Even in 2022, health outcomes and life expectancies can dramatically differ across racial groups. It’s a wide-ranging problem that has at least some roots in clinical trials, which often suffer from an inadequate number of volunteers from racial minorities, women and those in rural areas.
This is the problem that RTP-based startup CliniSpan Health was designed to solve. CliniSpan is participating in the current 10th cohort of the RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP) and will also be presenting at CED’s Venture Connect summit on April 7.
As a clinical study marketplace, CliniSpan lists clinical studies from its partners and recruits those in underrepresented groups to join the platform to participate in those studies. These users add their clinical interests, medications and ZIP code, and from there, CliniSpan provides tailored clinical study opportunities for users, ultimately boosting diversity in the studies.
Before CliniSpan Health, Co-Founder and CEO Dezbee McDaniel had already dipped his toes in the startup world. He set off with an entrepreneurship minor from UNC and worked at Venture for America before co-founding Everywhere Ad, a startup that helped brands grow and consumers get paid as brand ambassadors. They went through the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator, but ultimately, as with many startups, Everywhere Ad failed.
McDaniel said he “failed forward,” though, learning a lot, before he met CliniSpan’s Co-Founder Dr. David Lipsitz. They met through Lipsitz’ son, who was a classmate of McDaniel’s at UNC and also did Venture for America. Lipsitz had a vision to diversify clinical trials and had just built an initial MVP. The two decided they were a perfect pair to bring the CliniSpan Health platform to life, launching the platform officially in 2021.
The sheer social impact is what keeps McDaniel looking forward to CliniSpan’s growth as a business.
In just one example, CliniSpan Health was able to help increase the inclusion rate for African Americans in the recruiting pipeline for the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trial sites to three times higher than the industry standard. CliniSpan Health sent 16-20 percent of total referrals to the sites and led to an overall inclusion rate of 10 percent for African American referrals.
“It’s way more important for me to be able to improve the health outcomes of my communities that I identify with,” McDaniel said. “I think for me personally, that is what makes me the most excited about what CliniSpan Health is doing and will do.”
Already, eight research clients have gotten behind CliniSpan to partner in its goals of diversifying clinical studies. These studies pay to be included on the platform as well as for each referral and enrollment. Meanwhile, a couple thousand users have joined the platform to be matched with studies as potential participants.
And CliniSpan’s funding so far reflects the promise others see in the platform. The startup has raised more than $100,000 in grants, including a $50K SEED grant from NC IDEA as well as grants from the NC Biotech Center and Orange County.
Over time, CliniSpan changed its primary user acquisition strategy. While the startup originally focused on nonprofit partners to drive its user base, they now work with individual partners called “digital health influencers.” It’s the introduction of the influencer marketing concept to clinical research, McDaniel said.
These influencers match their target user: an African American or Hispanic person aged 18 to 35 who is active on social media and has some level of interest in health equity.
Defusing justified historical distrust
Finding these influencer partners is vital because of the widespread lack of trust people of color often have for medicine and clinical research, McDaniel said. With the Tuskegee Experiment serving as just one infamous example—hundreds of African American men were left with untreated syphilis by researchers in a study launched in 1932 and lasting for decades—it’s clear where this issue stems from.
More recently, Lipsitz—as a white doctor—would enter communities of color and feel welcomed at the time but ultimately people would not trust or act upon what he said because of built-up historical distrust.
Says McDaniel, “We need someone who looks like them, talks like them, walks like them, to share that message for them to actually trust it and act on it.”
That’s where the digital influencers come in. So far, CliniSpan has brought more than 15 on board, but there’s a waitlist of influencers hoping to join the mission as well.
Through McDaniel’s entrepreneurship experience with CliniSpan and previously, he’s realized founders need to get comfortable with the unfamiliar, embrace exploration and learn to create something out of nothing. Often, you are developing entirely new processes and strategies, such is the case with CliniSpan.
“There’s no cookie-cutter way of doing it,” McDaniel said. “There’s no cookie-cutter way of product development, no cookie-cutter way of going to market, no cookie-cutter founding team. There is not really anything cookie-cutter about entrepreneurship.”
Covid has accelerated CliniSpan’s progress
And there are unexpected twists around every corner. While CliniSpan Health started pre-pandemic, Covid-19 actually accelerated CliniSpan’s growth because of the increased need and awareness of Covid vaccine trials, McDaniel said. CliniSpan’s time to market sped up because so many of these study opportunities were available, fast-tracking the mission to diversify trials that CliniSpan was already invested in.
“Directly through the business, I want to improve health outcomes,” McDaniel said. “That’s really what it’s about. It’s about knowing that my mother and my father and my African American grandmother and family members will have better lives and better health experiences from the work that I do.”
The wider community McDaniel grew up in will be benefited as well by CliniSpan’s impact, he said. Even without CliniSpan’s broader mission, McDaniel said he is able to educate his community on how business can be a vehicle for change and serve as a resource.
McDaniel believes that the Triangle’s infrastructure has been perfect for the CliniSpan business. The universities prompted greater awareness of clinical research, and the entrepreneurship community provides mentorship and funding that might not be possible elsewhere.
“Sometimes I do think about the fact that there’s so much infrastructure here for something like this,” McDaniel said. “I don’t know another area that would allow the same kind of context for value creation. Everything about the Triangle, honestly, has been an enabler of being able to create value in this business in this way.”
As part of RAP’s 10th cohort startling last month, CliniSpan Health is focusing on growing the value of its tech. The platform aims to double its study portfolio, grow revenue over 100 percent and boost user numbers by 150 percent or more. Before the end of the year, McDaniel said, CliniSpan hopes to put the final touches on raising a $500,000 seed round.