In response to Canada’s opioid crisis, the federal government has issued a $1 million challenge to find better ways to detect toxic substances — such as the highly potent fentanyl — in street drugs.
Health Canada is looking for new drug-checking technology, or improvements upon existing technology, that has the potential to prevent the loss of thousands of Canadian lives each year due to accidental drug overdoses.
The objective of the Drug Checking Technology Challenge is to find accurate, easy to use and low-cost solutions requiring minimal training and sample preparation. The challenge is open to any for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, such as companies, industry associations, Indigenous organizations and research associations, as well as post-secondary institutions.
The challenge was launched by Health Canada in October through the Impact Canada Initiative. Up to 10 selected semi-finalists will receive $25,000. They will also be eligible to compete for $100,000 to enter the pilot phase. The winner of the grand prize of $1 million will be announced January 31, 2020.
“All they need to do is apply,” said Ottawa entrepreneur Steve Cody, who is chairing the selection committee.
“It’s a privilege to being do this because I really believe it can have such an impact,” said Cody, who spent part of his Christmas holidays promoting the technology challenge. He’d like to see involvement from startup incubators and accelerators and venture capitalists with a focus on health care. International applicants will have to be incorporated in Canada in order to be awarded the prize funding, and will need to be able to operate in Canada for the pilot phase.
The deadline for filling out the online form is February 1st.
“We want to get as many people applying as we can,” said Cody. “Time is the issue here but it’s also a process. They just need to apply to get in. They don’t need a completed product or anything like that. There’s a process that allows them to build through it.”
The challenge is an incentive-based approach that offers a reward to the best solution. “It’s not really about winning a million-dollar prize; it’s about being able to access capital to get you to where you need to be to solve this problem and save all these lives,” said Cody. "I think we'll create winners all along the way."
Health Canada is hopeful the entries will offer new ways to help the government deal with the country’s opioid overdose crisis. “We definitely want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to try and address the issues,” said Kirsten Mattison, director of drug policy, science and surveillance at Health Canada. “I think we’re excited and we’re curious to see what ideas come in.”
The problem with current testing methods is that they’re either not widely accessible or they offer cheaper, easier alternatives that don't always produce reliable results, said Mattison.
More than 9,000 people died in Canada between January 2016 and June 2018 due to opioid-related causes, according to a Government of Canada website. Most deaths involve young to middle-aged males.
Cody and his wife, Natalie, lost their 18-year-old son Nick to an accidental drug overdose during the early morning hours of June 24, 2013. The Codys — who had tried desperately to help their son overcome his drug use — have become advocates for better treatment and to ending the stigma that can prevent people from getting the help they need.
The Codys met last year with the Prime Minister’s Youth Council. They also offered their help to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor after being impressed by the efforts of the Liberal government to tackle the opioid crisis. On the provincial level, Cody has also been working closely with local Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod.
A pilot drug checking program in Vancouver found that when users knew their drugs contained fentanyl, they were 10 times more likely to reduce the dose. “Ultimately, what you’re doing is giving someone the opportunity to really make a choice. Just knowing, and knowing with confidence, makes a big difference,” said Cody, founder and CEO of Ruckify, an online community rental marketplace.
“If they’re testing and they know something’s positive, then they can choose: Do I go to a safe-injection site? Do I make sure I have a [life-saving] naloxone kit?”
Following the death of their son, the Codys founded a non-profit, Say No for Nick. They also help organize an annual charity gala, Kaleidoscope for Hope, slated for Feb. 8 at the Infinity Convention Centre, to raise money for youth mental health.
The volunteer work is both draining and energizing, said Cody. What keeps him going, he says, is knowing that his efforts are making a difference, particularly with raising awareness in the schools and the community. “The problem is definitely being talked about a lot more.”