With Innovation – There is Hope

COBRE on Opioids and Overdose at Rhode Island Hospital holds community hackathon to stimulate creative solutions to the overdose epidemic 

Second annual event of the Center for Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) was virtual and finalists may move forward to apply for up to $40K in additional funding 

With innovation—there is hope.

This was the message inspired by the COBRE on Opioids & Overdose Virtual Overdose ‘Hackathon’: a weekend-long event from Oct. 15-17 in which community members, researchers, students, and professionals worked together to develop innovative solutions to the overdose crisis in Rhode Island and beyond. An approach used widely in the design and technology fields, “hackathons” are a democratic process of interdisciplinary collaboration where design thinking is utilized to accelerate the development of novel products and services to address complex problems. In 2019, the method was adapted by the COBRE’s Translational & Transformative Research Core as a mechanism to incubate research and project ideas and to offer everyone in the community an opportunity to voice their ideas for solving overdose—not just researchers, policymakers, and other usual decision-makers.

After a weekend of brainstorming and rapid ideation, four groundbreaking projects were selected to move forward to apply for up to $40,000 in additional grant funding. The top teams comprised a variety of new voices, including a group of Emergency Medicine research assistants from Rhode Island Hospital, who proposed the concept, “Heal on Wheels”—a mobile health bus that seeks to bring harm reduction and overdose prevention education to historically underserved communities in Rhode Island. Another carefully selected idea was developed by members of Portland’s Drug User’s Union, chosen for their proposal of a peer-centered, low barrier harm reduction model.

Special recognition and congratulations to the top teams!

Heal on Wheels

Heal on Wheels is proposed as a mobile center that provides culturally competent, bilingual harm reduction and overdose prevention to historically underserved Hispanic and Latinx communities in Rhode Island. The mobile center will partner with local community organizations to deliver culturally responsive materials and determine optimal mobile site “pop up” locations. On board, they will distribute resources (e.g., local recovery clinics, harm reduction centers, faith-based/support meetings) and harm reduction materials (e.g., fentanyl test strips, Naloxone/Narcan, clean needles). A phone and laptop will also be available for use on board.

Ashley Gaipo, Amanda Block, Paola Jimenez, Jhanavi Kapadia, Sarah Tokarz, and Sage Mueller

Access Express

Access Express is proposed as a physical solution to deliver harm reduction materials and other basic needs to people on their time. The idea is a modular, compact system of 24/7-access harm reduction dispensaries paired with a community engagement hub that democratizes harm reduction and facilitates movement of machines to be responsive to community needs. The creation of a website is proposed to allow communities to share resources, submit requests for dispensaries, and request community-specific materials.

Brendan Jacka, PhD, Laurie MacDougall, and Leah Germinara


This team proposes to leverage an established IoT pipeline to ensure automated, handsfree supply monitoring and management for community naloxone program in high-risk locations, in collaboration with Naloxbox team and Rhode Island DMAT. In addition to providing status updates on the box, the development of a web portal is proposed to collect metrics from owner-users of the boxes on the circumstances surrounding each use case.

Leo Kobayashi, MD, Geoff Capraro, MD, Ashesh Gohil, and Brooke Lawrence

Portland’s Overdose Prevention Collective

This team proposes an initiative in partnership with a Rhode Island community organization that builds on a peer-centered, low barrier harm reduction model developed by people with lived experience of drug use. As future legalization efforts take hold, the guiding principles of this model will then be used to inform research opportunities and harm reduction initiatives.

Team members were Avi Yocheved, Joseph Cordo, Peach Anderson, Forest Tyler, and Ashley Perry

Hackathon Kick-off at District Hall

The 2021 Hackathon commenced on October 15th with an in-person kick-off event at District Hall in Providence. A series of reputable speakers and panelists helped frame the problem and inspired attendees to use forward-thinking mindsets when developing their ‘hacks.’

Dr. Brandon Marshall, PhD, researcher at the Brown School of Public Health, opened the event by reminding us of the 384 lives lost prematurely to drug overdose in Rhode Island during the Covid-19 pandemic—ending with a message of hope and celebration for attendees.

“There’s a real opportunity here, now, for us to move American drug policy into the future. A future focused on health, on reducing harm, and on care and compassion. Our work at the Hackathon can be part of this momentum.”

Keynote speaker Dr. Kim Sue, MD, PhD, medical director at the National Harm Reduction Coalition, energized participants to think about health justice issues, overdose prevention, and hacks needed to address stigma and NIMBYISM—the acronym for “Not in my backyard.”

“This is a broad-sweeping movement. We really want to shift power and resources to people vulnerable to structural violence. We really want to involve people who use drugs. We really want to not only focus on naloxone or syringes. We really want to liberate and equip people with their basic needs to not only survive but flourish and thrive.”

Afterwards, a panel moderated by Dr. Alexandra Collins, PhD, from the Brown School of Public Health, highlighted several community, healthcare, and policy innovations helping to mitigate the overdose problem.

Dr. Rachel Wightman, MD, Brown emergency medicine physician and researcher, spoke about Lifespan’s 24/7 buprenorphine hotline—a free, telephone-based telehealth clinic for buprenorphine that links people in withdrawal from opioids to buprenorphine providers. The hotline only became a possibility after March 2020, when the HHS and DEA loosened regulations around the prescribing of buprenorphine due to increased barriers to accessing care brought by COVID-19.

