In June 2012, we launched Phase 1 of the My Air, My Health Challenge seeking to spur the development of personal devices that gather and integrate health and air quality data that is usable and meaningful to long-term health outcomes. Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) [Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)], four finalists were announced today to proceed to Phase 2, which entails building and testing a prototype sensor device and offers a $100,000 award to the winner. We recently spoke with Dr. David Balshaw, Program Director for Emerging Technologies at NIEHS, about the Challenge.
Hello Dr. Balshaw. Thank you for joining us today and congratulations on the successful conclusion of Phase 1. Taking us back, what were your original goals for this Challenge and how do you envision that the solutions currently being proposed will address the issue of airborne pollutants and their associated health risks?
In the environmental health research community, we always struggle with our ability to make direct connections between exposure to environmental pollutants and physiological responses at the individual level. While there have been a number of emerging technologies for exposure assessment as well as physiological monitoring, we haven’t seen many efforts to integrate these two capabilities. Combining the analyses of these data streams would improve those linkages. Ultimately, we wanted to see what creative solutions the community could come up with!
Over the last few years, crowdsourcing and prize competitions have become an increasingly popular means for government to innovate and promote strong public-private partnerships. What was your impetus for employing a crowdsourced competition model to achieve your goals for this Challenge?
The Challenge mechanism has really demonstrated an ability to bring innovative ideas into a new field. We thought this problem was an excellent fit because there are so many new technologies out there. Groups didn’t need to put a lot of resources into engineering, and there was a high likelihood of getting a useful device out at the end.
Phase 1 of the My Air, My Health Challenge attracted over 500 Solvers and generated dozens of solution submissions. What are your thoughts on the overall quality of the responses that you received?
We were blown away by the response, in fact, we understand that we set some records for participation in an InnoCentive-managed Challenge. The Solvers certainly didn’t make our job easy – as you can see, we had a hard time limiting the finalists to just four. As such, we recognized two additional solutions as ‘honorable mentions.’
As part of Phase 1, four finalists each received $15,000 and now proceed to Phase 2 to compete for the $100,000 prize. Two Solvers also received honorable mentions. What stood out about their submissions and differentiated them from the others?
The top four stood out as a being complete packages; they nailed each aspect of the Challenge and stated their case as to why we need their platforms. The two honorable mentions were also strong, but we felt that although one particular aspect was outstanding, there was also a gap in some other aspect in which they didn’t rise to the level of the four finalists.
Looking now at Phase 2 – whereby the finalists are being asked to develop and test a prototype sensor device – what end applications or even commercialization opportunities can you envision for the technology?
This is where the real meat of the Challenge comes out – we can't wait to have the finalists show us what they can do. I am looking at two main avenues for applications. One is in environmental health research – these tools should allow environmental epidemiologists to look for individual responses at a level of granularity that they have never been able to before. The second is to empower individuals and community groups to take action on their own about exposure issues that concern them. These tools have tremendous potential in improving public health, and if they can meet that potential, I am confident that the commercialization opportunities will follow.
Thank you for speaking with us Dr. Balshaw. We can’t wait to see what innovative solutions Phase 2 of the Challenge brings forth.