Edmonton startup FentaGone has developed a syringe that detects fentanyl and allows a user to test their drugs wherever they take them to avoid an overdose.
"What we've seen is a lot of changes in regards to harm reduction across the province and across the city, whether that comes to safe consumption sites opening, closing, moving — there's been a lot of unknowns in this sphere," FentaGone co-founder and CEO Simran Dhillon told Taproot. "What we see as a result of that, too, is overdose rates are increasing every single year, and it's getting exceptionally worse. And B.C., Alberta, and Ontario are the hardest hit."
FentaGone was a participant in Cohort 4 of the TELUS Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator, an Alberta-focused business accelerator focusing on entrepreneurial solutions to social and safety challenges in communities. The cohort closed and demonstrations took place on Dec. 6. The program introduces participants to community agencies and government partners like the Edmonton Police Service.
In all of 2022, emergency teams in Edmonton responded to 3,503 opioid-related events. By just the end of October 2023 (November and December data are not yet available) emergency teams have responded to 4,450 such events, according to Alberta's substance use surveillance data. For further context, Canada's Health InfoBase reports that fentanyl was involved in 81% of "all accidental apparent opioid toxicity deaths" from January to March of 2023.
While mass spectrometry machines at supervised consumption sites and test strips both test for fentanyl, each has challenges. The strips have reliability and context challenges, while the machines are relatively inaccessible due to the time and materials they require, as well as the user needing to go to the few locations where they are located.
FentaGone has worked to eliminate these significant barriers by creating a tool called FentaGone that is within the very syringe a user can employ to inject a drug. This allows a user to test wherever they intend to use a drug.
"Nothing changes in the ritual behaviour: there's no additional steps, no additional education, and we have embedded a unique functional detection technology into the plastic of the syringe and as it binds to fentanyl, it will change colour," Dhillon said. If a lethal fentanyl concentration is present, the substance within will become intensely red. If fentanyl is present but not in a lethal concentration, it will be a muted yellow, Dhillon said.
This provides more context to users than test strips, which indicate only whether fentanyl is present or not.
Test strips give you a response that isn't really assessing your risk of an overdose, Dhillon said. "It just assesses if fentanyl is present or not and fentanyl is very concentrated in the drug sphere at the moment. So, knowing if there's fentanyl present or not isn't as valuable as knowing how much fentanyl is potentially present."
Test strips can be used on powders, pills, and intravenous drugs; however testing methods and research into intravenous consumption specifically has been sparse, Dhillon said.
"We started with a syringe because we saw the intravenous drug-user sphere not really being tapped into with a lot of innovation — and even with a lot of external funding and external attention, it wasn't really a demographic that was being targeted in any way."
FentaGone will primarily be marketed to government agencies and private pharmacies for distribution at safe consumption sites and needle exchange programs, potentially as soon as the third quarter of 2024.
"That takes into play some important elements — we are in the process of securing our intellectual property, as well as validating our results and finalizing our regulatory approval," Dhillon said. "So we are hoping that we're able to launch at least locally in quarter three of 2024."
FentaGone's co-founders Dhillon and Adarsh Badesha were University of Alberta students when they began developing the FentaGone tool. In 2021, they received $100,000 in funding from a TELUS Innovation Challenge to develop the prototype and since then, they have raised more than $500,000 through grants and competitions.
"Being a student with an idea is very powerful, especially in Edmonton," Dhillon said.
FentaGone's participation in the TELUS accelerator has opened Dhillon's eyes.
"It's been really exciting to see what else is available in the Alberta ecosystem, which we weren't really necessarily aware of beforehand, and also getting some really great connections," she said. "We've had conversations with people at the City of Edmonton as well as in the health innovation space. So it's provided us a huge launchpad as we're beginning to plan out our launch for 2024, where we want to go, and how we're going to onboard our first round of investors and customers."
FentaGone will also raise pre-seed funds beginning in February 2024 to assist with the remaining costs needed for launch.
Although the company has started with intravenous consumption, Dhillon said FentaGone intends to expand its technology's application to other methods in the future.
"The actual detection technology that we've created can be embedded into really any form of polymers," she said. "So we're starting with syringes, but we do hope to manipulate the technology to use it in other forms to target, for example, cocaine and then kind of move from there."
Dhillon and Badesha were both science students and members of the U of A's Student Union when they met. After losing someone in her own life to the crisis, Dhillon's scientific interests soon turned to overdose and harm reduction.
"We have similar backgrounds, similar experiences with loss and whatnot, so we ended up thinking — if there's a way that people are able to know if they are overdosing before they do overdose, and if that would change their pattern of behaviour if that information is available to them — that's kind of where it all began," Dhillon said.