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Ann Arbor firm wants to be digital “Mayo Clinic for addiction”

May 11, 2017

The Next Idea

Opioid addiction and meth use are making news almost every day, but tackling today’s drug epidemic isn’t easy. Treatments like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous might work for some who struggle with addiction, but not for others.

There’s a start-up company in Ann Arbor that is working to change that. Lisa McLaughlin and Robin McIntosh are the co-founders of the firm Workit. The company is an app that contracts with employers, which in turn will connect struggling employees with the service.

Through the app, employees will go through a 90-day addiction counseling program at their own pace. They will also be provided with one-on-one online coaching, goal-setting assistance, and a two-year long follow-up program.

After the invention of the iPhone, McLaughlin and McIntosh said, some medical researchers and companies started building apps. Studies have shown that for diseases like diabetes, these virtual interventions actually work. But in the area of addiction, the app landscape was disappointing.

That’s where McLaughlin and McIntosh saw an opportunity. But they’re not just Silicon Valley types looking to strike gold. They actually met in addiction recovery in 2009. McLaughlin was born in Detroit and got sober in Ann Arbor in 2002. McIntosh is originally from Toronto, but came to Ann Arbor for school. For both women, their personal experiences and connections in the addiction community drives their work.

In returning to Ann Arbor after starting the company in Silicon Valley, McLaughlin said that she was moving to where she perceived there to be a significant need. Over the last few years, she said, she noticed “an incredible uptick in death in the community” related to opiate use and other addictions.

McIntosh emphasized the importance of using technology to tackle addiction, in addition to more traditional approaches. In the start-up world, she said you have to be agile. The same is true with taking on an epidemic. “We need to be able to keep pace with this thing that’s plaguing the country at the rapid rate,” she said.

At the same time, profit is not the only goal. The company thinks of itself as a “social enterprise,” with community well-being an important bottom-line. As they think towards the company’s next move, they want to emphasize the role of clinical trials and new interventions in addiction treatment. “We imagine that we’re building something like a Mayo Clinic for addiction,” McLaughlin said. “We would like to be a household name.” 

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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