Five Questions with Brave Co-Op Founder and CEO Gordon Casey

April 25, 2023

Brave Technology Co-op is a Vancouver-based company and a CCI member. Founder and CEO Gordon Casey founded the company in order to build systems that help prevent drug overdose deaths, and meet the opioid epidemic with with technology solutions.

Recently, Brave was formally certified as a B Corp , meaning they have proven themselves to be striving toward a more inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy. Gordon recently sat down with CCI President Benjamin Bergen to talk about their work.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Benjamin Bergen: Thanks for talking the time to chat with me today. So first of all, can you tell me a little bit about Brave’s background? It’s a really interesting space you work in. How did you get started?

Gordon Casey: So,there are a bunch of issues where people need help on an urgent basis, and the community is ready to help. I moved to Vancouver in 2016, and took a co-working space on Hastings Street, which is the notorious street in Vancouver for the clarity with which the poverty and then the housing crisis is evident to folks here. And my first friend here was married to a nurse who worked Insite — the supervised consumption site here — and my next door neighbour was a doctor who worked in treating folks suffering from substance use disorder here in the Downtown Eastside.

So immediately, we started exploring whether technology had a role to play in battling the overdose crisis, which was very visible. And I had people talking to me about this as well.

Today, there’s the Brave app, which means anybody can be on an app on their phone, connected with another human who is just with them virtually while they’re using drugs. We call it virtual spotting, or remote spotting, because the concept of spotting somebody while using drugs is very familiar for people in the psychedelic space.

Then we have a button.The button is primarily installed in supportive housing or shelters, and anybody who’s in the room and is about to use drugs can press the button. And somebody will then come and knock on the door a few minutes later to check on them. It’s just like a nurse call in a hospital, but designed specifically for this space.

The last thing is a sensor. The sensor sits on the ceiling of a washroom, and if somebody stops moving in that washroom, we send an alert out. We tried to design everything to be super simple. We try to really make stuff foolproof, and we try to make it very much plug and play.

And the way that it actually saves lives is, you know, we like to joke that it uses AI — we use actual intelligence. The bias we have is to get a human there as quickly as possible, and not to try and over-design the technology element. Get somebody there if someone is not moving in a washroom, whether or not we’re certain there’s an overdose happening. Same thing goes with the app: If somebody’s not responding to you after 30 seconds, and you’ve been having a conversation for three minutes, maybe it’s time to get another human there to check on that person, rather than trying to beat yourself up trying to figure out if the person is actually in crisis or not.

That’s the Brave default: Can we get a human into the situation? They’re the experts in ascertaining whether or not an overdose is happening, and almost always will have Naloxone or Narcan with them so they can administer, and the person can be revived. And at worst, they can call 911.

BB: It’s interesting, you know, because that is such an acute issue in that section of Vancouver. And it’s rare that I’ve heard about technology being deployed, specifically, around overdose and addiction. How did that connection come about?

GC: There’s something almost beautiful about the way in which the overdose crisis and the housing crisis are so in-your-face here in the Downtown Eastside. It’s undeniable. It’s awakening, even for people who are used to anti-poverty work around the world. They see it, and they will tell you that they’ve never seen anything like this. There’s something poetic, I suppose, about things being so in-your-face that you can’t deny them.

One of the reasons people don’t think about deploying technology solutions in a realm like this is because it doesn’t look like people here have technology. It’s not completely misinformed, but it is a slight misconception. Everybody on the Downtown Eastside has a phone and they all have access to the internet. Folks out here might change a phone every week. And they’re getting WiFi from like a coffee shop, but they can build their life around that. And they stay in touch with people through technology. They think about technology in their lives, and how it impacts them and, and what they want from technology products a lot.

So I was working on this idea, and I remember having this very loud, forceful, all-caps type conversation with an activist here called Ann Livingston. She said, why are you even asking me me? I’m not a drug user myself. Go and speak to people who use drugs. And yes! This is technology startup 101. Get out of the building and go talk to the people you’re trying to serve.

So I kind of hung around at the overdose prevention site, and that was very much speaking to both frontline workers and people who are using drugs. And lo and behold, they had tons of ideas! We expanded from just the notion of an app that can connect to folks while they’re using — sort of like a virtual supervised consumption site — and now we have buttons for supportive housing, and we’ve developed other stuff as well.

