CINCINNATI -- When you're living in the midst of an epidemic, the daily stories are devastating.
Raj Gupta is an experienced programmer and co-founder of Team Window, one of the hackathon teams from Hacking Heroin, held June 10 and 11 at the startup hub Union Hall in Over-the-Rhine. Like a growing number of people, Gupta also has a personal connection to the opioid epidemic.
"Far too many people, from the young to the elderly, to families and community members across the state, have been affected by this epidemic," Gupta said. "I think anybody who enters into technology work enters with a certain amount of idealism that technology can be used to impact people and communities in the best way. This is one of those moments for me when I understood that my skills could be best used back home in Ohio."
After meeting at Hacking Heroin, Gupta and fellow Team Window team members Sam Keaser and Jamie Maier are working on software that can quickly connect people to appropriate treatment.
Window is one of three Hacking Heroin teams selected to move to the next stage and present their work at a September demo day. Team Give Hope -- Tommy George, Mike Praksti, Jeffrey Wyckoff, Jonathan Marshall, Phil Heidenreich and Anna Armao -- took first place. Its members are developing a crowdfunding platform for organizations on the front lines of the crisis and providing storytelling tools to connect with new donors.
Team Lazarus -- Jordan Crone, Daniel Slone, McCall Tucker, Robb Hedrick, Hoseong Lee and Waylon Duff -- is designing an Uber-like service to provide on-demand, location-based help for treatment or support.
The next challenge is September 29 at a Hacking Heroin demo day at the IXHealth summit. The teams will pitch in front of the Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement team, the City of Cincinnati Education and Entrepreneurship Committee and major health care and social service enterprises.
Can tech solve a health crisis?
There have been history-making health crises before: Cholera, influenza, polio and AIDS come to mind. Today's crisis is the spiraling number of opioid overdoses throughout Greater Cincinnati and beyond.
In response, Ohio Gov. John Kasich put in place a $20 million call to action. The effort encourages health technology and social service entrepreneurs, startups and tech companies to develop and implement innovative solutions via the Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge and Ohio Opioid Abuse, Prevention and Treatment Technology Initiative.
Also supporting the three Hacking Heroin finalists are Emily Geiger, managing director of Spry Labs, a health care venture incubator launched by the innovation network Cintrifuse, and Annie Rittgers, founder of 17a, a public sector and strategy consultancy. They are providing mentorship, professional networking assistance and free use of the Union Hall co-working space.
Tech startups tend to think about value propositions -- the unique features and functions that will make their products or services attractive to customers. They also work on business models that can deliver a strong ROI to investors in a few years.
Cincinnati's heroin hackers have a more urgent task than generating profits: They want to stop a killer.
"One of the great things with attacking such a huge problem that affects so many is that there are so many people that are willing to talk," said Lazarus team member Crone. "These people are offering advice and being beta-testers. It's a great help for those of us on the outside and interacting with the opioid epidemic for the first time."
The key benchmarks are clear: The teams are committed to staying grounded with realistic goals. They're taking full advantage of the Hacking Heroin support. And they want resources to help build their products and services along with customers to help test and validate what they've built.
At a recent demo event staged by the tech agency Zoozler, Crone announced a Kickstarter campaign to provide funding to Team Lazarus' mobile and text-based heroin-fighting app.
Window hackers Gupta, Keaser and Maier have a different approach when it comes to raising funds. They're focused on building a granular road map and business model in time for the September demo day. They're committed to Window for the long journey and won't rush building a prototype or discussing seed funding until they're ready.
"Our biggest thing for September is having a solid business model," Maier said. "It's a waste of our time to engineer something quickly instead of engineering something right. We're focusing on a business model and a concept, what we're calling a minimum, sellable product to present. It has to be sustainable."
Teams Give Hope, Lazarus and Window may be taking different approaches, but they're united in their quest to build valuable solutions to a crisis many consider unsolvable.
Calls to action at city, state levels
Beyond the work being done by the Heroin Hacker teams, others in the tech field are continuing to address the crisis.
Awards have just been announced for the Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge, which seeks innovative solutions to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with opioid use and addiction. NineSigma, an information services consultancy, was awarded $8 million to manage the challenge.
The Ohio Opioid Abuse, Prevention and Treatment Technology Initiative is available for tech enterprises building near-term and tangible solutions specific to addictive prevention treatment and overdose intervention. The initiative will help accelerate the development and commercialization of products including medical devices, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals and health technology. Proposals are due Aug. 31, with awards confirmed by Dec. 7.
Meanwhile, the Ohio Development Services Agency is seeking an experienced competition manager for these opioid tech challenge programs.
Closer to home, Cincinnati City Council, Spry Labs and 17a work to integrate the Hacking Heroin teams with their network of health care companies and health tech startups to solve the epidemic in an agile, lean and rapid manner. At City Hall, council member P.G. Sittenfeld and Leigh Tami -- chief performance officer and director, Office of Performance & Data Analytics -- provide thought leadership and support.
Time (for solutions) has come today
While the Hacking Heroin teams connect via weekly development meetings, the stats escalate. News outlets from The Columbus Dispatch to WCPO report that 4,149 Ohioans died from unintentional overdoses from heroin, fentanyl and other drugs in 2016 -- a 36 percent increase from the previous year. And 2017's overdose fatalities are outpacing 2016.
Other signs of the pervasiveness of the opioid epidemic: The Akron Board of Education recently voted to stock the anti-overdose drug Narcan in middle and high schools this fall, causing some local observers to wonder if Cincinnati Public Schools are next. More Ohio business owners are having a hard time finding workers who can pass drug tests. There are countless news specials on the opioid epidemic and even theater plays addressing the issue.
In this environment, nearly 200 Cincinnati-area coders, designers, entrepreneurs, health care professionals and audience members that took part in Hacking Heroin collaborate with the Give Hope, Lazarus and Window teams prepping for the big stage.
"There was some skepticism coming into the event," said Rittgers. "People asked, ‘What is a hackathon?' How do you do something like a hackathon in a space with complicated and heavy problems? These health care and social service organizations don't need tech for tech's sake or buzzwords that don't deliver. This is a tough thing to achieve. The most affirming moment for me was seeing the people who showed up and seeing what they built."
The prize is saving lives
Some health care veterans and social agency professionals wonder what a tech startup can do about the opioid menace that hasn't been attempted before.
There can be breakthroughs around innovative software and patient experience. There can also be breakthroughs around understanding the epidemic and gaining empathy for those suffering.
"Something I think is great … is the branding aspect, in terms of getting people aware of the crisis in the community," said Armao. "The name of our team is Give Hope. We're about showing that there is hope in this situation and starting a new point in the system and emphasizing and reinforcing these amazing organizations doing this amazing work."
For the Hacking Heroin finalists, a key step is continuing face-to-face interviews and research with workers on the frontlines as well as those with addictions. They're also fine-tuning the touchpoints they want to address with their app and software: tech, public safety, health care, venture capital, government and recovery services.
More importantly, they're inspired by the hackathon's key challenges: prevention, response, response to recovery, and recovery.
All the team members want to make something clear: They are not designing a Snapchat filter or an emoji game. The coding challenges are complex and meaningful, and the goal to change health care systems is a huge one.
Do Cincinnati's Hacking Heroin teams have a chance at building and implementing new health tech hardware and services to solve the opioid crisis? Come September, we'll learn if the next epidemic-breaking solution will spark in the heart of heroin country.
Learn more about the Hacking Heroin Demo Day on Sept. 29. Connect with Cincinnati's Heroin Hackers online.