Can startups solve the opioid crisis?

Bernardo Montes de Oca
January 10, 2023

The word “epidemic” gets thrown around often these days, and we’re growing tired of it, but there’s one epidemic we need not ignore. The opioid crisis is ravaging the United States, and we can’t ignore it anymore. In the past three decades, more than half a million people have died from opioid overdose, and it’s not slowing down, with research showing increasing deaths in the past two years. So, startups, large corporations, and governments are all striving to solve the most significant challenge: how to stop it. 

The opioid crisis began in the mid-1990s with OxyContin, a powerful pain killer from Purdue Pharma. Since it entered the market in 1996, OxyContin has eased pain, and turned an estimated 2.1 million people into addicts. The drug helped Purdue’s sales go from $48 million the year it came out to $1.1 billion just four years later. At the same time, there was a bigger problem that the world ignored. While the drug is mainly responsible for the crisis, as it’s extremely addicting, Purdue knew this and didn’t warn us.  Instead, the company rode the wave of creating a world of addicts to reap massive profits. Its aggressive prescription standards made opioid prescribing one of the most common, most accessible, and most dangerous. 

That same wave is now reaching alarming proportions. By 2022, 564,000 people had died from opioid overdoses, including prescription and illicit versions. The fact that both legal and illegal drugs are responsible for so many deaths makes a possible solution harder to come by. Still, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope. Some things are changing. Medical authorities have changed diagnostic terms to help treat addiction purely as a medical condition, thus removing social stigma. Plus, nationwide efforts are to provide more tools to help the more than 25 million people who are recovering from opioid abuse. 

One challenge with opioid addicts is that, sometimes, withdrawing them from the drug can cause more harm than good. So, to many, it’s all about maintaining a delicate balance, and the dynamic between patients and doctors is vital to the recovery process. 

The startup CARI Health created a wearable device that allows users, who are opioid addicts, to have their signs monitored. Thus, doctors can administer the right amount and keep patients healthy. Understanding the patient from a holistic perspective is vital, and that’s what this startup, OpiSafe, aims to do. By collecting data that includes anything and everything from the patient’s past to current drug use, OpiSafe provides precise data for doctors to diagnose and treat addictions.

These are only two of many startups working to solve this crisis. Funding to startups tackling addiction has increased considerably in recent years, both as an echo of the present reality and trying to change the future. In the past five years, funding for startups involved with addiction has reached over $1 billion, and that’s great. Still, there’s something dangerous hiding behind this race to cure addiction. Running a startup isn’t easy, and it can have a negative impact on mental health. Moreover, we’re used to hearing stories of how some founders ended up on the other side of the very same problem they were trying to solve

At the same time, with pharma corporations having such a stronghold on the opioid supply (and consumption), the world begs for a different approach. So, crazy as it may seem, it’s time to do things differently, and that’s where startups come in. Different mindsets, ways of working, and that startup “je ne sais quoi” are vital to approaching this problem with a different perspective. 

That’s why the more I see startups rushing to come up with a solution, the more I feel it will come. We’ve gone to great lengths to mask the pain in our society. Now, it’s time to take off the mask and start dealing with the source of the pain, our very own way of existing.

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Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable. From start-ups to nature, from literature to aviation. Hearing impaired, so let’s talk loud and clear.
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