The Stanford dermatology resident dropped in on the weekend-long event in early November to serve as a mentor for a few hours and to learn about hackathons for future reference.
Taking a seat in a lecture room at Stanford’s Huang Engineering Center, Afanasiev joined hundreds of enthusiastic participants from around the world — physicians, bioengineers, computer scientists, designers, businesspeople — to discuss unmet needs in the health care industry.
They started with one-minute descriptions of problems. Nearly two dozen people took turns listing pressing issues ranging from the proliferation of counterfeit drugs on the international market to the developmental lag for low-income babies.
The more Afanasiev listened, the more inspired she became. When organizers opened the floor for additional ideas, on a whim, she stood up.
“I could see there was a wide diversity of opportunities and resources in the room,” she told me later. “I thought maybe something may catch someone’s interest.”
Afanasiev had been thinking about an inefficiency at the dermatology clinic. Physicians spent so much time during short patient visits trying to elicit imperfect memories about past flare-ups of chronic skin conditions, or comparing past photographs of a patient’s mole with how it looked in person. She wondered if there was a better way to track the conditions, while allowing for more time to discuss prevention and treatment strategies during office visits with the patient.
“In dermatology,” she said, “we need a robust way of monitoring chronic skin diseases to improve our health care delivery and patients’ quality of life.”
Her pitch resonated with four others: a postdoctoral bioengineering student from Poland, an economist visiting from Japan, a business student from Sacramento and a Stanford computer science student. They formed a team and got to work.
By lunchtime on Sunday, 24 hours later, they’d created their concept. A mobile app called SkinSpecs would allow patients to answer questions and download pictures or videos about chronic skin conditions during a flare-up. The data then could be compiled into a dashboard to provide doctors with better information about their patients’ health. The solution, Afanasiev’s team reasoned, could save doctors both time and money while improving their patients’ experience.
Their idea caught the notice of the judges, a panel of physicians, investors and medical technology experts from Stanford Medicine, Stanford Biodesign and the private sector. More than $10,000 in prizes were available from the event’s 15 sponsors, including Persistent-NeoDesign and the Byers Center for Biodesign. Nine projects, including SkinSpecs, received awards. The first place grand prize went to Smile, a proposal that encouraged better oral hygiene for millennials through technology.
SkinSpecs was recognized in the category “Best Understanding of an Unmet Need.” Afanasiev was excited to win and motivated to continue work on the SkinSpecs idea.
“Problem-based innovation is what I value the most,” she told me. “There are many solutions for certain needs, but understanding the need and your stakeholders is as critical as creating a product that can be translated into patient care.”
Photo courtesy of Olga Afanasiev of, from left, her daughter Katherine and team members Lindy Kim, Kittichote Kamalapirat, Ashton Teng and Afanasiev. (Team member Lukasz Kidzinski not pictured.)