Workit Health is on a fast track to become only the third Ann Arbor-based “unicorn” (billion-dollar company) in the city’s history, after Borders Books and Duo Security. It’s an astounding achievement for a seven-year-old company.

It hasn’t been easy. “We began offering a new model for addiction services at a time when opioid use had become a pandemic,” says cofounder and co-CEO Lisa McLaughlin, but “getting the funding we needed at the beginning was extremely difficult.

“Economic studies show that only two percent of women entrepreneurs can raise adequate amounts of capital. We bootstrapped it for a year and a half before we got our first capital funding.”

“It took us seven years to accomplish what men could have accomplished in two years,” adds her cofounder and co-CEO, Robin McIntosh.

They turned to SPARK, Invest Detroit, and other economic development groups for guidance. First, Workit attracted an initial round of investment to develop their prototype into a scalable architecture.

In 2017, the National Science Foundation provided a grant to develop a “thrive-meter,” which helps individuals identify success in addiction recovery. Two years later, the National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded Workit a contract to address social determinants of health in addiction care.

“And then the Covid-19 pandemic erupted,” McLaughlin says. “Social isolation, stress, and financial hardships caused a mental health crisis. Health care was forced to make major shifts, among them the need to go online.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, by September 2020, depression levels in American adults had tripled. In the first full year of the pandemic, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, an all-time high.

As demand for mental health services and telemedicine skyrocketed, states suspended requirements to see patients in person before writing prescriptions. That made it easier for Workit’s professionals to prescribe Suboxone to help opioid users withdraw from dependency, Acamprosate for alcohol withdrawal, and Naltrexone for both, as well as several other medications. And insurers began paying for online therapy sessions.

“The key word is online,” McLaughlin says. An Ann Arbor native and U-M grad, she works out of the company’s headquarters on Washtenaw Ave. McIntosh, like McLaughlin a U-M grad, divides her time between California and Colorado.

With more people facing addictions, and more ways to reach them, Workit quadrupled its client numbers during the pandemic. With a footprint in ten states, “our current valuation is $500 million, which is halfway to unicorn status,” says Kali Lux, vice president of marketing.

“We expect to be national by 2023, which will have us marching toward unicorn status very quickly.”

The cofounders’ lives have been as dramatic as their career success. They met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and know the world, worries, and workings of addicts firsthand.

“Many of the women I’ve met on the path to recovery were blocked entrepreneurs who had misdirected that energy into their addiction,” McLaughlin says. “There are a lot of parallels between drug addiction and entrepreneurship.

“Both require a high appetite for risk, the ability to put yourself out there without knowing how cold the water is going to be, and the ability to keep getting it done at all costs. People who use a lot of drugs are great at all these things.”

McLaughlin’s own drinking and drug use began early. By the time she was seventeen, friends and family members had staged the first of several interventions. “I had a rough adolescence and, as it turned out, an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, which is a common thread with addicts,” she says. Still, she maintained strong enough grades and test scores to enroll in U-M, where she studied English literature while “using the whole time.”

After graduation, her world shrank. “I got to the point where I was completely isolated,” she says. “My life was very small. I worked at a local cafe, went back to my apartment, and drank. I lost all social connections.”

But “several groups” refused to give up on her. An intervention finally worked, and “at twenty-two, I got sober, thanks to the local recovery community, a strong therapist, and the great outpatient services I had at Chelsea Arbor Treatment Center. And I became embedded in the recovery scene.”

Instead of enrolling in law school, as she had once planned, she applied to the U-M School of Social Work. But when she canvassed victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans with predetermined questions, she realized they were irrelevant to people who had just lost their homes and everything they owned–“questions like how much their house was worth instead of how they were coping.” Soon afterwards, she “stumbled” into a U-M seminar where participants were discussing the social impacts of information gathering.

“I was really blown away. And I knew that was the career for me.” Realizing that she wanted to work in a “macro capacity,” she dual-enrolled in the School of Information.

Following graduation and a move to the San Francisco Bay area, she launched a series of start-up companies in digital learning. And it was there, during an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, she met McIntosh.

McIntosh came from a happy, stable family with two loving parents–“but both sides have a lot of alcoholism. That skipped a generation and hit me–which is common,” she says. When a trauma in her youth was paired with her deep genetic disposition, “I developed an eating disorder and began drinking,” she says. “By the time I was twenty, my liver looked like the liver of a late-stage alcoholic.”

A native of Canada, McIntosh enrolled in U-M’s residential and honors colleges in 2003, with interdisciplinary studies in English, economics, art history, and creative writing, all the while struggling with “a horrendous bout” of alcoholism and the eating disorder. Her early college years were memorable for how much time she didn’t spend on campus–forty-five days in rehab, then a relapse. She entered a detox center in Florida, was admitted to hospitals several times during relapses, then entered another detox center in California. “I was in eight different places, either in-patient or as an outpatient,” she says.

McIntosh left campus her junior year but managed to continue her studies long-distance and graduate with her class in 2007.

