Ending the Opioid Crisis: Q&A with Matthew Lucci, Runatek CEO

Updated: Mar 25

Zoe McGhee • Managing Editor

an image of the wearable IV pump, Sotiras
Sotiras, the wearable IV pump. Image courtesy of Runatek

In the late 1990s, due to pharmaceutical companies relaying to the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers, healthcare providers began to prescribe them at higher rates. This was the beginning of the Opioid Crisis, an epidemic consisting of widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids due to their highly addictive nature. In 2017 the U.S. Department of Public and Human Services declared a public health emergency, and as of a 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1.6 million people had an opioid use disorder in the past year.

In an effort to fully combat the epidemic, UT Tyler alumni Matthew Lucci and SMU alumni Aidan Brockie began a startup titled Runatek. Lucci, CEO of Runatek, discussed how his company is developing the Sotiras smart IV pump, a wearable IV pump that monitors the concentrations of prescription opioid medication in the bloodstream.

a headshot of Matthew Lucci looking into the distance
Matthew Lucci, Runatek CEO. Image courtesy of Lucci

According to the Runatek website, “the device uses a measurement of the patient’s body mass and the doctor’s prescription to set a proper blood concentration level for the patient to achieve pain relief without experiencing a potentially addicting “high.” The device automatically administers intravenous (IV) opioid medications to maintain this prescribed concentration without the possibility of misuse."

Here, Managing Editor Zoe McGhee spoke with Lucci about his company’s plans and promise to end the opioid crisis in the next 7 years.

Can you go into a little bit more detail on what exactly your startup consists of?

Runatek is a medical device startup and we're working on an innovative medical device that controls the concentration of prescription opioids in the bloodstream so that a patient doesn't experience the fluctuations that come along with taking a pill.

So the idea is that when you take a normal pill or even an I.V. injection shortly after that, you get a high concentration of the medication and then throughout the day it'll dip down below the level that you need in order to manage the pain, and what happens there is basically the same sort of way where when you're above the concentration that you need with an opioid, you're experiencing a high at one point during the day and then at another point during the dosage cycle and you're experiencing a low, you're feeling pain and you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

So what our device does is it steadies that out of and gives you microdoses throughout the day, as your body needs them, so that you don't develop that psychological mechanism for addiction, of pleasure and pain, because you're getting exactly what you need. You're not feeling a high.

I also saw in your email you mentioned a timeline of seven years. Why that time frame?

That's a very good question. So our belief is that we'll be able to get through FDA approval within about 12 months if clinical testing and through clinical testing within about a year and then within any medical device, it takes a while to gain traction on the market itself. So we estimate that it would take about five or so years after its released to the general public for it to be the standard in terms of pain treatment. The leaders at that point would be able to cut down the drug overdoses from the 81,000 opioid overdose deaths that we had last year, down to less than 10,000.

Why do you guys think that your product will be the one to solve the opioid crisis?

Once again, a very good question. For those that have looked into the government's response to the crisis, there's a six-pronged approach essentially that was unveiled in 2017. The problem with that approach is that five out of those six prongs are what happens after someone gets a sort of treatment, or recovery and stuff like that. Personally, I think all that is wonderful.

We do need to be spending more time and money on that. However, the way that I would compare it is basically you have a sinking ship and you're slowly bailing out the water without ever patching the hole. That's where we come in, by preventing people from getting addicted in the first place so that those who are battling with use disorder can get the help that they need without more people kind of being funneled into that system and overloading them.

So why I think that we are different and actually have a chance at ending the opioid crisis because we're going right to the root of it and preventing people from getting addicted in the first place so that, you know, you get a trickle down effect year after year where less and less people are addicted to opioids, less and less people are addicted to heroin and to Fentanyl and just the vast majority of people who have tried heroin, roughly 80 percent started by misusing prescription opioids, and the numbers are similar with Fentanyl.

