First in Venture Studio Takes Aim at the Opioid Crisis

An eight-month collaboration to bring digital health solutions to market reaches a milestone with Pitch Day

Story by Ryan McDaniel and Carrie Creasy | Published February 16, 2023

Computer chip with "First in Venture Studio" logo on it connects opioid use disorder to health care solutions

Rob Kimball, a Director with High Alpha Innovation, sums up what the company does in one sentence: “We co-create advantaged startups that solve compelling problems.” He goes on, “This is the hardest, most compelling problem that we’ve ever had to point our toolset at.” 

Rob is referring to the opioid crisis. Each year in the United States, opioid use disorder (OUD) costs the country over $140 billion in hospitalizations, medical costs, criminal justice costs, and loss of productivity. This is on top of the devastating figure of 70,000 lives lost each year. 

The Eshelman Institute for Innovation’s First in Venture Studio (FVS) has teamed up with High Alpha Innovation and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) to develop digital solutions to combat OUD. The two most viable ideas were presented February 10th, 2023, at Pitch Day by two teams made up of representatives from all three organizations. 

The first team to pitch focused on early intervention in the use disorder cycle. The team painted a picture of a patient, Ben, experiencing an overdose. When first responders arrive, they reverse the overdose with Narcan, but there is no specific protocol – unlike with a heart attack or stroke, for instance – and Ben does not get the follow-up care he needs. He is given a pamphlet with some phone numbers to call for support services, but the outreach is entirely on him. 

Collin from High Alpha Innovation pitches a digital startup idea

The first team pitching their digital OUD intervention

Support teams exist already – they’re called Post Overdose Response Teams (PORT) – and they’re shown to be effective in guiding patients into treatment and recovery. The problem is these teams across the country work in silos and use patchworks of software to track patients and their needs. The proposed solution is a platform to capture patient data and quickly assess potential needs at the point of first intervention. With this solution, Ben is not left on his own after his overdose. Instead, he is connected with a PORT and given the resources he needs to begin, and stay with, recovery. 

The second team to pitch focused on the patient’s long road to recovery. They introduced us to a hypothetical patient, Travis, who has been working on his recovery for a while. Travis has been seeing providers, adhering to the treatment protocol, and working with peers in the community to keep on his path. But Travis is facing the stigma of having suffered OUD and it is difficult for him to find employment because of the gap in his resume or his background check coming back with a felony conviction. He is striking out in the job search, and it may just be the thing that derails his recovery. 

The proposed solution is a platform to reward the hard work of OUD recovery and to show that hard work to potential employers. Those like Travis can build a “Recovery Resume,” validated and verified by the professionals they are working with such as doctors, pharmacists, and social workers. This resume gives Travis the opportunity to tell his story of recovery and to show the work he’s done in his journey. An experienced member on the platform could provide (paid) peer coaching and support to new members, eventually creating a pool of highly vetted people in recovery, a valuable source of reliable talent for local employers. 

Dr. Shuchin Shukla is an Addiction Medicine Family Physician at MAHEC who worked with FVS and High Alpha Innovation throughout the process. “I work with vulnerable members of our community . . . and this is hard, emotional work,” he emphasizes. “Applying the tools of startup creation and bringing new perspectives to this complex problem has given me and my colleagues hope that creative solutions are out there – we need the right partners at the table, and that’s what we are doing through the Venture Studio process.”

After hearing the pitches, FVS will now begin the process of working with investors to determine if either proposal or both proposals will be launched as startups. Regardless of which idea comes to fruition, it will be a small victory in the ongoing battle against the opioid epidemic. 

Headshot of Bob Dieterle, taken outdoors

Bob Dieterle, Managing Director of First in Venture Studio

This process leading up to Pitch Day began nearly eight months ago. “We were issued a challenge by the NC Collaboratory,” recalls Bob Dieterle, Managing Director of FVS. “They asked us, ‘can you point the venture studio model at the opioid crisis and see if you can unlock innovation there and come up with private money solutions to take a big swing at this problem?’” 

FVS immediately took on the challenge. To specifically understand the problems of OUD facing North Carolina, they partnered with MAHEC. Since then, FVS, MAHEC, and High Alpha Innovation have worked diligently to conceive of and to vet digital solutions to the problems facing those impacted by OUD. During these months, they brought together a broad coalition of Asheville-based health systems, providers, pharmacists, emergency management, criminal justice, non-profits and civic leaders to discuss the myriad aspects of the opioid crisis. 

“I am excited about this initiative and how it has coalesced disparate entities into a unified team,” says Bob Dieterle. “A remarkable group of public and private organizations came together to educate, brainstorm, collaborate, and reach consensus on the important ideas that could begin to solve the opioid crisis in our state.” 

In the last three-and-a-half days leading up to Pitch Day, they took the two most viable ideas and intensely focused on them, framing a startup company for each idea, in an all-hands-on-deck process known as Sprint Week. “During Sprint week, we wrap our heads around the problem and translate it into a full pitch,” explains Rob Kimball. “We figure out branding, how to tell the story of the company, the details of the business, how to price the product or service, how to scale – all these pieces to tell a compelling story that could attract investment.” 

FVS and High Alpha Innovation have teamed up for two previous Sprint Weeks and Pitch Days. This year’s Pitch Day is the first to focus on a specific, nationwide issue. The consensus from the various teams collaborating on this is that it somehow feels bigger and more urgent this time. 

“With Pitch Day, we’re trying to generate excitement and enthusiasm for these ideas in the face a human crisis that has caused immeasurable human suffering,” says Rob Kimball. “We’ve heard some truly gutting stories [during Sprint Week], but they’ve also inspired hope. We are grateful for the opportunity to take a crack at this.”


This story highlights just one of the School’s initiatives to combat the opioid crisis. Read about other initiatives here:
Combating the Opioid Crisis from the Inside Out
Pursuing Safer Pain Relief Without Addiction