She attributes her recovery to the interaction of several factors: “AA in concert with effective anti-addiction medications, a great psychiatrist who really changed my life, and a really good support team: a nutritionist, therapist, and all of the friends I made in recovery.” She adds, “In California everyone I knew was in recovery–you could find an AA meeting on every corner.”

But many addicts they knew never achieved a lasting recovery. And many of those people died.

“We were losing too many fine people, way too fast, for way too long,” McLaughlin says. “We came to believe there must be a better way to help people with addictions.”

Lisa comes from a science background,” McIntosh recalls, “and I come from a design background.

“Late in November 2014, we sat down to brainstorm ideas we could work on together. By January 1, 2015, we had incorporated Workit Health. We both had friends who had passed away from overdoses, and we said, ‘Enough is enough.'”

McLaughlin says they wanted to “spring addiction recovery programs out of the 1930s and bring them into the twenty-first century.” After consulting with experts and processing their own experiences, they concluded that a program with a “discreet, confidential, individual approach” was a better option.

“The traditional system of addiction recovery was imperfect and in some aspects obsolete,” McLaughlin says. “It could also be expensive, judgmental, and difficult to find or enter at the moment someone needed help.”

“Expensive rehabs often don’t offer the gold standard of treatment,” Lux adds. “Less than 30 percent of treatment centers treating opioid addiction offer FDA-�xADapproved medication.

“They briefly detox their patients and then release them, ultimately increasing their risk of overdose if they do use again. The latest research shows that clinical expertise and therapeutic interventions, accessible in real time when you need them, is best.”

Traditional recovery programs offer two options, McLaughlin says: on the wagon or off the wagon. Workit offers four: prevention, moderation, abstinence from addictive behaviors, and counseling services for friends and family–all remotely and on demand.

“Lisa and I work so well together,” McIntosh says. “We are both entrepreneurial, and our skills are complementary. She comes from a science background, with experience in fundraising and business development. I come from a design background, with experience in business strategy, finances, marketing, and design.

“We trust each other completely. We’ve been through boyfriends, marriages, children, and business start-ups together. We talk every day for two or three hours. We are really decisive together.”

As Workit’s business accelerated, their funding problems receded. In October, Insight Partners, one of the top ten venture capitalist firms in the U.S., led a $118 million investment round, with participation from CVS Health, FirstMark Capital, BCBS Venture Fund, and 3L Capital. Workit also developed a partnership with Aetna to provide substance-use care.

“We’re at the forefront of this new field of digital substance-use intervention, and we’re leading the field in research and development,” McLaughlin says.

The company’s professionals perform telemedicine visits and prescribe medications for substance use, psychiatric issues, and primary care. Others offer a variety of talk therapies, one-on-one, in groups, and through chatrooms, all online. Workit also provides remote drug testing and monitoring; 800 interactive therapeutic courses, and screening for mental health and other issues.

“The outcomes we’re seeing are just the tip of the iceberg as we continue to expand our program,” McLaughlin says.

Recently they’ve added help for clients struggling with gambling, smoking, chronic pain, disordered eating, sex, and pornography. They also address related issues, among them psychiatric and primary care problems, anxiety, depression, hepatitis C, and PreEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis against HIV infection).

Some who have struggled with addiction eye Workit’s approach warily. “I owe my life to AA. It works,” says Brett Talbott, a former salesman who is writing a book about his addiction and recovery.

“I don’t care if the program is rooted in the 1930s, it offers timeless wisdom. It’s the simplest and most difficult program in the world–it tells members ‘All you have to do is stop drinking,’ “

On the other hand, adds his wife Mary, he reached the point several times when he needed to go into rehab immediately and none was available: “So I would have to go out and buy him a bottle to delay his detox symptoms until he was in a place where professionals could handle it. That was agonizing for me. I definitely see the value of the 24/7 on-call, online program.”

The Talbotts recently moved from the Ann Arbor area to a remote home on Lake Michigan four hours north, and Brett admits he has had trouble finding and attending far-flung AA meetings–“I’m grateful I wasn’t living up here at the time I started my recovery,” he admits. (Workit’s strongest client base is located in rural areas, far from recovery centers and AA meetings.)

Though her company offers other paths, McLaughlin herself is abstinent. “The painful truth for those of us who are hardwired to [require] abstinence is that many among us can moderate their actions very well,” she says. “Sixty percent of young people grow out of risky use … But I’m not one of them.”

Both of the co-CEOs have started families. When McLaughlin’s husband was hired as assistant professor in U-M Department of Economics, the couple returned to McLaughlin’s hometown, where they are raising three young children.

McIntosh married an executive in San Francisco’s tech world, and the couple divides their time between homes in the Bay Area and Colorado as they await the birth of their second child.

Workit Health, meanwhile, continues to grow. Though it has 181 counselors, therapists, administrators, and addiction experts currently on its staff, its website constantly posts job openings; 121 at last count, as the demand for addiction recovery services continues to soar.

McLaughlin anticipates that other large companies will follow CVS in partnerships. “We’re just getting started!” she says. “Covid has given us a huge launching opportunity. We want to be the first organization on people’s tongues when they think of addiction.”