My Experience Running the Pandemic Challenge

Now more than ever, collective intelligence is imploring us to harness the useful knowledge of a diverse group and leverage this wisdom to solve the world’s biggest and most threatening problems. 

The emergence of Covid-19 and the damage it’s causing our economic ecosystems should not come as a shock. Long have scientists forecast that a pandemic would occur. Yet with all our science and technologies, I wrongly assumed we’d be able to tackle this new-to-humans virus with ease.

When the reality sunk into my mind, returning from a business trip to Bergamo Italy in mid-February, I thought long and hard about what role I should play. It quickly became obvious: run a pilot competition to gather ideas that can help abate the pandemic.

Competitions form a collective intelligence, and have been used for centuries to solve tough problems. We elicit structured opinion from many competitors and engage a diverse panel of accomplished judges to rank the submissions. We then help competitors progress their ideas with decision makers, especially those who can enter into contracts and/or provide financing to help these ideas flourish.

My competitions have ranged from substantial—the UK Government’s Civil Service Innovation challenges, which were open to almost half a million public sector employees—to local events such as the Brighton Grand Challenge competed by a handful of people.

The first requirement of a successful competition is the prize, which was generously donated by Singularity University: a seat at the Executive Program in Silicon Valley, a course I attended back in 2010. Prize in-hand, I set about contacting judges. The challenge was open from mid-March to mid-April and led to a list of 45 full submissions from over 30 countries on all continents, save Antarctica.

This blog post would be a book if I wrote everything down, but needless to say we had ideas of all shapes and sizes, from hand washing devices in Nigeria, to AI-powered knowledge management tools in Singapore, Wim Hof’s immune strengthening programme, disinfecting everything, sensing and testing, behaviour change Estonian-style, the suggestion of exposing populations to a mild dose of the coronavirus to facilitate herd immunity…you name it, we heard about it, and I’m sure there are many combinations of ideas from these many suggestions that could be developed.

The biggest initial signal of the judges’ collective brain was that they cast out anything from consulting companies. Amidst a pandemic, people want stuff that works either now, or very soon.

I have total respect for people who make an effort to compete, but we have to rank them and boil it down to the top five, from which we selected a winner as follows:

First – Dorothea Koh, Bot MD, Singapore. Bot MD is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) clinical assistant for doctors to improve patient care, and with the emergence of this new disease we need to ensure that knowledge is delivered to the front line fast.

Joint Second – Trevor Costello, Aqua 21, UK. Aqua21 is clean, safe, and biocidal water through ozone disinfection and real-time contaminant monitoring and control. Ozone is believed to be the most powerful disinfectant available, and will help abate the pandemic.

Joint Second – Asiye Karakullukçu, AKSense, Turkey/UK. AKsense is developing a digital portable biosensor for earlier and faster diagnosis of COVID-19 and healthcare-associated infections.

Fourth – Renan Serrano, Visto Bio, Brazil/US. Visto Bio is upgrading their product to kill viruses including SARS-CoV-2, and once dry—in less than 1 minute—the protection remains active on surfaces for at least 48 hours.

Fifth – Alberto Rizzoli, V7 Labs, Italy/Sweden/UK. V7’s CoronaNet project uses a novel AI approach to detect and measure the severity of COVID-19 cases via chest x-rays by isolating and normalizing lungs, bronchi, and the diaphragm area with AI, classifying them, and presenting clinicians with a similarity-ranked comparison of other cases found within a large dataset.

Now that the selection phase of the pilot is over, the hard work starts. We are in discussion with a number of global corporates to discuss how they can engage with the competitors. I’ve been very impressed with the active responses from Vodafone, Vodacom, Amazon AWS and Water Aid. Solving a pandemic requires teamwork, and it’s great to see these corporates engaged.

Next, we’d like to run a larger Pandemic Challenge, with several tracks including Communications, IOT, AI, Sensing, Disinfecting, and more. These tracks depend on the prizes we can bring in from sponsors. If you would like to engage, by offering sponsored prizes or becoming a judge, please do let me know through LinkedIn.

My conclusion is that we should be running hundreds of competitions to tackle humanity’s hardest problems, including the unwelcome Covid 19 disease.

We really can abate this pandemic, but only by leveraging our collective intelligence.

Mike Halsall is an entrepreneur, and has worked in a number of arenas including construction, real estate investment, software development, and with the government. Career highlights include co-founding and selling an investment business to AXA, building a school for autistic kids in Scotland, running several entrepreneur and intrapreneur competitions for corporations and government, sending winners to Singularity, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and guest lecturing and supervising postgraduate students at UCL. Mike has constructed many buildings for the public and private sectors in the UK and overseas, including tree houses for his four wonderful now grown up children. Learn more about the Pandemic Challenge at pandemicchallenge.com.