Pitt Innovation Challenge looks to improve city's health

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The University of Pittsburgh is starting a competition that it hopes will tap into Pittsburgh’s brainpower for ideas to improve the city’s health.

The competition, called the Pitt Innovation Challenge, allows teams of Pittsburgh-area residents to submit ideas that “get people engaged in their own health,” said program director John Maier. The three winners will receive $100,000 each for research and will be assigned project managers to help realize their ideas.

“There are tons and tons of great ideas sitting in people’s heads,” Dr. Maier said. “How many times have you been sitting at the kitchen table and you think, ‘Why don’t people do this?’ We want to get those ideas out there.”

The competition is open to a wide range of health topics, from obesity to heart disease to diabetes, Dr. Maier said. But it’s zeroing in on unorthodox ideas that might not normally find their way into scholarly papers.

“We’re trying to encourage people to step out of their comfort zone,” Dr. Maier said. “It’s scary for people to do that when their career depends on writing papers and such.”

The organizers hope the prize will inspire collaboration among groups that wouldn’t normally work together, leading to new perspectives on health problems. One of the goals is to sprout collaboration between University of Pittsburgh academics and other Pittsburgh residents, Dr. Maier said. One member of each team must be a university faculty member.

Dr. Maier suggested that this could be the first of many such competitions sponsored by the university, perhaps branching outside of public health to tackle issues such as the environment.

The first round of the competition requires each team to make a two-minute video introducing themselves and outlining their idea. The deadline for that is on March 2. In May, the teams that make the cut will present their ideas in front of a panel of judges.

“We’re trying to make this informal,” he said. “It’s not like you have to make a five-page paper with 18 references. You have to make a video.”

In a news release, Dr. Steven Reis of Pitt’s medical school said, “Instead of trying to figure out the molecular mechanisms of hypertension, for example, the team might try to figure out how to reduce the rate of high blood pressure in a specific region.”

The solution could be a device, a software application, an intervention strategy or any other approach that could address the health problem the team chooses.

The concept of using financial awards as incentives for ideas has a long history. In the 18th century, Dr. Maier pointed out, Napoleon Bonaparte offered thousands of francs to whomever could devise a way to preserve food for his armies while they marched hundreds of miles across Europe. That led to the idea of canning food.

More recently, the XPRIZE foundation offered $10 million to the first team to launch a private vessel into space. It was won in 2004 by Mojave Aerospace Ventures.

Richard Webner: 412-263-4903 or rwebner@post-gazette.com

First Published January 31, 2014 4:00 PM

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