If you can cut off prescription opioid misuse, abuse and addiction, then you basically shut off the pipeline into heroin, the pipeline into Fentanyl and you turn down those deaths from that 81,000 figure all the way down to less than 10,000.

So you like you just mentioned, your product is a preventative measure for opioid addiction. But how will it help people that are already addicted?

Well, first off, the goal of this is to prevent addiction like you said, and what that will do for those who are already addicted is it takes a lot of the burden off of the system so that they can get the help that they need with the funds that are readily available to them. For those who are starting to misuse, a device like this would prevent that misuse in the first place.

if a doctor suspects misuse and they don't want their patients to go down the path of dependency or addiction, then they could prescribe this device along with the prescription opioid so that the patient doesn't misuse. They don't have the ability to misuse and it keeps them from going down that dangerous path.

I also saw that your startup was based in Dallas. Are you intending to primarily provide services to the DFW area? Are you wanting to expand eventually?

Well, the company itself is based in Dallas. Our goal is to get these devices out throughout the rest of the country. Right now, we do have interns from many different locations, including someone from UT Tyler, a product development intern helping out with the computer and design models and stuff like that, and if you go to our website under the Sotiras video, she actually did a lot of the computer modeling for that. She said she might know you, her name is Ashley Dixon, she said to tell you hi.

Oh, yes! She was my roommate last year, so I definitely know her.

She says to tell you hi.

Oh, thank you. I said hi too, haha.

Well I will let her know that you said hi. But we're trying to grow and reach different areas. Either through those who are working on the project or those who we're reaching out to. Overall, we would like to see this not just a Texas thing, but we would like to lead the fight and end the opioid crisis across the country when we get these devices out there.

OK, so I also looked at your website a little bit and I saw that you're launching a crowdfunding campaign. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that's about or how it's going to work?

Yes. So next week, just a week from today, March 23rd, we are launching a crowdfunding campaign for further development of our prototype so that we can get prepared for FDA approval. The crowdfunding campaign, we set a goal of $12,500. So fairly low, but we think it's definitely a reasonable goal that we can achieve, especially with help from the community and people who have been impacted by the opioid epidemic, and it's the very next step toward ending the opioid crisis.

All the funds we're raising through that are going to go directly into developing the product, getting it ready for FDA approval, and we'll use the figure from what we raise as traction to show some interested investors that this is definitely something that is viable, and it's something that people want to see out there on the market helping save lives every year. It's something that, you know, they can want to be a part of as well.

Why this issue? Why choose to try to attack the opioid crisis?

Well, I got into mechanical engineering; that's my background, because I wanted to use the skills that I had to help others, but something that my parents definitely taught me growing up was even if you don't have a lot of money, even if you don't have a lot of resources at your disposal, what you have is your time and your talent. You should always be using those. So when I was a graduate student at UT Tyler, I did research in the medical field and medical devices and my thesis was on coronary artery stents because I saw an issue there with the current technology. But after grad school, I presented an idea of what is now the Sotiras, to my friend and then business partner, and I was just talking about different ways that we can use our talents to help people.

One of the biggest things that we saw was the opioid crisis, something that's been getting worse over the last 30 years.

We're on the third wave of the third opioid crisis in America, so it's something that hasn't been solved yet and has never really been taken on from a technology perspective. It's something that, you know, I have an idea about and wanted to pursue that. Where we're at right now with Sotiras, we're very, very confident in that idea and the prototypes that we've been making will be the way that the opioid crisis ends. It's very special that we all get to be part of it and whatever that is, whether that actually designing it, whether that's interning at Runatek or whether that's helping us by contributing to the crowdfunding campaign. It's a very unique and very special project that we all get to be a part of.

You mentioned your background in Mechanical Engineering, but what about the rest of your team? Why should people trust your company to successfully put this device out there?

