Acumen Solutions VA Account Lead, Mandy Peckham, had the opportunity to connect with Danielle Krakora, VHA Innovation Ecosystem Fellow and Office of Information Technology (OIT) SaaS/PaaS Product Owner, and Dallas Blaney, Executive Director for Challenge America, to discuss their partnership on the COVID-19 Maker Challenge, a unique challenge event aimed at supporting essential workers on the front lines of COVID-19.
How Did These Two Veteran-Focused Organizations Find Themselves Working on COVID-19 Efforts?
Dallas: Danielle and I have worked together over the last several years on a variety of pro bono projects, including one called CAMVETS which was focused on developing innovative solutions to meet the needs of injured Veterans. In 2019, we hosted two CAMVETS programs that generated 17 working prototype solutions, including the Military Sisterhood Initiative (MSI). As Veterans ourselves, we are both passionate about serving Veterans.
We were both very excited about continuing that work into 2020, but of course, like everyone else, we were impacted by COVID-19. What came out of that was that it activated the fourth mission of the VA, which allows the Agency to expand the scope of its work to support civilians during periods of national crisis. So we decided to refocus this program from Veterans to supporting essential workers on the front lines of COVID-19.
Danielle: With my work at the VA, both as a Product Manager and VHA Innovation Ecosystem Fellow, I was in a unique situation to support VA’s innovation efforts. At OI&T, I help medical centers and program offices to think creatively and to find a way to modernize their systems; and then I take those great ideas, and I scale them across the enterprise, which is really energizing and innovative. And working with the creative innovative arm of VHA, they agreed to support our Makers Challenge work, and expand it from where it originated in Cleveland, Ohio, to become a virtual and nationwide effort.
What Were Some of the Challenges and Responses to Pivoting The Makers Challenge to COVID-19?
Dallas: We jumped at the opportunity to pivot the focus of our Maker Challenges, but it was a significant change because our past programs were five months in length, from beginning to end. Just three weeks from the day that Danielle suggested shifting gears and focusing on COVID-19, we stood up our first program. Based on the emerging and rapid needs of COVID-19, we knew we had to compress programs down to just one month – which was a big challenge to say the least – and to take it from an in-person program to a virtual one.
Danielle: When you look at what I do at the VA, and what we are doing for the Makers Challenge, it’s not that different. We find creative, energized passionate people that want to make a difference and we enable them by providing them with resources and tools to do that, and then we give them a vision. In the case of our COVID-19 Maker Challenges, it’s finding ways to help essential workers. The response we got when we reached out to people in different industries, to see how ready they are to open up, to share their experiences and jump on board, has been amazing and inspiring.
The real structure, the heart of the program, is only a week long, but what happens after and how these teams continue to volunteer their time to work on these incredible solutions and refine their designs to get them to a point where we can scale them has been amazing. Then there are the makers who participate in the program and seeing all they are able to accomplish is incredible, and the partnerships we’ve been able to mature with different organizations and industries allows us to do this work. We spend most of our days asking people to do things for us and then when they step up, we spend the rest of our time thanking them… that’s kind of our job these days, and folks wants to step up and find a solution to all these challenges, and we’re just so excited and proud to be in the position we are in.
What are some of your Success Stories from COVID-19 Makers Challenge?
Danielle: One of the successes we have seen is the usability of solutions from one challenge to the next. For example, one challenge focused on the needs of Environmental Management Service (EMS), which is what we call them at the VA, but those on the outside might know them better as housekeepers or janitorial staff. What we learned from talking to these essential workers at a hotel chain was that they were really concerned about customer luggage and outside parcels. They didn’t want to bring the virus in with them unknowingly on their luggage, so the challenge was, how can we decontaminate them?
In response, one team built this incredible box that is easily scalable, and is essentially lined with a powerful UVC light. When the box closes, it blasts the item with that UVC light, killing any of the virus that may be present. This particular team is actually a hybrid team encompassing people from the VA in Dallas and private sector partners. The first workable prototype was developed and installed at the Dallas VA Medical Center. This really speaks to the dedication of our teams because they’ve been working and continuously on this for the last several weeks post event. And although it was designed initially for the hospitality industry, it is scalable and offers potential for many applications.
While doing interviews for our Nursing Home Challenge, we discovered that administrators and frontline workers in that field had a similar challenge. Some of the nursing home residents’ family members wanted to bring things in to their isolated family members, whether food, clothing, plants or whatever. Currently these items were being held for a certain period of time to make sure that the virus wasn’t on them so they could be safely delivered to the resident. We could easily see that a solution to quickly sanitize those items to get them into the hands of the intended recipient had applications here as well.
What’s Next for the Makers Challenge?
Danielle: We’ve completed four challenges to date, focused on the needs of First Responders, Environmental Management Services, Nursing Homes, and In-home Care, and our fifth one is underway right now. Out of these challenges, we’ve created 35 working prototypes and out of those, at least 25 are undergoing further development which is an incredible accomplishment.
Important to these ongoing efforts and the continued success of these initiatives are industry partners, academia, and non-profits. In-kind support from folks with brilliant minds and capabilities, whether they’re engineers, designers, whatever the case may be is critical to delivering these kinds of innovative, scalable solutions. We are creative and we are very inclusive so we will find a way to leverage talents. If somebody wants to get involved, we will put them to good use because there are so many different opportunities out there, and we can figure out the best fit for everybody.
Dallas: We hope that folks will want to jump in and roll up their sleeves, and we encourage everyone to attend our final closing ceremony on October 18th at 5pm EST. And to learn more about our work and our past challenges, please visit www.covidmakerchallenge.com
About Danielle Krakora
Danielle Krakora is a community leader, Veteran advocate and innovative strategist working for the VA Office of Information and Technology and a Fellow with the VHA Innovation Ecosystem. Danielle is committed to improving the patient experience by modernizing systems with new technology and applying a principle-based approach to her leadership. She inspires others to realize their potential and encourages the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit in the people she mentors. She has held numerous positions during her seven-year tenure with the VA and is nationally recognized for her innovative work across the organization.
About Dallas Blaney
Dallas Blaney is the Executive Director at Challenge America, where he is responsible for advancing the organization’s national mission to connect service members, veterans and their families to resources and solutions that build community and give purpose to their lives.
About Mandy Peckham
Mandy Peckham is an Account Lead at Acumen Solutions where she leads Growth on the VA account and provides innovative, human-centered solutions to her clients throughout the VA. She also provides matrixed support for the entire Federal Health IT practices at Acumen Solutions, including DHA and HHS. An Account Executive with 15+ years of professional experience in federal consulting, nonprofits in the fields of healthcare and conflict resolution, and the legal field, Mandy has worked for micro-small and large companies and has provided strategic growth leadership at the corporate and account level, with the focus on new and emerging technologies and markets as well as increasing organic growth.
About Acumen Solutions
Acumen Solutions and Challenge America have partnered together for several years to create innovative new technology solutions to help support our Veterans in need. Through initiatives such as CAMVETS, and this current Maker Challenge event, our teams have jointly created prototypes for a mobile application to support homebound Veterans that have such severe anxiety that they cannot leave the house, as well as a social platform to help connect women Veterans around the country that are seeking support during and after their transition back to their civilian lives. We are honored and proud to be able to support such an amazing organization that is helping to transform the way Veterans stay connected with one another.