Gordon Casey, founder of the Brave Technology Coop—a technology platform and framework for detecting and preventing overdose—illustrated how his idea for the Brave app, or “Uber for Narcan,” was inspired by learning to be quiet and listening to people with lived experience of drug use.

“… go and speak to people with lived experience of drug use…and listen. Your idea is probably like a great little nub of an idea. And if you’re lucky, it will stimulate something back to you. But even if it doesn’t, if you just keep your mouth shut, you’re eventually going to hear something you never would have heard otherwise. That’s how we built all these relationships… by learning to keep our mouths shut.

Lieutenant Stephen Murray, front-line paramedic, overdose survivor, and Director of Never Use Alone New England—a free, 24/7 virtual supervised consumption site that connects people who use drugs to peer volunteer operators that help keep callers safe and alive—spoke of his personal and professional experiences related to the overdose crisis which have informed and motivated his work.

“What happens on those calls? Beautiful things happen. People are talking, they’re connecting. They don’t feel isolated. They are engaging in a way that maybe they’re not accustomed to. You’re talking to someone you’ve never met and you’re having this really deep conversation about your life and they’re not pushing you towards treatment or they’re not making you feel like you’re a bad person.”

Joshua Miller, Rhode Island state senator, articulated the good that came out of the otherwise trying pandemic—the historic passage of harm reduction legislation and authorization of the nation’s first harm reduction center, the decriminalization of buprenorphine, and passage of the telemedicine bill.

“A lot of these bills had been out there for years but didn’t pass except because of the pandemic. Because of the context in which these things were discussed, they got understood by a wider group of people. So, these things that felt virtually impossible became possible.”

To conclude the event, a panel of 2019 COBRE Hackathon winners, moderated by Naloxbox co-creator Dr. Geoff Capraro, MD, provided an overview of their concepts that have since progressed in development, offering attendees advice on how to make the most out of their Hackathon experience.

“You don’t know where it’s going to take you. But this is a caring community of scrappy innovators who love to collaborate. I think many of us in our professional lives will never have a better experience than working together with a tight focus on what matters.”—Geoff Capraro, MD, co-creator of Naloxbox.

Leigh Hubbard, RN, ONC, Nurse Manager at Open Door Health, and strategic designers Tim Maly and Toban Shadlyn from RISD’s Center for Complexity, spoke of lessons learned when developing their concept for Mainstay, Rhode Island— a “soft and slow” environment for people after surviving an overdose—which went on to receive funding to build a website and conduct interviews with people who use drugs, with the goal of using their findings to inform the development of the future harm reduction center.

“Come in as an open vessel. You may have an idea you want to work on but be willing to kind of shift and be nimble and flexible if you hear something else that sparks a new idea.”—Leigh Hubbard, Mainstay, RI.

Anthony Dutra and Varshith Anilkumar, co-founders of Block MMP, described how their idea—a software that utilizes blockchain technology to solve the problem of Methadone dosage tracking—was conceived from conversations with an addiction medicine physician that evolved into community partnerships, a website, and the launch of a start-up. Anthony, who was also a Hackathon mentor throughout the weekend, suggested the following to attendees:

“It really comes down to listening and paying attention to what the process flow is and where can you add value to that process. We’re not all technical—we don’t need to be.”—Anthony Dutra, Block MMP.

Lastly, Brian Bishop, PharmD, BCPS, developer of The We-Can app—a free mobile application designed to educate patients and their loved ones about stigma experienced by people with substance use disorders and about available harm reduction and treatment options—explained how his 2019 Hackathon team has since partnered with community pharmacies to pilot the We-Can app in southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

After the kick-off event, participants were encouraged to initiate conversations, share ideas, and form collaborations around one or more of the following topic areas:

    1. Community strategy for opioid overdose—an idea for the community that focuses on a community-based problem related to opioid overdose
    2. Healthcare solutions to opioid overdose—an idea that addresses a problem of the healthcare system or healthcare setting related to opioid overdose
    3. Policy solutions to opioid overdose—an idea that addresses a drug policy or health policy problem related to opioid overdose

Networking opportunities were made available throughout the event with expert mentors assisting participants with finding teams and offering guidance along the way as ideas were developed.

The COBRE Overdose Hackathon exemplifies a unique approach to finding solutions to a complex problem and provides opportunity for the public to participate in research and overdose response opportunities, using a collective problem-solving approach to design products and services that have a lasting impact.

“A Hackathon democratizes the process of finding solutions. Anyone can participate and crucially are encouraged to work together to find solutions to a problem.” said Dr. Brandon Marshall, PhD, Associate Professor at the Brown School of Public Health and Director of the Data and Research Methods Core at the COBRE.

Dr Traci Green, who co-directs the COBRE and leads the Translational & Transformative Research Core stated, “Even within a pandemic and amidst the worst opioid and overdose crises we’ve experienced as a country, the energy and innovation of this Hackathon gives great hope for what more we can do to save lives”.

The group plans to continue the events into the future and to partner with other organizations to expand reach: “As the only Hackathon event in the country focused on opioids and overdose, this COBRE event is a hallmark of Rhode Island innovation in public health and we can’t wait for the next one”, said Green.

Watch the live-recorded kick-off event HERE.

Watch the pitching presentations HERE.

View the awards ceremony HERE.

Read more about the event in the Providence Business News