BB: What are the hurdles for actually getting the technology out in the field, in terms of deployment and buy-in from institutions?

GC: From like a sales point of view, it’s never been a challenge to get buy-in from the direct folks that we’re trying to sell to. The housing providers, they immediately understand what it is you’re trying to do. We talk to libraries about a solution for their washrooms and they say, ‘Oh my god, that’s brilliant!’

The problem is really just the money. So we’re invariably serving underfunded, resource-strapped organizations where every dollar is accounted for for the next 12 months. The good side of that is that often they can just ask for it in their funding plan for next year, and our pricing is very much built around the knowledge that we’re service folks that are under-resourced, so we keep our pricing as low as we possibly can.

And then from a governmental point of view, that’s been a challenge. They are the ultimate funder for a lot of our customers, through various programs et cetera. But I think what we experience is just the normal challenge that anybody who’s trying to sell something into government experiences — it’s slow, they prefer to have things that are very highly evidence-backed, and so on. And we’re very young, so the research is only just starting to come out, and we’ve been working with researchers for years, but that’s also a slow process.

BB: Are there places that are more receptive, where the government is making your kinds of projects a priority?

GC: It really comes down to the humans on the other end. It’s very much like pocket by pocket, and not necessarily the places that you would expect. So here in Vancouver, there’s quite a bit happening. But that’s in part due to the fact that we’re here, so we just have more of a network.

But you know, Ohio was the first place that we had a huge win. Ohio in the U.S. provided some cash to get everything going for the first couple of years at Brave. Some other funders who are interested in the space, have had competitions where they’re giving people like $10,000 or $20,000. But Governor Kasich’s program in Ohio was like, US$200,000 for each of 10 folks who made it to the second round, and then a million dollars each for four grand prize winners. And like, who would have thunk it? Governor Kasich in Ohio, he set up a prize for somebody to come up with opioid innovation stuff. And it was this very well-structured prize, a lot more like a grant, but it wasn’t the grant.

BB: It’s very interesting how a place like Ohio was on the cutting edge. Obviously the opioid epidemic has really devastated a lot of those former industrial states.

Now, Brave is clearly a mission-driven company. I was interested to hear that you’re structured a bit differently, in terms of being a co-op. And I know you were also recently certified as a B Corp. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means?

GC: At Brave we’re a co-operative, which is different. The co-op, what that means is that we’re collectively owned by everybody who is a co-op member, and we have three kinds of members. There’s investor members. Then there are team members, so like a worker in the co-operative would be a team member. And then we have consumer members. So anybody who uses our product is entitled to be a member.

There’s a bunch of reasons why we chose the co-op as our corporate structure. I’ve had experience with startups before. I am a consumer of digital technology. And I think it’s a fair way to move forward in the world and a responsible way to move forward. I’d love to see more technology co-operatives.

The principles of cooperativism are very much around democracy and ethics, and being responsible and respectful to your internal folks and to a wider group of stakeholders. And thinking about that wider group of stakeholders is what the B Corp movement has been built around — giving companies the power to not only be answerable to their shareholders, but to say that they take into account a wider group of stakeholders. So I was really excited to make Brave a co-operative and excited to be in B.C. where there is a fairly rich co-op history.

And we also wanted to make Brave a B Corp. So we incorporated in 2018, and then it took us a couple years to finally filling out the documentation and upload the supporting documents. It was a long process! And a fairly painful process for a small organization! But it’s like going through any kind of audit or certification process, and sometimes you know the answers but you haven’t necessarily documented them.

Ultimately, we’re proud that we scored pretty high as a B Corp as well, which makes sense given that we’re like a direct impact organization. It’s not a secondary thing for us, working in tandem with a business goal. Our core business goal is the impact that we have, keeping people alive and working with folks who use drugs, ensuring that they’re involved in the process and using a co-design philosophy around all the stuff we do to help save lives.

The Council of Canadian Innovators is a national business council of more than 150 scale-up technology companies headquartered in Canada. Our members are job-creators, philanthropists and leading commercialization experts in the 21st century digital economy.


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