Whether it’s a worldwide pandemic or a profound personal experience, health innovators find fuel to spark their ideas for improving lives around the world. The goal of Carle Illinois College of Medicine’s Health Make-A-Thon is to democratize health innovation by challenging trained specialists and ‘citizen scientists’ alike to pitch their best solution to address broad-based health and wellness problems.

“The Health Make-a-Thon is a welcome mat thrown out to the community to say, ‘Level playing field. Best idea wins,’ and offer that chance for those ideas that society has probably missed out on to finally have a voice and to have an opportunity to win resources to turn those ideas into potentially transformative prototypes,” said Carle Illinois Associate Dean of Research Marty Burke.

Health Make-a-Thon participants who have taken the competition stage in the past include community members, K-12, college, and university students, healthcare practitioners, entrepreneurs, and other professionals. While their backgrounds vary, they all share an ability to recognize a health problem — often motivated by a personal experience or keen observation — combined with the drive to find a solution.

Fast Facts:

The Carle Illinois College of Medicine challenges any Illinois resident with an idea for a broad-based health solution to enter the spring 2021 Health Make-A-Thon. No experience is necessary.

  • The entry deadline for the spring competition is January 31, 2021.
  • Twenty finalists will present their proposals to a ‘dolphin tank’ of judges and an online audience during a live virtual event on the afternoon of Saturday April 17, 2021.
  • Ten winning teams will receive $10,000 worth of expert support to develop their ideas into prototypes.

Yusef Shari’ati, a chemistry PhD candidate at UIUC and his wife, Siddiqua Haswarey-Shari’ati were inspired by their personal experience as parents of a newborn son diagnosed with neonatal hyperbilirubinemia, or jaundice. Traditional phototherapy treatments for neonatal jaundice require the infant to remain in an incubator, separated from parents, for up to a week while blue light therapy is administered. The couple’s Make-A-Thon team proposed a mobile suit that provides phototherapy treatment while allowing parents to hold and interact with their child outside an incubator. They took home a top Health Make-A-Thon prize in 2019.

The Shari’ati’s’ 2019 competitor Sarah Nixon’s innovation included a mix of tech and animal sciences. Nixon unveiled her idea to harness Miniature Horse Power to develop a miniature equine-facilitated therapy (EFT) program for children who have experienced trauma, or who are at risk for adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) during the 2019 event.


“My goal is to help raise

awareness about the effectiveness of miniature EFT. Practitioners are making remarkable observations in the field, which, so far, have not been studied scientifically,” Nixon said.

Nixon is now determined to build an accessible local miniature equine psychotherapy program in partnership with Champaign-Urbana community organization, DREAAM House. She will  design, with mentors, the protocol for the behavioral study that will look at the minis’ intriguing ability to “just know which person in a given therapeutic environment most needs their attention” – a phenomenon consistently reported in the anecdotal data Sarah has collected via many interviews with miniature therapy horse practitioners, and which she has also observed first-hand. “I’m excited and thankful that Miniature Horse Power will, I hope, contribute to science, to how we treat ACEs, and help raise awareness about the powerful role that miniature therapy horses can play in helping children heal,” she said.

For award winners like the Shari’atis and Nixon, the “pitch” is just the beginning in the Health Make-A-Thon process. The top 10 teams from the competition gain access to the Health Maker network comprised of maker labs, design spaces, and training and educational resources across the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. The labs open an expanded network for design, fabrication, and prototyping their solution, as well as mentorship to help make their ideas a reality. The Health Maker Labs are aligned with one common goal: to improve the world’s health.

The network of ‘Maker Labs’ across the UIUC campus and Urbana-Champaign has grown to 20 centers of expertise, or ‘nodes,’ including a new one called Designing Resiliency and Well-being. DRAW focuses on creating health innovations that address social determinants of health. Other areas of expertise include Architecture Fabrication Studio, the C-U Community Fab Lab, the Grainger Idea Lab, the Materials Research Lab, the Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, and the Siebel Center for Design.

2020 Health Make-A-Thon winner Ariana Mizan, a junior at University Laboratory High School on campus, designed a PillSafe Cap and app to address the opioid addiction crisis. She said access to a broad range of experts inspires innovators like her to imagine what’s possible. “To be surrounded by a diverse group of brilliant minds is awe-inspiring, and the opportunity to present my ideas to world-class academics, leaders, and innovators was an honor. I came away from the experience realizing that each of us has the capacity and ability to create a better world with innovation and creativity,” Mizan said.

Health Maker Lab Executive Director Irfan Ahmad, Carle Illinois assistant dean for research, calls the mentor support from the various ‘health maker labs’ both motivating and challenging. “For the most part, none of this has been done before. So there is a continuous effort to be innovative in making these resources available to empower them and their health innovation ideas.”

The 2021 Health Make-A-Thon, like the 2020 competition, will be accessible to more competitors due to the virtual format. All Illinois citizens are invited to submit ideas, giving anyone from anywhere in Illinois an opportunity to participate without traveling to the Champaign-Urbana area.

“Literally anyone with an idea for improving human health has a chance to access our maker lab resources where our experts will guide them through concepting, designing, making, failing, and trying again.”

Inspired to make a pitch of your own? Submit your idea here.

The official competition rules can be found here.