Challenge America: Makers for Veterans

Injured military service members, veterans and their families have a friend in Challenge America. The nonprofit organization connects them with resources and solutions that build community and give purpose to their lives.


Challenge America’s Makers for Veterans event (CAMVETS) is a tech solution competition for volunteer teams of designers, developers, programmers, engineers and medical specialists. The goal is to understand and address a specific need of an injured veteran. The teams work together to create innovative life-changing solutions that can be scaled to meet the needs of other veterans facing similar challenges.


Make-a-Thon for Veterans in Cleveland


In April, the first-ever CAMVETS event in Northeast Ohio gathered seven teams of volunteers to design solutions for six disabled Ohio veterans and a former Israeli counter-terrorism unit member. The event was in partnership with the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System and Cleveland Clinic Innovations.


After two months of planning and preparation, the teams manufactured and tested their innovations in a three-day make-a-thon at the Joseph and Helen Lowe Institute for Innovation at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio. Finalists presented their concepts and were awarded honors in a Saturday night event at HIMSS Innovation and Conference Center, located in Cleveland’s Global Center for Health Innovation. The event was open to the public and welcomed local officials including the Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.


Three Steps to Innovation that Helps Vets


The CAMVETS innovation process follows three steps:


  1. Veterans identify their individual challenges
  2. Teams of experts come together to build solutions
  3. Solutions for one vet are developed to share with many other vets


A key to CAMVET success is building personal relationships with injured veterans in order to understand their needs and gain their trust. Volunteer teams came to know these seven Northeast Ohio veterans and their families:


  • James is a marine corps veteran who was in a motorcycle accident that badly injured his right arm. He became a strength sports competitor and set a lofty goal for himself: do a two-arm lift of the legendary Husafell stone in Iceland.


  • Ginger is an army veteran and a survivor of military sexual trauma. She struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is seeking relief for anxiety and a method to help her with positive reinforcement and healthy coping mechanisms.


  • Lee is a marine corps veteran who became a quadriplegic after a gunshot wound caused his spinal cord injury. He wants to be more independent and control devices with his voice so he can read books and watch movies on his own.


  • Todd is an army veteran who lost both hands due to frostbite. He wants to return to school and needs to be able to use a computer and phone. He has been using a voice recognition software but is seeking a solution that will be more effective for his individual needs.


  • Brett is an army veteran who stayed active by handcycling. With the progression of his adult-onset genetic disorder Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) he can no longer compete or ride with his children. He would like a device that helps him transfer between his handcycle and wheelchair on his own.


  • Chris sustained nerve damage to his spine as a result of an explosion during his third deployment in Afghanistan. He has limited mobility and struggles with pain. He’s looking for a device that will allow him to get up and down from the floor to play with his new baby.


  • Uzi was in the Israeli Counter Terror Unit and suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident, causing continuous contractions in his hands and arms. He has limited use of his hands and is looking for a device to prevent clenching in his hands, especially at nighttime.


Award-Winning Ideas

Matt McBride, vice president of the Global Center for Health Innovation, who spoke at the awards ceremony, is the former director of inventor services for Cleveland Clinic Innovations, a group focused on translating medical breakthroughs into commercial products that benefits patients. Prior to that role, McBride was a U.S. naval Officer and served in Afghanistan.


“The CAMVETS event builds teams quickly, like I’ve only seen happen in the military,” he told the crowd at the HIMSS Innovation Center award ceremony. “They have what it takes to make ideas go past ‘proof of concept’ to the commercial phase. And veterans and military members have qualities that lead to innovation – they take initiative, are action-oriented, students of history, and have a lack of fear. In the last few days, they sat down with strangers during this event and asked for help. It was awesome to listen and observe all this. We want to make this event even bigger in the future and attract even more people and organizations.”


Judges based awards on the ability to increase the veteran’s confidence and self-reliance, while using innovative design to add new capabilities. The following three awards were announced:


  1. Veteran Impact Award: to Team Todd for designing gloves and devices allowing the hand amputee to use his phone and computer more effectively
  2. Creative Design Award: to Team Brett for creating a lift allowing for independent transfer between wheelchair and handcycle
  3. People’s Choice Award: to Team Ginger for tech solutions that provide encouragement to guide PTSD survivors through daily challenges


The final crowd pleaser event was a demonstration by veteran James Spurgin as he used the strap device designed by his team to lift a 270-pound weight using one arm. He thanked his team for helping to show disabled veterans and others that there is hope for regaining mobility, strength, and purpose.


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