A biodegradable face mask that doesn't cost the earth... literally.
A COVID-19 testing kit which combines the sensitivity of a PCR with the speed of a rapid antigen test (RAT).
An app that builds a personalised recovery plan for ‘long COVID’.

These were just some of the ideas developed and pitched in 2.5 days at UNSW Medicine & Health’s Hack the Pandemic. Held over the weekend of 28 to 30 October, it was a collaboration with UNSW Founders and brought together clinicians, medical researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, industry mentors and more to find innovative solutions to address the impacts of COVID-19.

What is Hack the Pandemic?

A hackathon, or a ‘hack’, is an event that brings people together to collaborate to solve a problem within a restricted timeframe. In the case of Hack the Pandemic, participants from across UNSW including the faculties of Medicine & Health, Engineering and Science worked in five teams supported by 10 mentors. The mandate: develop an idea to improve the quality of life for those impacted by COVID-19 that can be implemented in the real world.

Diversity within each team was important, according to Professor Phoebe Phillips AM, Associate Dean of UNSW Medicine & Health, one of the event organisers.

“We’ve got multidisciplinary groups. We’ve got people from different backgrounds and levels of experience. Everyone brings something unique to the problem-solving process.”

Hack the Pandemic brought together people across disciplines from UNSW and other institutions. Photo: UNSW.

The winning hack solution

At the end of the Hackathon, the five teams presented their solutions as three-minute pitches to a panel of expert judges, including Professor Phillips; Scientia Professor Greg Dore of The Kirby Institute; Melissa Mail, Investment Manager at Uniseed; and Katja Beitat, Head of Health Tech at Cicada Innovations.

What idea took the top prize of $4000? An AI-powered app called The Bundle for ‘long COVID’ patients which connects them with the care they need, reducing time spent waiting for an appointment and in the clinic.

So how does The Bundle work?

The Bundle app users answer screening questions about their health concerns, with an AI system directing them to a clinician with relevant skills and experience. For example, a mother of a young child with ‘long COVID’ symptoms would be connected to a range of healthcare professionals with a Paediatric focus. The Bundle will also show the clinician a summary of the patient’s screening information before the appointment, saving valuable time during the consultation itself.  

The name The Bundle was inspired by the team behind it – a diverse mix including Associate Professor Sara Grafenauer and Dr Ramesh Walpola, experts in nutrition and pharmacy respectively at UNSW Medicine & Health, Andleeb Hanif, who is studying a PhD in RNA therapeutics at the Kirby Institute, Bashar Abboodi, who is studying a PhD in IT at UTS Sydney, and UNSW medical student Benjamin Schiavone.

“Users could come to the app and the idea was they could have questions immediately answered,” said A/Prof. Grafenauer. “The app was also there to triage them to the most appropriate GP with skills aligned to their concerns.

“Our tool really focused on moving health systems forward, which is possibly why it was quite compelling for the judges.”

Runners-up and people’s choice pitches

Two other teams received awards for their innovative Hack solutions. Team RAPIDX took the runner-up prize of $2000 with their idea for a rapid and sensitive at-home COVID-19 testing kit. The test will be based on the mechanism that bacteria use to recognise the genetic code of viruses.

“This is a next-generation testing kit that is as sensitive as PCR, as rapid as a RAT and as cheap as coffee,” said RAPIDX team member Kanishka Yamani, who is a student at UNSW Engineering.

The people’s choice award of $1000 went to Team EGF, who pitched the idea for a biodegradable face mask made from cotton and biowastes such as cane fibre. The mask would break down within three months, rather than the 450 years for a conventional mask.

“We all used life-saving face masks during the pandemic,” said EGF team member Ruchira Ghosh, who is a PhD candidate at UNSW Engineering. “But have you thought about the end life of that face mask?”

Solving wicked problems with a hackathon approach

Maybe it’s not realistic to lock university academics away every weekend for a brainstorm. But the Hack the Pandemic organisers and participants agree that a more multidisciplinary, entrepreneurial approach can benefit research.

Hackathon participant Benjamin Schiavone said, “Finding solutions to COVID-19 requires an interdisciplinary effort. You can’t work in silos to solve a complex problem like this.”

The Hackathon teams may continue to develop their ideas with support from UNSW, with the team behind The Bundle meeting in several weeks’ time to discuss potential next steps. However, according to Professor Phillips, the most valuable takeaway from Hack the Pandemic is the participants incorporating a ‘Hacking’ mindset into their work and research.

 “Maybe we’ll see some great ideas from the Hackathon that progress further. But what I’m really excited to see is the participants taking this approach, this way of thinking, into the future.”

IMAGE CAPTION: Samaneh Moallemi, a PhD student at the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney, was one of the Hack the Pandemic participants. Photo: UNSW.