| Hackathon

Pure healthcare innovation: The first ever Merck hackathon in South Africa

Table Mountain was the spectacular backdrop to Merck’s first ever hackathon in South Africa, held at the MEST incubator in Cape Town within the Accelerator Satellite Program. Around 40 talented participants from a variety of countries and backgrounds came together to address four of the tough challenges being faced by healthcare experts in Africa. As usual, the results did not disappoint.

Timed to coincide with the launch of Merck’s CURAFA™ project, which are points of care that provide integrated healthcare services to underserved communities with the aim of making quality services accessible and affordable for patients, the M² Hack by Merck and MEST in Cape Town on September 8th & 9th brought together a lively mix of students, entrepreneurs and industry experts to work towards a common objective: Creating innovative solutions to give people in low-income regions access to better healthcare, and enabling better interaction with doctors for treatment-relevant information.


Specifically, attendees were given the option to tackle one of these four challenges.

  • No. 1: An innovative patient management platform (PMP), to be used at the point-of-care CURAFA™ site. Goal: To create a digital disease companion that educates about health and increases patient treatment adherence
  • No. 2: Early facial recognition of Thyroidism, an often-overlooked hormonal condition. Goal: To design a digital-visual aid diagnostics tool for self-pre-screening.
  • No. 3: Automated Q&A on feature phones. Goal: Make trusted medical information accessible to people without smartphones through a chatbot-like interaction, using e.g. USSD technology.
  • No. 4: Customer engagement beyond the pill. Goal: Build an engagement platform for doctors, where they can access highly relevant and useful information from pharmaceutical companies.


Renè Fourie, Multichannel Marketing Manager of Merck’s Biopharma business in South Africa kicked things off with an introduction to the company, before handing over to Herve Kubwimana, Head of the Merck Accelerator in Africa, who provided an overview of Merck’s Innovation Center activities. He also introduced the Africa Satellite Program, part of the Merck Accelerator for startups, which gives startups in Nairobi, Lagos and Cape Town the chance to pitch their ideas and set up a longer term collaboration with Merck.

After a brief introduction to the CURAFA™ initiative mentioned above, Janik Weigel from the Innovation Center explained Merck’s motivation for organizing Hackathons all over the world and summarized the logistics of the event itself, including the prizes. In addition to the pitching opportunity, these included:

  • A R 17000 (ca. 1000€) the cash 1st prize
  • A R 8500 (ca. 500€) cash 2nd prize
  • Two secret special prizes

Then, following an overview of the event schedule from General Manager of MEST Ghana and well-known hackathon veteran Ashwin Ravichandran, Janik and Herve got the innovation ball rolling.

Participants engaged eagerly within their groups and with mentors from specific medical fields and Silicon Valley-based startups, who were on hand to provide their expertise. On Sunday, the hackers were given access to additional mentors from Merck and the CURAFA™ project, who were available via Skype or phone to help them develop their solutions further. Ashwin also ran compact workshops on how to use the Business Model Canvas (BMC) and the Minimal Viable Product (MVP) methodologies to sharpen their ideas for the final pitch process.

After short pitches from each of the teams, and due consideration from the jury, the winners were announced:

1st prize: Team “Scriptables.co” who developed a working prototype of an engaging Q&A bot that gives people with feature phones access to important health data. They will present their idea later at the Cape Town Satellite Pitch event in November.

2nd prize: Team “On Track – A winning scheme for all”, who delivered a sustainable concept for an improved Patient Monitoring Platform (PMP) that involves regional stakeholders and improves patient experience at the point-of-care.

They also won the special prize for the best team name, since the jury felt that they had captured the spirit of their challenge perfectly.

Because it was a close decision overall, the second special prize went to “Metamorph”, with team members being given the chance to visit the Innovation Summit South Africa the following week.

And so, the first ever Merck Hackathon to be held in South Africa closed with thanks all round to the organizers, participants, the jury and MEST. Merck is now investigating collaboration opportunities with the winners.