Crisis can spur opportunity and as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, innovators in the Office of Information and Technology (OIT) are briskly building enhanced safety solutions for the nation and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Leading this effort is OIT Product Manager Danielle Krakora, an Army Veteran now serving as Entrepreneur in Residence at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Innovation Ecosystem. Working with VA doctors, nurses, Veterans, educators, and industry, VHA Innovation Ecosystem’s mission is to discover and spread innovations throughout VHA that exceed expectations, restore hope, and build trust throughout the Veteran community.
To invent these solutions, Ms. Krakora proposed using a rapid innovation model known as a “make-a-thon” and VHA Innovation Ecosystem agreed. The make-a-thon, developed and perfected in partnership with Veteran non-profit Challenge America, is an effective and established method for generating rapid prototypes to solve the toughest challenges. Together with Dallas Blaney, Executive Director of Challenge America, the pair quickly partnered with federal agencies, private industry, leading research universities, and nonprofits to launch the COVID-19 Makers Challenge to rapidly build cost-effective, efficient solutions to combat problems essential workers face in keeping themselves, their families, and their patients safe.
“This approach reflects the best in user centered design and rapid agile development,” Ms. Krakora says. “The more we get our workforce involved in innovation, the better it is for our patients, our staff, and our Veterans.”
The COVID-19 Makers Challenge launched a series of five week-long virtual events in April to build these solutions. The first challenge targeted first responders, the second environmental management, the third nursing home staff, and the fourth in home care givers. The fifth challenge, which launches in October, will focus on disaster relief workers.
Each virtual event includes the following steps: frontline workers submit the pandemic safety issues they face to the COVID-19 Makers Challenge. These recommendations are then reviewed by an advisory panel who select the most challenging initiatives to complete. Next, experts in engineering, manufacturing, 3D printing, infection control, sanitation, industrial and experience design are recruited to form teams who donate their time to produce the solutions. Finally, volunteers meet with the workers who submitted the challenges and spend one week working with them to refine their approach before launching a 72-hour sprint to design and build working prototypes suitable for rapid manufacturing.
Prototypes built include a retractable, self-cleaning tool staff can use to open doors and avoid direct contact with frequently touched surfaces. Another uses concentrated ultraviolet light inside a box to sanitize objects in seconds. Other innovations include: a breathable mask for individuals on oxygen, goggles that don’t fog up, and a choose-your-adventure game senior citizen can use to boost their memory while quarantined in long-term care facilities. Visit the Makers Challenge website to browse all the prototypes and the teams who built them.
A panel of judges is recruited for each challenge to select winners of the VHA Innovation Experience Awards and the Feasibility Awards. These volunteers represent a variety of organizations including AARP Innovation Labs, the Wounded Warrior Project, America Makes, VHA’s Diffusion of Excellence Program, Health Innovation for HIMSS, VA’s Environmental Management Services, the San Francisco VA Health Care System, Cleveland Clinic Innovations, the Ohio Health Care Association, and the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.
Challenge America Executive Director Dallas Blaney, PhD praises the efforts of Ms. Krakora and her team. “The VHA Innovations Ecosystem is a fantastic organization supporting Veterans’ health and by engaging these bright employees in identifying viable pathways for these solutions, it has been remarkable to watch,” he says.
Moving forward, VHA Innovations Ecosystem and Challenge America plan to partner with America Makes to connect VHA with suitable manufacturing partners for the prototypes selected for rapid manufacturing. The COVID-19 Makers Challenge is sponsored and supported by VHA, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the private sector. To learn more or to participate visit COVID-19 Makers Challenge.
Our commitment to digital and IT transformation is shaped by daily dedication to customer service and the close collaboration of our workforce, managers, and leaders. Ready to join us in improving Veterans’ care? Check out all current information and technology career opportunities on DigitalVA. You can also contact VA’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer at 512-326-6600, Monday thru Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST or by submitting a resume to VACareers@va.gov.