Independence Blue Cross launches $150,000 health innovation contest

Independence Blue Cross will offer $50,000 plus mentoring for up to to three ideas to aid healthy behavior. MATT ROURKE / AP
Independence Blue Cross will offer $50,000 plus mentoring for up to to three ideas to aid healthy behavior. MATT ROURKE / AP
Posted: June 07, 2012

What do you do when some of the best medical institutions in the world (in Philadelphia) can’t improve the lot of one of the unhealthiest populations in the country (ditto)?

You ask for help — and offer cash as an incentive.

It has worked with thorny problems before, from how to navigate the ocean (the British Parliament’s Longitude Act of 1714 offered cash prizes) to sending a privately financed rocket into space (a $10 million X Prize).

On Wednesday, Independence Blue Cross will announce the latest challenge: It will offer $50,000 plus mentoring from innovation experts for up to three "software applications, devices, products, education programs, or public awareness campaigns that can deliver a positive impact on our region’s health, with special emphasis on driving healthy behaviors such as eating  right and getting fit."

Pretty much anyone who is over 17 and works or lives in the five-county region is eligible. The deadline is July 10.

With the contest, the insurer is publicly embracing innovation, an arena in which health care has long lagged other industries. Restaurants, for example, started taking online and mobile reservations years ago, but most doctors still require scheduling by phone, frustrating consumers who get put on hold or must wait for a call back.

The company also is positioning itself to be a "hub of innovation" in the region, and it envisions the Philadelphia area — with its abundance of research institutions, hospital systems, and pharmaceutical companies — becoming a "national hub for health innovation and creation of jobs and improvement in the way health care is delivered," said president and chief executive Dan Hilferty.

Health-care leaders typically overanalyze, study issues to death, and worry about lawsuits in what adds up to a "do no harm" approach, said Michael R. Burcham, who teaches health-care innovation at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. A contest "is a really good process to use because it allows a traditional health-care organization like Independence Blue Cross to get out of their own way."

Winners of the "IBX Game Changers Challenge" will get help developing their ideas from the Wharton School’s Entrepreneurial Programs, the health-care incubator Venturef0rth, and consulting firm? What If! Innovation Partners. Details are at www.ibx.com/challenge.

The contest’s focus on changing unhealthy behaviors is significant because they are responsible for many chronic conditions, such as diabetes, that afflict a high percentage of Philadelphia residents. Behaviors also are beyond doctors’ power to change, said Christian Terwiesch, coauthor of Innovation Tournaments and a Wharton professor. He is not involved with the contest.

"We have to get into [patients’] brains, we have to get them engaged, to believe in themselves, to pick the right priorities on nutrition, on exercise. They are not a matter of technology, they are a matter of emotion," he said.

For those who want to enter, he has this advice: "Be wacky. The good idea never wins. The wacky idea that has a 10 percent chance of being brilliant and 90 percent chance of being horrible has a much better chance to win."

Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or dsapatkin@phillynews.com.

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