Introducing new technology to an age-old health problem

A virtual accelerator closes the gap between concept and viability.


When designing the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, a $250,000, multistage prize competition sponsored by Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, New Jersey, U.S.A in collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS), it occurred to us that nearly every solver would have a significant technical gap, as voice-enabled technology was in its infancy and health applications were few and far between. During this time, U.S. smart speaker sales had doubled and nearly half of all Americans had used a voice assistant. And yet, the majority of early applications were for entertainment purposes. The challenge hypothesized that voice assistant uses would evolve from managing music playlists to managing life, including supporting people newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.


Most startups fail, and many concepts never make it past paper. This is precisely why venture capitalists place bets on teams with the ability to ‘close the gap’ between a good idea and a commercializable product or service. The same can be said of open innovation: a frequent complaint is that the solvers’ concepts often die on the vine. Challenges that solicit ideas are nice, but making those ideas real is always preferable. This is particularly true for impact challenges. It’s one thing to fail to meet a commercial aim. Failure to meet a humanitarian or societal goal can result in entirely different consequences.


The Alexa Diabetes Challenge received nearly 100 submissions from a broad cross-section of solvers — including academic research teams, individuals, startups, and even public companies. We needed to ensure that the finalist teams had the skills, especially the ones outside their expertise, to effectively produce viable solutions.

Back in 2011, when we launched our first challenge, most prize competitions were simply offering money for ideas, but our clients wanted to make things real. We developed a multistage challenge methodology that shepherds the strongest solutions through an iterative process, ultimately closing the gap between the concept and real-world viability.

To do this, we borrowed the best practices from two rising trends (at that time) in business and adapted them to fit the open innovation challenge format. We looked to traditional tech accelerators that offered resources in the form of seed money, education, and mentorship, and modified their typical structure so that founders wouldn’t be required to move across the country or give up equity. We also drew from design thinking methodologies to firmly assert that the innovation needed to be human-centered, and we added educational modules that helped turn concepts into tangible and market-viable products and services. Interestingly, these two circles — tech accelerators and design thinking methodologies — had not yet intersected. We combined empathy building, subject matter knowledge, rapid prototyping, and business modeling to support iteration.

Each of the five finalist teams in the Alexa Diabetes Challenge received $25,000, promotional credits from Amazon Web Services, and access to the virtual accelerator, which included an in-person boot camp at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. The boot camp featured a deep focus on the patient experience and behavioral economics, with sessions led by experts in diabetes education and health care innovation as well as Type 2 diabetes patients themselves. The finalists also worked directly with the AWS team to explore how they could harness Amazon services for transformative healthcare solutions. Last but not least, the teams participated in a ‘round robin’ session, rotating through working meetings with ten experts in diabetes management, health tech, data privacy, AI, voice technology, and voice user experience.


Anne Weiler, CEO of Wellpepper, the Alexa Diabetes Challenge winner, noted that when deciding whether to enter the challenge, she considered the prize purse and presumed publicity as table stakes. It was the learning opportunities, as well as the dedicated space and time to explore the problem, that ultimately enticed her to enter. Our 2018 survey of prize-winning teams — semifinalists, finalists, and winners of 14 impact-focused challenges we produced over the past eight years — reiterated this sentiment. While only 10% of teams surveyed said learning opportunities — in the form of a virtual accelerator that could include a boot camp, piloting, and/or mentorship — were the primary motivation for entering, after the challenge, nearly half of teams surveyed (47%) named learning opportunities as an important benefit of participating.

This case study is adapted from Luminary Labs CEO Sara Holoubek’s chapter in “Perspectives on Impact: Leading Voices On Making Systemic Change in the Twenty-First Century.” Learn more about open innovation outcomes: view highlights from our 2018 survey of prize recipients.