Design Challenges Address Opioid Addiction Recovery

Oct 29 2018 | By Jesse Adams | Photo credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

For people battling opioid addiction, loneliness is almost as dangerous as the drugs—isolation tends to mean relapse. But what if technology can keep vulnerable addicts from slipping through the cracks, and even predict their propensities for sliding back into substance abuse?

Such is the promise of Kenzo, a new app developed by Young Joon Kim ’20CC and Arjun Srivatsa ’20CC that connects people in recovery to personalized support groups and analyzes user data to anticipate relapses. Thanks to support and contacts from two expansive design challenges at Columbia over the past year, the juniors are currently bringing their platform to New York-area patients.

The project grew out of last fall’s Columbia Opioid Design Challenge, which convened talent from across the university to work on interdisciplinary solutions for complex interlocking challenges of addiction and recovery. In its initial incarnation as a pain management tool, Kenzo earned a $2500 grant along with mentorship from experts like Elizabeth Hillman, the professor of biomedical engineering who spearheaded the 2017 competition. The process of iterating prototypes and zeroing in on gaps in the marketplace has proved invaluable.

Biomedical engineering Prof. Elizabeth Hillman served as one of the first-round judges and helped organize the competition.

“We realized that casting such a wide net was making it difficult to develop the right product, so we narrowed down to what recovering patients and treatment centers really want after the initial round of treatment,” said Kim.

With their leaner product refined for people in recovery, the group was excited to hear about an even larger competition on campus, the Empire State Opioid Epidemic Innovation Challenge, a statewide initiative convening innovators and entrepreneurs of many stripes.

The Empire State Challenge kicked off on September 28, when nearly 200 attendees gathered at Davis Auditorium for a daylong summit. Practitioners, public officials, and recovering addicts shared expertise on unmet needs exacerbating the epidemic. Over the next 48 hours, competitors from throughout New York formed a dozen interdisciplinary teams—a few, like Kenzo, originating in the Columbia challenge—to compete for money and momentum in a “Solutions Sprint” ahead of a final demonstration round to be held on campus in January. In consultation with 23 mentors, they hatched ideas, honed pitches, and faced off before a diverse panel of judges.

“This challenge is a bit more focused on addiction recovery, and it’s been nice to get a more rounded view of that side of it,” said Hillman, who served as one of the first-round judges and helped organize the competition. “And that almost all of the teams competing have an engineering component.”

The competition is a collaboration between Columbia Engineering, the Mailman School of Public Health, the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech), Northwell Health, the Office of the Borough President of Staten Island, and New York state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS).

For some entrants, like Subhabrata Das PhD’19 and Siyu He PhD’23, the Empire State challenge has afforded a chance to deliver their first-ever business pitch. The two microfluidics experts are working together on a paper-based biosensor to inexpensively detect opioids. For the Kenzo team and Asher Varon ’18GSAS/JTS, co-creator of a Narcan-dispensing intranasal patch known as QuikReversal, the competition offers an opportunity to capitalize on progress since first conceiving their projects at the Columbia challenge last year.

Four teams earned cash awards in the first round, including two with Columbians. Varon received the $1000 CAMTech Innovation Award for QuikReversal, while electrical engineer Gautham Harinarayan MS’18 is part of Recover-We, which received the $1500 Northwell Health Innovation Award for offering real-time peer support and resources based on understanding online search queries.

All 12 Empire State challenge teams are eligible to compete at Demo Day January 31st, vying for a $10,000 grand prize and six months of acceleration support. In anticipation, the Kenzo team is busy fine-tuning their platform.

“Talking to treatment center directors showed us that our predictive machine learning feature is of great interest for them,” Kim said. “We began testing with a few independent clinics in September, and hope to wrap it up and publish a small white paper by January or February.”


Over two days, participating teams hatched ideas, honed pitches, and faced off before a diverse panel of judges.

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