, users can answer simple questions about how they’re feeling through Google Home that can be shared with medical professionals, friends, and family. Google Home can also remind those patients to log information about their health at a specific time each day, the idea being that the reminder will ensure that patients log information in the moment that they might have forgotten otherwise.

For instance, you might remember that you were feeling especially tired on Wednesday morning if you were asked Wednesday afternoon how you feel. If the same question was posed the following Tuesday, you might not have as accurate an answer. The app keeps all those answers in a journal that can be shared with your doctor.  

When paired with a wearable, the service also has the ability to detect falls and do things like call 911 for you and unlock your door for emergency help (provided you have a smart lock). It can also send your current location to emergency workers.

“Many startups are starting to use an ‘innovation stack,’ building on existing innovation,” like chatbots and voice assistants layered over existing AI and natural language processing technology, observed Gratton.

That’s taking “a new kind of risk,” as he put it. As opposed to the days when tech entrepreneurs may have built their innovation from the ground up, writing the software and building the hardware, now there are new pluses and minuses. One, you control your destiny; on the other hand, the startup is depending on things that aren’t proven out yet.

“If people are building solutions on top of existing innovation ecosystems, those things change so quickly that even a great idea can collapse if the underlying infrastructure doesn’t gain traction in its own right,” he said. The other risk inherent in this approach: competitors can build on top of that infrastructure, too. Then again, doing so enables the kind of rapid prototyping that allows big pharma to test early and fail fast, vs. investing millions only to find out later that the solution doesn’t work.

Other startups that made it to the top five were Pulse, a health deterioration monitoring service for families and friends of heart failure patients; Medable, a service that uses wearables to identify high-risk situations and trends in patients; and Cardios a service that works to identify early warning signs of a heart issue and optimize that patient’s treatment, ultimately preventing him or her from returning to the hospital.

And it’s only just the beginning for many of these startups. While they’ve already started building and testing their solutions, we can look for them all to improve over time and hopefully help lead to improved health, and lower hospital costs and admissions for HF patients going forward.