Our Mission Just Got Real: Losing a Teammate to Drug Overdose While Working to Prevent Addiction Relapse

(5 minute read)

Over the past 4 months, I’ve been starting a new technology company focused on predicting and preventing addiction relapse.

Then yesterday, on Christmas morning, I found out that one of my teammates had overdosed. Overnight late last week, he passed away in his sleep. The next morning, his mother found him lying in his bed, his glasses still on… his body cold. He was 23 years old.

My teammate [on the left] as a child in Michigan with his friends. Out of respect for his family, he will not be named.

On Christmas morning, as I sat for a half-hour on the phone with his mother, listening to her crying hysterically… still mourning the loss of her son… she told that me in the days leading up to his death she had never seen him so happy.

“I’m sorry, I think the phone may have cut out. Did you say ‘happy’?”… “Yes. He told me about the promotion you gave him last week. He was so excited. He said it was his dream job… that he finally felt successful. He told me ‘Mom, I want to make you proud’.”

The Story, As I Understand It

Speaking with his childhood friends thereafter, I learned that, for at least the past decade, he’s struggled with addiction, depression, insomnia, and anxiety. One of his friends from middle school told me he started seeing a therapist for it all when he was 15 or 16. A second friend told me “he took Xanax a lot”. A third told me he “had a thing with opioids” and “kind of had an alcohol addiction”. He never me told any of this.

His mother explained that her husband — his father — has struggled with “these issues” his entire life. I know from my own research that addiction is a complex brain disease originating in the reward circuitry of the brain, and that genetics account for 50-75% of the risk. As one addiction psychiatrist put it, “people may choose to take drugs, but nobody chooses to be an addict”

According to CASA Columbia’s 2012 report on Addiction Medicine, risky substance use and addiction are the largest preventable and most costly public health and medical problems in the US today. Together they are the leading causes of preventable death, cause or contribute to more than 70 other medical conditions, and result in total costs to the government alone of at least $468 billion each year.

Two days before his death, I promoted him to lead our engineering team. While we had only met just 3 months ago, his skillset was incredibly impressive. He was a full-stack engineer. A product manager. A digital designer. On our last Zoom call, he showed more initiative than he ever had before… volunteering to stand-up our technology live in the cloud on Amazon Web Services (AWS), to help with customer discovery, to reach out to every investor he knew. It was just last year that he graduated the University of Michigan with a degree in Computer Science… but boy did he know how to hustle.

The night he passed, I set him up with a new email on our company’s Google Admin console. Then we texted to coordinate him setting up a new AWS account for the company. I emailed him asking if he could take ownership over finding us the AWS credits we needed in the most cost-effective way possible. He emailed back in less than 3 minutes, saying “Yup, got it covered. Have rough estimates of the cost, will let you know once it’s finalized.”

Then I never heard from him again.

When Facts Become Feeling

The thing I just can’t get over is the irony of it all. He overdosed while building a tool to prevent addiction relapse. On one hand, it makes absolutely no sense. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense… but in a way that I can’t exactly wrap my head around.

It gives me chills to think that I was likely the last person he communicated with before he died… that our work together was one of the last things he thought about. The night he passed, he told his Mom he would be “up late, finishing a project”. Nothing unusual: he was a hard-worker who, when he couldn’t sleep, often worked through the night. Nobody thought it would be his last.

Figure 1.A.png
Contrary to popular belief, addiction has nothing to do with a lack of willpower or moral weakness. In fact, 48% of all Americans over the age of 12 are directly affected, with 16% meeting criteria for ‘clinical addiction’, and 32% more classifying as ‘risky users’.

Over the past 2 months I’ve been learning everything I can about addiction. I just finished a 2012 report by CASA Columbia which spanned 250 pages. I’ve been listening to people’s struggles first-hand, through attending addiction support groups — like AA, NA, SMART, and Refuge Recovery — several times per week in my area. I’ve even been holding near-daily meetings with addiction psychiatrists, to learn everything they know about treating and managing the disease.

And yet, despite all of this, I couldn’t see it right in front of my own face… on my own team.

Everything I’ve been reading… everything I’ve been learning… did not truly come alive until just yesterday, when I was on the phone with the mother of my teammate, listening to her sobbing over the death of her only son.

Our mission just got real.

What Comes Next

While we’re still an early-stage startup in stealth-mode, this unexpected loss has me feeling the need to share a bit about where we’re headed.

The one-liner is this: my company, Conscious Insights, is a consulting group developing an AI technology to predict and prevent substance-use disorder relapse using passive meta-data from patients’ smartphones.

Our mission is to build the ‘thermometer for the mind’; enabling care providers to ‘check the mental temperature’ of their patients (with explicit permission) — in an objective, continuous, ecological, and passive fashion — at any time. This way, they can determine which patients require heightened attention and intervention, in advance of relapse.

In my teammate’s case, our technology could have potentially let his mother and doctor know he needed help, days or weeks in advance.

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Our mission is the build the ‘thermometer for the mind’

And while there is still a ton of work to do, what started as ‘a crazy idea’ just a few months ago is starting to come together.

In March 2020 Conscious Insights will be kicking off a 300+ person clinical study at several Community Health Centers across the state of California. It will be the first study of its kind, and the largest to ever use technology to predict/prevent addiction relapse.

This is why my teammate was up late that night. Because he saw setting up our AWS account as the first step in a larger opportunity to help hundreds more with the same struggle that’s plagued him and his father their entire lives.

I just wish I knew before it was too late. For others in the future, it’s our mission to change that.

Join the Mission

If you were moved by this story and are interested in supporting our mission, here are some ways you can get involved:

  1. RESEARCH WITH US: We are seeking additional research partners (e.g. health centers, treatment clinics) to join our upcoming clinical studies. Through partnering with us, we are offering to provide research staff, obtain IRB approval, grant early access to the eventual product, and fully compensate all parties involved for their time. Not to mention the opportunity to be recognized as a leader in the field of addiction medicine as we learn, together, what early warning signs exist addiction relapse… and ultimately develop a tool that alerts trained medical professionals to intervene before it’s too late.
  2. BUILD WITH US: We are openly hiring for paid Data Science, Machine Learning, and Backend Engineering positions on our team. We have several part-time roles (10-20 hours/week) starting in January 2020 with our consulting services business, which you can apply for here. Likewise, we have several full-time positions (40 hours/week) starting in August 2020 (involving signal processing analysis with smartphone meta-data) for this new product business.
  3. SPEAK WITH US: We are actively recruiting advisors, with stock-options, primarily across three different areas:
    1. (A) experts in treating substance-use disorders (e.g. addiction psychiatrists),
    2. (B) health professionals in managing addiction (e.g. nurse care managers),
    3. (C) healthcare leaders whose systems financially ‘bear risk’ for addiction relapse (e.g. capitated insurance payers)

If any or all of the above apply to you, please fill out this short Google Form and someone from our team will contact you shortly: https://forms.gle/hhNJ6Wws1ahtwCUr6

Conscious Insights - Interest Form

Alternatively, if none of the above apply to you, but you are still interested in helping support our mission, please fill out the form with how you’d like to get involved, and we’ll be in touch.

Fixing our country’s broken model of care is going to take a village, so thank you in advance for your interest in getting involved.


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