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Presidential Innovation Fellows bringing new approaches to nation’s biggest challenges

As the application process for the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program ramps up, a number of applicants have been asking: What is it like to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow? Two Fellows, Dr. Gil Alterovitz and Justin Koufopoulos, share the origins of their collaboration and a typical “day in the life” of a Fellow.

First, some background on the dynamic duo:

Gil was named a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2017, and Justin the previous year. One of the greatest privileges as Fellows is the ability to team up on projects to tackle some of the biggest challenges government has to offer. Fellows are often assigned together to a project, although sometimes these collaborations happen naturally in the course of a year-long project. The two former Fulbright Scholars share complementary skill sets, Gil with a background in machine learning and medical informatics, and Justin with a background in product management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Their collaboration kicked off in 2017 when they both realized they had similar passions in artificial intelligence, open-source software, and helping patients.

A day in the life of two PIFs:

It’s 7:00 a.m. Gil and Justin are both up early, each preparing for a meeting with senior leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

For Gil, it’s time to take a call from a leading scientist at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Despite the scientist’s busy schedule, Gil is able to schedule a call for his ride into the office. Could there be potential synergies with the VA on matching patients to experimental therapies? It turns out the VA has been interested in matching veterans with clinical trials. After discussing potential next steps on collaborating with VA, it’s time to head over to HHS.

Meanwhile, at home, Justin finalizes a pitch deck for HHS leadership.

Later that morning Gil, Justin, and technology leaders from around government meet at HHS to discuss a new artificial intelligence (AI) initiative to match patients with experimental therapies. The PIF program is an entrepreneur-in-residence program. That means that in order to get their projects moving, they need to use their talents as entrepreneurs to convince people to join their projects. In the past, some of the most successful Fellow projects (code.gov, BlueButton, and 18F) were spun out of interagency collaborations among the White House, leaders from different agencies, and front-line government employees.

The meeting at HHS goes well, and after a quick bite at the farmer’s market just outside, it’s time for Gil and Justin to rush over to a congressional briefing on “Artificial Intelligence for Good.” Justin and Gil use the meeting as an opportunity to survey the landscape for new partners for their project and both end up connecting with leaders from other organizations who may be helpful in investigating AI to “sync for therapies.”

After connecting with congressional offices, patient groups, and other stakeholders on the Hill, Justin and Gil head off to the White House. A meeting there leads to a new connection. Justin then heads back to his agency to meet with his agency partners.

At its heart, the PIF experience is about engaging projects with agencies. Over the past year, Justin has been detailed to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which is one of the 27 National Institutes of Health (NIH) and home to many of the largest genomic, image, and text biomedical datasets in the world, including scientific treasures like PubMed and clinicaltrials.gov. Together, the PIF program has partnered with senior leadership at NLM to make these datasets more readily available to the public. Recognizing that scientists are looking more and more for code — new algorithms and open source tools for manipulating data — Fellows are now leading an effort to make scientific code more reusable and easily available to scientists.

Justin gets on a call with his teammates from the NLM and National Cancer Institute. They talk through criteria for software they might include in a pilot project with the library, and then plan their work for the upcoming week.

Later that afternoon, after doing some research and emailing with scientists at the NIH about their biggest pain points with scientific software, Justin schedules a few user interviews to test a prototype of an index for scientific code. While it’s still an unapproved prototype, its main purpose is to test an idea. It’s easy to forget coming from the private sector, but oftentimes the most disruptive innovations are working with agencies to see the value in low-cost prototypes. Creating prototype code, mockups, even interfaces sketched on paper — and then having data from interviews — is often among the most effective methods of creating buy-in around an idea within the federal government. This was successfully used for a number of projects that Justin and Gil worked on, including a prototype for code indexing inspired by PubMed: “PubCode.” An upcoming data hackathon will explore how AI and machine learning can find patterns of similar eligibility protocol criteria for clinical trials that will leverage some of Gil and Justin’s work in this area.

While every Fellow comes to the program with a desire to have an impact on the government, it’s ultimately up to each individual Fellow to make the most of their experience. Fellows have developed new platforms for sharing agency-level data, they’ve helped redesign how agencies interact with the private sector, and have served on senior White House and other interagency committees to produce key reports on science and technology policy, such as via the National Science Technology Council of the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy. In the process, each Fellow gains new perspectives and memories for a lifetime.

One of the best parts of being a Fellow is that every day has unique opportunities — and no two days are the same. We hope this gives you a better glimpse of the incredible experiences you can have in the PIF program. Learn more about the program or apply to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow for our upcoming class. Deadline to apply for the fall 2018 cohort is July 6, 2018!

The Presidential Innovation Fellowship (PIF) brings together top innovators and their insights from outside of government, including the private sector, non-profits, and academia. Their insights are brought to bear on some of the most challenging problems within government and its agencies. The goal is to challenge existing paradigms by rethink problems and leveraging novel, agile approaches. PIF was congressionally mandated under H.R. 39, the Tested Ability to Leverage Exceptional National Talent (TALENT) Act. The program is administered as a partnership between the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the General Services Administration (GSA). For more information, and to apply, see apply.pif.gov.

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