Biohack: Encouraging Public Innovation

By this point, we felt it was time to put the lessons we learned into practice. After talking to Adam Winstock, we knew that we could improve our biosensor by incorporating software into its design. This would ideally be an application for a smartphone that could interpret the results of the biosensor and provide a text-based output that was easy-to-read for the end user. However, designing an app with this ability is no easy task, and we knew we needed help. That's when we recalled the guiding principle behind the Synenergene initiative: open collaboration between SynBio, the public and stakeholders is mutually beneficial. Thus, we set out to find a way to bring all three of these groups together in attempts to solve the software dilemma, which lead to our solution: a biohack.

A biohack is a type of hackathon, which is a computer hacking competition where teams and individuals come together at a specified location in an attempt to create something innovative using new and/or existing technologies. The difference between a normal hackathon and biohack, then, is that the latter somehow incorporates biology. Biohacks are usually 24-48 hours long, and culminate with presentations by teams who feel that they have created something worth sharing by the end of the competition. Winners are subsequently awarded prizes from sponsors, and walk away with a degree of exposure of their abilities. These events are typically free and open to the public in order to encourage hackers of all skill levels and sets to participate.

We wanted our biohack to be no different, and so we began by seeking out sponsors. We got in contact with JP Morgan, Amazon and Major League Hacking, who all graciously agreed to sponsor our event, as well as send representatives to participate and set challenges for the hackers. Next, we opened it up to the wide public, inviting biologists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and many others to come along with anyone they so wished. Finally, we decided on the challenges for the competition, which centered around designing an application that could interact with our biosensor in some way.

The winner of our biohack created an application that could interact with our biosensor by gathering data and placing it on a map. Thus, if a contaminated batch of MDMA or heroin were to show up on the street, the app would highlight the areas with contaminated drugs, warning health care workers and drug users. The runner up designed an app for a smart-watch that could alert emergency health care services if an individual's vitals drop after consuming illicit drugs. We kept some of their key ideas in mind when designing our own app; however, the biohack was a success primarily because it introduced many different demographics to synbio.