Of course, we are a startup. A majority of our team is mechanical engineers, a couple of people with marketing backgrounds and some connections into the medical field. I think that's the reason why we should be trusted to work our butts off to end the opioid crisis is because that's what we're in it for. We're in it to help other people. We come from vastly different backgrounds, each and every one of us, and we're all going into it trying our very best to solve a big problem, and learn things along the way. But ultimately, because we want to help other people and we're dedicating our time and our challenge to this. Whether that's as an entrepreneur or working probably 20 hours a day, seven days a week to make this possible, I think it's hard to question the dedication of the team behind us and the reasons why they're there for each and every person through the part of the team is dedicating their all to it.

My next question is about your intern Ashley. Why have an intern here at UT Tyler?

Well, when I was looking out for people that I wanted to partner with, I reached out to both where I did my undergrad at SMU in Dallas and also to my graduate research advisor, Dr. Goh. I knew that if we wanted this to succeed, we have to form strategic partnerships with universities that have more resources than we did. I also wanted to offer the best educational opportunity possible for any interns that we brought on, because there's a lot of stuff that I had to learn the hard way through my various jobs in different areas of engineering, whether it be aerospace, some awesome projects that I worked with, whether it be HPAC.

There are a lot of skills that I've picked up over the years that are very, very essential to having a successful career that a lot of students just don't realize that they need until after they're in the workforce for a few years. So each and every one of the people that is part of the Runatek team, we set goals at the beginning of those internships of what they want to learn and what they need to learn in order to be successful in their career. And even if their next step is not with Runatek, if it's moving on to just an internship or co-op or a full time job, then I'm going to support them 100 percent of the way because I do think it's something that everybody should be passionate about, like whatever they do in life they should be passionate and happy that they're doing it. Even if the interns are only on board for a semester and aren't in search of a full time job down the road, as we grow bigger, we're going to do absolutely everything we can to prepare them for whatever the next step.

Will you be offering more positions in the future?

Oh, yes, definitely. We will be offering internships in product development, so mechanical, electrical and computer science. We'll also be offering business and marketing internships as well for those who want to learn the marketing side of things or they want to learn how to finance or how to pitch to investors and things like that, especially the summer, as we move from this crowdfunding campaign into the next steps of development and the next step of pitching venture capital and everyone who's on board has the opportunity to learn things that aren't just specific to their major. But anything that they want to learn related to a startup company, I make every opportunity available for them to learn what they want to learn in whatever field.

So if you could have if you could have people know one thing about you and your startup, what would it be?

I would say that the startup is taking an innovative approach that will end the opioid crisis within the next decade. Anything about me personally, I think I'm just a regular person who grew up never thinking he'd go to college and ended going through getting a master's degree and trying to spend now the vast majority of my life helping other people. That's what I'd like to see more of. It doesn't matter how much money you make if you didn't help someone else out at the end of the day. That's what's most important, making someone else's life better. In this case, saving people.

So that was my last question. But are there any other questions or concerns that didn't come up?

Oh, I think I'd just like to stress how big the opioid crisis is. I mean, if you look at the data in a given year, one in four Americans will use a prescription opioid to deal with pain, whether if it's from a car accident, cancer treatment, what have you. Overall, one in 32 or roughly about 10 and a half million Americans will misuse prescription opioids in any given year. That leaves devastating consequences because lives are torn apart from opioid addiction. I think it's something that everyone needs to understand, even if they say the area around me isn't all that bad, because truth be told, Texas is nowhere near the worst. But there are parts of the country where you have entire communities where more than half of the people are addicted to prescription opioids, and that's decimated certain parts of the country.

These are real life people who have had their lives stripped away through no fault of their own. It's time now to put aside bickering and pointing fingers and suing over who's to blame and actually go after a solution that gives people the help they need to manage their pain, but also to prevent getting addicted and having the lives torn away from those people.

Runatek is currently hosting a crowdfunding campaign in order to raise $12,500 in 30 days to fund development of the Sotiras and move towards FDA approval. To donate, click here.

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