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Venture Studio

New digital health concepts aim to prevent overdoses

Man speaking at a workshop

Two potentially life-saving startup ideas emerged from Eshelman Innovation’s latest Venture Studio sprint in Asheville. 

Nick Wichert, engagement manager for High Alpha Innovation, launched his team’s innovation pitch with a heart-wrenching story.

His best friend’s father suffered from a heroin addiction. He got into and stayed in recovery for decades, Wichert told a rapt audience. But the social safety net his friend’s father counted on to maintain his abstinence-focused recovery frayed, and he started using opioids again. His marriage fell apart. His daughter and son — Wichert’s childhood friend — stopped talking to him. One day, his landlord found him on the floor, dead of an overdose.

“I don’t tell this story lightly,” said Wichert, pausing to maintain composure. “It exposes gaps in our healthcare system. People are falling through the cracks.”

To close at least some of those gaps, Wichert and his team then proposed a solution: Kudo Health.

Kudo Health is a digital health concept that seamlessly integrates community pharmacists with patients and doctors to ensure the availability of life-saving medicines for people with opioid use disorder. 

The concept was one of two presented May 31 at an event called Digital Solutions Addressing Opioid Epidemic at the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), in Asheville, North Carolina. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Eshelman Innovation hosted the Pitch Day in partnership with MAHEC, the North Carolina Collaboratory and High Alpha Innovation, the country’s preeminent venture studio builder.

“These are concepts. They are not companies yet,” said Bob Dieterle, managing director of the Eshelman Innovation Venture Studio. Think Shark Tank, the TV show where entrepreneurs pitch startup ideas to a panel of venture capitalists. Instead of venture capital “sharks,” the Venture Studio builds and supports its teams of entrepreneurs. They must still make an ironclad case for their digital healthcare startup. 

“We could have four startups addressing the opioid crisis in this area. We can flip the script and make Western North Carolina a hub for key addiction solutions.” — Bob Dieterle, Eshelman Innovation Venture Studio managing director

“If the Venture Studio decides to make it a company, we will invest and provide pre-seed capital to give it traction,” Dieterle said. “We’ll hire employees to run the company. And then the Venture Studio will partner with those founders to de-risk it and give it a higher chance of success.”

As part of the support, Amazon Web Services — another Eshelman Innovation best-in-class partner — embeds a chief technical officer early in the startup process to get the company off the ground quickly.

Eshelman Innovation, part of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, exists to turn groundbreaking ideas into real products and services — as soon as possible to address pressing needs.

“We are a translation institute,” Dieterle said. “We focus on health-improving outcomes and saving lives with innovative technology.”

Last year, the inaugural opioid-crisis-focused Venture Studio “sprint” — an intensive eight-week period during which entrepreneurs hone their startup ideas to prepare for Pitch Day — produced Goldie, an overdose case-management tool for community paramedics and others. The digital platform is being piloted this summer in Carteret County, North Carolina.

This year’s sprint also targeted America’s opioid epidemic, which is especially acute in North Carolina’s Appalachian region. The project is funded by the NC Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill using National Opioids Settlement funds appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly.

“As we make strides in opioid use disorder, Western North Carolina can become a hub for developing solutions for the entire country,” said N.C. Sen. Ralph Hise, who represents the region’s District 47.

Access to medications

The opioid epidemic is a massive and maddeningly complex problem. To identify actionable ways to improve outcomes at points along the use-disorder cycle, the sprint teams tapped the expertise of those on the frontlines of the crisis — healthcare providers, first-responders, those struggling with substance abuse disorder and others.

The Kudo Health team focused on one important healthcare gap: lack of access to medicines for opioid use disorder (MOUDs), such as buprenorphine, which reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms. When someone like the father of Wichert’s best friend can’t refill his buprenorphine prescription because of a technical hiccup, that can be potentially life-threatening.

The Kudo Health solution empowers community pharmacists, considered the most accessible of all healthcare providers. “Community pharmacists want to serve. They see Miss Smith, Mr. Jones three times a week. They make that connection,” said Kudo Health team member Olivia Caron, a MAHEC clinical pharmacist practitioner.

Caron walked the audience through how the Kudo Health digital platform would seamlessly connect community pharmacists with patients and their doctors. By strengthening relationships and cutting red tape, the platform would ensure patients have MOUDs when they need them. Others on the team mapped out how Kudo Health, the startup company, could quickly scale up — community by community, state by state — becoming profitable for pharmacists, doctors and Kudo Health investors.

Profitability is essential to expanding reach and making the business sustainable. “But at the end of the day, why I’m here, why I do this work is saving and protecting lives,” Caron said.

The sprint teams aimed their solutions at different phases in the use disorder cycle.

Re-entry from prison

The other sprint team focused its solution on one of the highest risk groups — individuals leaving incarceration.

“We all know the opioid crisis is a once in a generation public health crisis,” said Dr. Shuchin Shukla, UNC School of Medicine addiction medicine physician consultant. “What you might not know about are the inextricable links between the carceral system and the war on drugs.”

Incarcerated individuals are 40 times more likely to fatally overdose in the first two weeks after release, Shukla said. Nationwide, nearly 10 million people are released per year from state prisons and county jails. In North Carolina, around 75% of those released have a substance use disorder.

How to make a difference among this group? The team proposed CoEntry Care, a digital platform to help incarcerated people with opioid use disorder re-enter the community safely with a coordinated support network.

Support exists — there’s no shortage of case managers at steps along the re-entry process — but it’s often disconnected, the team said. CoEntry Care would be a user-friendly tool for keeping everyone on the same page and working efficiently to improve re-entry.

“There are a lot of things that are fundamentally human. You can’t automate them, but you can make more room for the human,” said team member Colin MacDougall, a High Alpha Innovation director. “CoEntry Care will make it easier for them to do the work.”

Like Kudo Health, CoEntry Care is meant to close gaps in the system and save lives.

“We want these startups to reside here in Asheville,” said Dieterle. “We’re in the process of launching two from last year [Goldie and another, Valable]. We could have four startups addressing this crisis in this area. We can flip the script and make Western North Carolina a hub for key addiction solutions.”

Group photo of 2 dozen people

The sprint team on Pitch Day. (Photo by Brenda Benik, MAHEC)

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