Innovation Aquarium

MUSC fosters an innovation culture through a fun competition modeled after the reality television show Shark Tank

It’s telling that the first Apple-approved tech store located within a dedicated academic medical center campus is at the Medical University of South Carolina. 

The store, dubbed Innovation Station, is typical of the interactive-heavy retail Apple shops, but the Station’s offerings extend beyond the Cupertino company’s products and tech services to include a host of health-oriented technological products and applications. It’s designed explicitly to help MUSC staff improve their health and encourage the use of technology in building a healthier community at large. 

This past May, the Station became the anchoring location of MUSC’s first-ever Innovation Summit, a two-day event which encouraged and fostered innovation from within the MUSC family. 

It was our [Chief Information Officer] Michael Caputo’s idea,” says Alexandra O’Brien, the Director of Innovation and Business Development who planned and emceed the event. “He had the idea of having a Shark Tank-style competition where everyone submits innovative ideas presented in the style [of the television show].” Caputo imagined a two-day summit that featured these teams and would have a festival-style atmosphere, replete with local startups, food trucks, in addition to the presentation posters from competitors. The winners, of course, would have their idea funded.

The idea was in the spirit of innovation, which MUSC sees as key to its culture, and they quickly moved to flesh out Caputo’s vision. Each fiscal year, hospital employees plan goals for the upcoming year in areas such as growth or quality—and innovation was added to this year’s slate of options.

“There are five specific steps to fulfill the goal, with the 5th one being presenting a poster at the summit,” O’Brien explains. “The [participants] each form teams and choose a champion, test the idea, and document lessons learned.”

The planners expected they might receive a dozen idea proposals. They ended up receiving 38.

“It felt almost like a science fair,” O’Brien says proudly of the 1st day of the summit. “There were local innovation companies there too.”

That first day was almost an open house of sorts for each competing team. Attendees were asked to vote for their favorite posters, and Morphii, a Charleston tech company, set up a digital kiosk at one end of the summit for employees to vote in that also displayed real-time results. 

The next day, the three finalists each got a chance to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges which included MUSC President David Cole, M.D., FACS; Jesse Goodwin, Ph.D., chief innovation officer; Sarah Bacik, chief strategy and business development officer; David Mahvi, M.D., Chief, Oncology Integrated Center for Comprehensive Excellence and R. Todd Watkins, DDS, a serial entrepreneur known for creating companies and schools. Each team received 10 minutes to present their idea in any way they chose (from a simple PowerPoint presentation to skits or videos), followed by 10 minutes of questioning from the panel. 

Proposals ranged from establishing a best practice portal to facilitate collaboration across silos in the hospital system to a volunteer software that would make it easier and more transparent to sign up for volunteer opportunities in the community. The winner, a proposal entitled “Capturing the Sixth Sense,” advocated adapting a distress screening tool in the cancer hospital that would look at extra-clinical patient needs that are often not detected in traditional screenings. 

The presentation pointed out that “there's all these different things that these patients need that aren't being addressed in their normal appointments,” says O’Brien, including things like adequate nutrition, dependable transportation, and spiritual support. “By putting the screening tool together, we can better serve our patients by identifying these needs.”

The “Sixth Sense” proposal sought to have each patient fill out a short survey on an iPad when they first arrive in the office; the app would then automatically populate that information on the electronic health record so that the doctor and medical staff would be able to react and incorporate those issues into the treatment plan. 

Their winnings in the competition will go to purchasing the iPads and a charging station along with the associated IT costs of putting together the survey.

O’Brien says they hope to grow both the participation and the concept of the event next year, possibly increasing the funds or letting each judge “invest” in their own pick like they do on the television show.

"We're really looking for big, transformative ideas,” she enthuses. “I think this is a way to infuse a culture of innovation across campus.”