FDA’s Naloxone App Prize Competition Celebrates Innovation In Search of Technological Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic

By: Peter Lurie, M.D., M.P.H.

The epidemic of opioid dependence and abuse has had an impact upon communities both large and small across the United States. Since 1999, rates of overdose deaths involving opioids, whether prescription painkillers or street drugs like heroin, have nearly quadrupled. In 2015, 91 Americans died from an opioid overdose each day.

Dr. Peter LurieMany local, state, and federal agencies have worked to prevent these tragic deaths by expanding access to naloxone, a prescription medication that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Supporting increased access to naloxone is also a key objective of the multifaceted Opioid Action Plan released by FDA earlier this year. In addition, FDA has sponsored two national meetings on the topic and in recent years has approved two naloxone products that facilitate use by laypeople.

These efforts and others by federal partners, state and local governments, and by community-based organizations have increased the availability of naloxone in many communities, enabling both first responders and laypeople like friends and families of drug users to carry this life-saving medication. From 1996, when a community-based organization first distributed naloxone, to mid-2014, these organizations are reported to have reversed over 26,000 overdoses.

For naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose, however, it must be administered as quickly as possible. That’s why the agency launched the Naloxone App Competition, an effort to develop innovative solutions to the problem of how to rapidly connect naloxone carriers to a person experiencing an opioid overdose.

Through this prize competition, FDA aimed to engage with creative communities outside the agency who may not have traditionally focused on public health issues. We invited computer scientists, researchers, health care providers, patient advocates, academics, and entrepreneurs to form teams and submit concepts for a crowd-sourced mobile phone app that could help accelerate delivery of naloxone to a person experiencing an overdose.

While we didn’t know what to expect from this first-of-its-kind competition for the agency, public health-focused innovators responded with enormous enthusiasm. Over 150 teams registered for the competition, and more than 100 individuals participated, either in-person or virtually, in a two-day code-a-thon hosted on the FDA’s White Oak campus. The teams were eager to learn more about the opioid epidemic and began to develop compelling concepts to bring technological solutions to bear on a real-world problem.

A total of 45 submissions were reviewed by our team of judges from FDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While we received many thoughtful and innovative submissions, a single winning team was selected to take home the cash prize of $40,000. We are pleased to announce that the winner of the 2016 FDA Naloxone App Competition is OD Help by Team Pwrdby, a small startup based in Venice, California.

OD Help’s concept is a simple, easy-to-use mobile app designed to connect potential opioid overdose victims with a crowd-sourced network of naloxone carriers. OD Help can easily be tailored for use in rural or urban areas by expanding or contracting the radius within which naloxone carriers are sought. An additional innovative feature of OD Help is the optional interface with a breathing monitor to detect when a victim’s breathing rate is dangerously low, a sign of an opioid overdose. Hence, if the victim is alone and unable to call for help, OD Help will detect the diminished breathing and alert a naloxone carrier of the potential overdose. Other features of OD Help include: only alerting people in one’s support network and allowing naloxone carriers to disable alerts when they are unable to respond. The app also provides instructions on how to correctly diagnose an overdose and administer naloxone and helps contact emergency medical services when help is required.

Team Pwrdby was represented by the multi-disciplinary team of: Jared Sheehan, Dr. Talib Omer, Daniel Bouganim, Chris Rovin, Suresh Mohan, Ben Dukes, Andress Anantharaju, Oumayma Raimi, and Courtney Crockett. View the OD Help app video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiiNvSLbUgo&feature=youtu.be.

FDA also congratulates Team MIT on their app concept, NalNow, which the judges recognized as a second high-performing submission. Team MIT receives an honorable mention as the team with the second-highest score in the Competition. Team MIT is represented by Dr. Hattie Chung, Grace Young, Sinchan Banerjee, Rodrigo Ipince and Emily Zhao. View the NalNow app video here:  http://bit.ly/nalnow_video. App developers interested in further developing their concepts are encouraged to seek support through NIDA’s Small Business Innovation Research grant program.

By enabling FDA to tap into the creativity, energy, and knowledge base of communities that do not regularly engage with the federal government, prize competitions expand the pool of smart, talented individuals committed to tackling the problems that face us as a society – and in this case that was a win for public health. We sincerely thank everyone who participated in the 2016 FDA Naloxone App Competition, and we congratulate Team Pwrdby on their winning concept, which has the potential to make a real difference in the fight against opioid overdose.

Peter Lurie, M.D., M.P.H., is FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Public Health Strategy and Analysis