Why I’m Excited To Help Reinvent Treatment for Heavy Drinking

It’s hard to think of an issue where innovation has lagged further behind the scope of a problem than that of heavy drinking. That’s why I’m so proud that Canaan Partners is backing Annum Health to provide a transformative new solution for heavy drinking.

A Problem of Epic Proportions

For far too many, the relationship with alcohol is complex, painful and sticky. We see this play out everywhere in our own lives: quick shots to ease anxiety at a party; three glasses of wine to downshift a spinning mind before bed; the third or fourth cocktail to celebrate a business win; beers to toast the weekend after a stressful week. TV and movies re-enforce. Social media documents and normalizes.

Taken collectively, millions of people feel shame, fogginess, pain, low motivation and lack of sleep the next day. Really, millions. One in four U.S. adults binge drink, 32 million engage in “extreme binge drinking” and 16 million people actually meet the clinical criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder.

Not only does this represent a crisis of wellbeing for individuals, families and communities, but it is also a costly epidemic for society: heavy drinking costs the U.S. economy $250 billion per year — almost a third of that due to lost workplace productivity, as most heavy drinkers are employed.

A Welcome Disruption

It’s stunning that the $35 billion rehab industry thrives, even as consumer and health plan sponsors find these options so unsatisfactory that only 10% of people in need of treatment receive it.

It’s true: nine out of ten people in need of treatment for a substance use disorder don’t even consider getting professional help, and for fair-minded reasons. Rehab is a huge disruption to personal and professional life. Quality therapists often have high out of pocket costs and limited appointment times. The local in-person group programs may not feel like a good fit. Most heavy drinkers haven’t hit “rock bottom”, so, far too many people in need continue to be unserved and unsupported.

Make no mistake: people want to change! Just look at Reddit’s 75,000-member strong community StopDrinking. What’s more, health plans and employers want to offer good solutions to their covered individuals. As we weighed our investment with Annum, I was stunned by how many market due diligence calls with national health plans and self-insured employers centered around the same question. Not whether the problem exists, not whether the Annum solution made sense, but rather: “how quickly can you get me this new solution?”

Annum’s Innovative Solution

If one thing’s clear, it’s the need for an alternative to rehab for heavy drinking, and that alternative is Annum Health.

Annum’s reinvented health-tech model casts every outdated assumption about rehab aside. Instead of centering treatment around 12-step facilitation, Annum deploys a physician, counselor and coach for each participant. This highly-trained, multi-pronged treatment team delivers an evidence-based suite of treatment that includes therapy, medicine, education, coaching and peer support in a private, highly personalized and mobile-enabled way.

Unlike a 28-day stay in a bricks and mortar rehab facility, Annum’s program lasts up to a year, is far more affordable and is offered proactively to all members of a sponsor’s population to reduce stigma and hassle. Benefits are measured the way we ourselves measure our own success — in terms of quality of life enhancements, reduced heavy drinking episodes and increased performance at work — rather than simply by days, weeks and years sober. In fact, a person can get treatment at Annum — and be considered a success story — even if they don’t give up drinking forever.

An Investment to be Proud Of

With every investment in digital health, Canaan looks at areas where current solutions are ineffective or where barriers put effective products and services out of reach of people who are most in need. We also weigh the experience and credibility of the team and like to bet on been-there, done-that entrepreneurs. Annum has all of this in spades.

Annum’s CEO, Michael Laskoff, founded AbleTo, a successful and still-growing behavioral health company providing clinical and peer support for individuals with mental health diagnoses on top of another serious medical condition. Recognizing that heavy drinking was a problem in need of a totally new solution, his explorations — like my own — led him to interview the leading experts in the field, including Dr. Mark Willenbring, a 35-year veteran in alcohol treatment and addiction research, who quickly became a collaborator (you can read more about Mark here and here). To merge the best of research and medical practice with the most advanced patient- and provider-facing technologies, they synched up with a third co-founder, Stanford and Mayo Clinic-trained, Dr. Lauren Wolfe.

Together, the team hatched a technology solution, a consumer-centric approach and B2B distribution model and set about to find seed funding. It is pretty telling that the seed round came together in a similarly deliberate way: a global insurance company, AXA Strategic Ventures, as a strategic anchor; a digital health and biopharma VC to bring the interdisciplinary angle (me); plus a repeat backer, .406 Ventures, who previously helped Michael get AbleTo off the ground. In short order, Annum has built a full leadership team, developed its initial product offering and signed its first large health plan partner, with others on the way.

Annum is a startup on a mission to tackle a major source of individual and social suffering. Cheers to that (pun intended).

Read more about how Annum is different from the status quo here.