Founder Interview: Curbing Substance Use with AI

Lucid Lane founder Adnan Asar discusses his quest to leverage data to improve pain, substance use and mental health

Lucid Lane founder Adnan Asar is on a mission to improve pain, substance use and mental health using data.

After co-founding a diabetes-focused telehealth company Livongo Health, which recently got acquired for $18.5 billion, he’s now leading a new company, Lucid Lane, that seeks to reduce medication dependency, pain and improve mental health.

The company was born out of passion, when Asar’s wife became dependent on a widely used class of drugs known as benzos following cancer treatment. Asar assembled a clinical team and empowered them with data about his wife as they helped coach her through tapering off of the drug. With his wife healthy again, Asar decided to start a company to bring this approach to the masses.

Asar sat down with our writer in residence, Russ Rizzo, to discuss his journey in entrepreneurship, what it takes to win in today’s market, and what he looks for in a venture team. (Note: Lucid Lane recently closed its second round of funding, with participation from Morado Ventures.)

Russ: To start off, let’s take a trip in the way-back machine. When did you first get the idea that you wanted to found a company?

Adnan: I never thought about being an entrepreneur or starting companies. To me it’s really about solving problems and building products. That’s how I’ve always thought about my career.

When I joined Tiny Prints, for example, I had two little kids and my wife and I were taking all these photos and wondering, “How do we organize them?” That was my passion back then. I co-founded Livongo about 10 years ago when I started to think more about my health as I developed hyperlipidemia.

Then about five years ago, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. She had to go through chemo radiation and became dependent on benzodiazepine, which is a highly addictive medication that we did not know about at the time. She’s doing great now. She’s a cancer survivor and a benzo survivor. But that’s what led me to Lucid Lane.

I realized through her experience that medication dependency and substance dependency and the co-occurring pain and mental health issues that are related to it are rampant. So many people are suffering and not getting the help that they need to taper off of these medications.

Russ: Mike and Ash talk about the importance of founders having passion for the problems they solve. How do you view it? 

Adnan: I think you’ve got to have passion. For young entrepreneurs who want to start companies and solve big problems, I think the most important thing is to build a product or a solution that you’re passionate about and truly care about—something you’re going to wake up every morning thinking about and that’s going to be your last thought going to bed.

Otherwise you can build a company which may be successful, but I don’t think you’ll really enjoy it, nor have the type of success that you could potentially have.

Russ: How does Lucid Lane use data to improve mental health outcomes?

Adnan: When I joined Livongo, one of the things that I’m really proud of is building a data strategy that is about collecting user health signals and then using that to drive personalized treatment plans, as well as identifying who needs help when they need help and what help they need.

It’s a closed-loop feedback system: You collect data from the patients and then that feeds into an analytics engine, which then uses predictive models to make recommendations to a clinical team that can then personalize the treatment plan for the patient.

We’re the first company and the only company I know that is building the very first AI based behavioral health platform for pain and substance dependence at Lucid Lane. 

Russ: How does Lucid Lane  work?

Adnan: You can’t taper people from medication without improving their pain and mental health. So we built a very sophisticated system where we are collecting a lot of health signals from patients about their anxiety, their depression, their quality of life, their functioning, their pain, about the pain catastrophizing, withdrawal symptoms, and so forth. These are all the self-reported health assessments that we do today. 

These signals then flow into our proprietary analytics engine, and that’s where the magic happens. The engine aggregates and synthesizes these signals and does two things. First, it sees which patients need help at the moment. Second, it makes recommendations for patients on when to start a taper, when to stop taper, when to pause taper, when to increase the rate of taper, how much to reduce it by, if they’re ready to step down to the next level in terms of taper.

Russ: How have you managed the swift transition to all-remote?

Adnan: This is the most distributed company that I’ve ever built or worked closely with. Some of that is just by definition of what we do, because we have therapists all over the country in different states.

It’s actually working out really well for us. There’s more flexibility in people’s day. People can start working immediately and be available when you need them to be available. People are constantly talking on Slack. We use Zoom constantly for one-on-one interaction, whether it’s ad hoc or a scheduled meeting. And actually it makes them more productive because they don’t have to deal with a one hour commute each way and or having to make arrangements to pick up the child from school. 

I do think there is a place for getting together. You can’t replace getting in front of a whiteboard and meeting face to face for building chemistry, building teamwork and brainstorming. Now that we are moving a little beyond the lockdown that we were living in last year, we are seriously looking at how the different teams get together and brainstorm and meet and talk and collaborate in a common space.

Russ: What’s it been like to raise money in today’s environment?

Adnan: In a startup, you can have the best idea and the best product, but what you don’t have control over is timing. And in our case, the timing is absolutely spot on.

We’ve been lucky because we are in digital health, we’re in mental health, we’re in substance use, and we’re a telehealth company. Anything that has to do with those areas has shot up in priority for investors since COVID. We weren’t looking to raise our Series A at the time we did. We just had so many investors calling us.

At the end of the day, investors are looking for a great team that can execute on a great TAM (total addressable market). I think that’s what our investors recognize about us. We’ve got a world-class digital health team.

Russ: What’s it like working with Morado?

Adnan: I worked with Ash (Patel) at Yahoo! and have always admired him as a leader and as a mentor. He is a great guy, smart, humble, and great to work with.

From my perspective, there’s really three things that a great investor brings to the table. 

Number one, I look for passion. Are they truly interested in the solution that we’re building? Ash and the Morado team were passionate about what we were doing and how we were going to apply data to build this core service around medication taper management. And that was super important to me. 

Number two, I look for investors who can see around the corners a little better than and faster than I can. They have a much broader view of the industry because they talk with a lot of other companies and competitors. They’re looking and seeing challenges which are occurring throughout the market and throughout other companies at the same stage or later stages. They can help us anticipate what might happen six months from now. Those conversations are super helpful in terms of making sure that our plans, both tactical and strategic, are on the right path. 

The third thing investors bring is connections. They open doors both commercially as well as to other investors so we can access capital when we need it.

Morado has been super helpful in all three of these areas. It’s been amazing to work with them.

Russ: Wrapping up, what advice do you have for other founders?

Adnan: Build a product or solution that you truly care about and that you’re passionate about. Keep trying and don’t give up—because your first 10 attempts will fail. 

Move very, very fast, try different things, fail and pivot quickly because you will go through a lot of iterations on your way towards building your successful flywheel.

Work with people who will keep up with you, grind it out daily and have fun doing so. Let go of people quickly who can’t keep up. They will drag you down and slow things down. 

Create a vision and value that will impact lives in a meaningful way. You can’t rely on consultants and investors to do that for you. You can’t outsource that. Build an A-team, ambitious but humble, with a great chemistry. The team as a whole has to be A-caliber and the chemistry that exists among the team members has to be amazing.

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