Designing for speed and urgency

How the KidneyX COVID-19 Kidney Care Challenge used open innovation to address a crisis.


In 2020, the 37 million Americans living with kidney disease were at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and acute kidney injury — sudden loss of kidney function — was affecting 20-40% of COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care. Even worse, the pandemic was exacerbating existing health disparities; COVID-19 disproportionately impacted communities that were already more vulnerable to kidney disease and other conditions. The crisis was unfolding in real time, and solutions were urgently needed.

The Kidney Innovation Accelerator (KidneyX), a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and the American Society of Nephrology (ASN), knew that providers, caregivers, and patients had developed innovative solutions during the first wave of the pandemic. There was an ongoing need to scale those solutions and apply them in other settings and communities. How could KidneyX recognize that ingenuity and share solutions? And how quickly could it happen?


Speed was important, but when it comes to public health, “move fast and break things” isn’t an option. A public prize would need to thoughtfully balance speed with due diligence. And knowing that potential solvers were overwhelmed by the crisis that was still unfolding, any call for submissions would also need to acknowledge those unique circumstances and respect solvers’ time and attention. Would we be able to reach solvers and convince them to share their solutions in a short period of time?


Luminary Labs collaborated with ASN and HHS to design and produce an open innovation challenge for speed and urgency — without compromising quality — to meet the moment and the distinctive needs of the community. The $300,000 KidneyX COVID-19 Kidney Care Challenge sought existing solutions and offered recognition prizes that acknowledged the significance of solvers’ contributions to addressing a public health crisis.

Round 1 submissions opened in November 2020, as the third wave of the pandemic was beginning, and closed in early December. We rapidly iterated to adapt our outreach efforts and reach more solvers as we launched Round 2. By the time submissions closed in January 2021, the third wave was peaking in the U.S., but vaccination efforts were already well underway. The wide range of solutions — from patient monitoring, patient education, and vaccine distribution to data management, detection, and telehealth — represented a breadth of needs and experiences during an evolving crisis.

Designing a competition with two rapid rounds — instead of a down-select challenge with multiple phases and levels of fidelity — helped get an initial batch of winning solutions published quickly. We accelerated challenge design with condensed and efficient conversations with subject matter experts; to get the word out, we drew on the existing KidneyX network and our own open innovation community. The broader community also supported winner selection: The judging panel included patients, nephrologists, administrators, and other experts.


HHS and ASN announced 15 winners in Rounds 1 and 2 of the KidneyX COVID-19 Kidney Care Challenge in early 2021. KidneyX published detailed summaries of the winning solutions, including considerations for implementation and adaptation. Each winner received $20,000 in recognition of their solution.

As the KidneyX team wrote in a recent HHS blog post, the challenge also put the “public” in public health: “By designing this prize challenge to directly solicit solutions from people at the ground level, we not only involved them in the research process, we gained better understanding of challenges that are being faced in everyday care centers.”