Opioid fight gets high-tech Ottawa weapon

Local startup’s app pairs patients with counsellors in effort to pinpoint those most at risk of relapse
John MacBeth
Ottawa entrepreneur John MacBeth believes the app his firm developed will improve opioid addiction treatment. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

With Canada and the United States in the throes of an ongoing opioid crisis that has resulted in thousands of overdose deaths, an early stage Ottawa startup believes business can help with addiction recovery in ways health experts haven’t tried yet.

The opioid crisis has quickly become the most pressing and widely publicized public-health issue in North America. Data suggests nearly 2,500 Canadians died from opioid overdoses last year, numbers that represent a staggering rise over the past few years. Leaders in both Canada and the United States have noted the severity of the epidemic, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying all levels of government “won’t rest” on seeking lasting solutions and U.S. President Donald Trump recently labelling the crisis a “national health emergency.”

With TryCycle RPS, entrepreneur John MacBeth wants to use mobile technology to create a “shift” in the system of addiction treatment in order to prevent relapses.

The startup is the latest venture for Mr. MacBeth, who has a 20-year background in mobile technology that includes founding local companies Mobileyes Consulting and Northern Apps.

His new firm’s product is a dashboard platform licensed by a clinical practitioner paired with a smartphone app that a patient uses to enter daily updates on how they’re doing in recovery. The program allows for real-time tracking of a patient’s health and needs, so practitioners can identify in advance which of their patients are most at risk of relapse and in need of intervention.

“It’s an early warning system for reusing,” says Mr. MacBeth, the firm’s CEO and co-founder. “It sounds simple, but it’s taken a few years to crack the code.”

At the heart of the system is a proprietary, patent-pending, cloud-hosted algorithm that processes a patient’s regularly submitted “journal entries” containing answers to a set of predefined assessment questions designed to help addiction counsellors identify the risk of relapse.

The system has led the company to secure “sophisticated” partners, including the Rushford centre for addiction and mental health in Hartford, Conn. The idea is to allow overwhelmed counsellors to monitor patients digitally and focus their attention on acute cases that require immediate care.

“I believe absolutely that small business is what’s going to fix this.”

“We determined that there was a pretty significant opportunity, if we took a very disruptive approach, to possibly change the substance-abuse environment,” Mr. MacBeth says. “I believe absolutely that small business is what’s going to fix this.”

He says the company asked why health experts hadn’t yet effectively tapped into a device that many people use on a daily basis – a smartphone – to collect data and monitor patient progress.

“Not having an ego was one of our greatest advantages,” he says. “We could ask those seemingly stupid questions and be able to interpret differently from the people who are doing this every day. You have some extremely talented, very committed people, but they’re just overwhelmed. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It’s one of those unique opportunities where someone from the outside comes in and says, ‘Hey, what about this?’”

Key partners

Mr. MacBeth began working on the project in 2013, and TryCycle was officially incorporated in February. The product is now in clinical trials with key partners in Ottawa and Connecticut. Its latest deal is with the Canadian Nurses Association, which ordered 500,000 licences.

Mr. MacBeth says that from a business standpoint, the most obvious beneficiaries are insurance companies, particularly in the U.S. market, with whom TryCycle is having conversations “all over the map.” Keeping a patient in recovery and avoiding relapses can save hundreds of millions of dollars in health insurance costs, he says. The company plans to generate revenue through licensing its product as well as selling the “extremely valuable” metadata that it collects.

The firm currently includes three-full time employees and six consultants and plans to add up to four more members by the end of this quarter, depending on financing. Bootstrapped to this point, the company is currently in a family-and-friends funding round and expects to launch a seed round in the first or second quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, Mr. MacBeth says he’s itching to bring the product to market.

“We know we’re on to something,” he says. “In 20 years of experience in sales, we’ve never been able to get to a paper contract as fast as we’ve been able to get it here. We’re getting phone calls returned by really senior people within 24 hours. That’s never happened before … We know we’re speaking to a market that is desperate.”