Ohio Launches Technology Challenge to Solve Opioid Crisis

By Paul Fuhr 10/23/17

The three-phase contest is open to people around the world.

Ohio Development Services Director David Goodman
Ohio Development Services Director David Goodman Photo credit: Paul Fuhr

Ohio has launched a landmark contest to help combat the U.S. opioid epidemic. The Buckeye State, one of the hardest hit in the crisis, is seeking technological solutions to the problem.

Spearheaded by Ohio Third Frontier, the Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge is an $8 million effort to create technological and scientific innovations—a direct answer to Gov. John Kasich’s pledge to aggressively address the crisis.

“Many of us know a family member, a friend or a relative who’s been affected [by the epidemic],” Development Services Director David Goodman said at a press conference. Solutions can come from anywhere, Goodman insisted, and he hopes the competition will spur out-of-the-box thinking for an otherwise out-of-control problem. “Ohio wants everyone’s help in identifying new ideas that can be brought into the fight.”

Goodman said the challenge will be rolled out in three phases: idea, challenge, and product. During the idea phase (open now through Dec. 15) everyone from researchers to entrepreneurs are invited to submit concepts. The top five entrants will be awarded $10,000 each, with a $500 cash-prize lottery for the 40 runners-up. Experts, tech teams, and think tanks alike will then be invited to participate in the challenge phase, which calls for detailed plans to bring the best ideas to life. Those winners will receive $100,000 to fund further development.

“This is a tool,” Goodman said of the competition. “[It’s] an opportunity to have a forum with folks from all over the world, the billions of people that live on this planet who are aware of this [epidemic] and who have that light bulb go off in their head: ‘I have this idea, I've told people about it, I don't know what to do with it.’”  

Cleveland-based NineSigma was selected to coordinate the contest. As Goodman described the firm: “They specialize in working with difficult problems and reaching outside the walls and borders and the industries that they’re normally in.”

NineSigma’s CEO Andy Zynga said one inspiration for the opioid challenge was the Head Health Challenge—a joint effort between the NFL, GE and Under Armour to develop safer, more technically advanced football helmets.

Zynga said 1,000 unique solutions were pitched in the Head Health Challenge, with concepts ranging from Star Trek-like tricorders to blood tests that checked for brain injury markers. “Who knows? There may be a technology from food and beverage that has high-impact polymers that can be used for something like this," the CEO said. "Breakthroughs are shown to happen when you have technologies from other domains that are applied in different ways in the innovators' domain.”

The press conference also included presentations from Dr. Sara McIntosh, the medical director of Maryhaven (Central Ohio’s oldest treatment center), as well as Dr. Nicole Wadsworth of Ohio University. Both of them imparted their ground-level experiences with opioid addiction. Dr. Wadsworth, for one, related a story of meeting someone she’d once denied opioids to, only to have him return years later to thank her for setting him on a path to recovery. “I was shocked,” she laughed. “It’s rare that I’m ever thanked for not giving a patient what they want.” For her part, Dr. McIntosh pressed for better education and research, as well as buprenorphine-related changes in physician licensure. 

Goodman also welcomed Jacqueline Lewis, the mother of a 29-year-old man with opioid addiction, to the stage. She recounted the “dark journey” that cost her nearly everything, including her home. Her son, who’d been diagnosed with scoliosis, was prescribed painkillers, muscle relaxants and anxiety pills in middle school. “I never questioned anything at the time,” she said. “We just trusted doctors. But that’s what started his struggle.”

She’s now fiercely dedicated to getting the message out about addiction to other parents. “I hid this for so long and I didn’t want people to know. Now, I want people to know that this isn’t a choice,” she said. “It’s important to educate people for what to look for: the behaviors and the signs and what it means to find something in your child’s room. It can be something so simple, too.”

And while Lewis was describing her optimism for opioid awareness, she could have been describing the Ohio Technology Challenge, too: “The sky’s the limit.”

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.