“Zebras build what unicorns break”: How a tech co-op saves lives

Brave Technology Co-operative’s suite of tools help prevent overdoses across North America.

From left to right, Dana Fleetham, director of US operations; Gordon Casey, founder and CEO; Oona Krieg, chief operating officer; Brave's overdose detection button. Photo: Brave Technology Co-operative

Before starting a tech co-operative in Vancouver, Gordon Casey was a finance lawyer in the Caribbean. He was based on the island of Curaçao, where he founded a company that supported international firms to open an office offshore in the country.

“I hit 40, and had a midlife crisis,” said Casey. “I wanted to do something that I gave a shit about.”

Casey’s former company left him financially comfortable, largely thanks to one startup in particular that he supported. The outfit’s founder owned 100 percent of the shares of the company as it went public on the London Stock Exchange, and was later taken private again in a buy-out. Upon purchase, the founder shared a portion of the earnings with Casey.

“I was a beneficiary of his generosity,” said Casey. “I'm living off the money that this guy had shared with me and a bunch of other people. But it was not written in stone. This was all his benevolence; it wasn't part of the structure.”

Casey knew he wanted to pursue governance differently, and it led him to explore what a more — as he puts it — “dynamic” shareholding structure could look like. Eventually, it led him to start Brave Technology Co-op.

A new way to build technology

In thinking about his next steps, Casey grew interested in principles of human-centered design. He attended an event hosted by the network for design justice and was introduced to 12 ideas fundamental to the framework.

“The one that really stood out for me was that designers are not the experts — the person with lived experience is the expert,” said Casey. “The designer is the facilitator between that expertise or lived experience, and whatever it is that you're building — whether that's a tool or a service, or a product, or whatever. That just landed [...] inside me.”

At the same moment that he dug into those human-centred design principles, he relocated his family to Vancouver. Being at a co-working space on Hastings Street brought him to see the front lines of the opioid crisis in Vancouver, and he surmised how technology could be a part of the solution, first beginning with this new type of organizational structure.

Running a tech co-operative

Founded in 2018, Brave Technology Co-operative is a multi-stakeholder co-op where there are different types of members: investors, workers, and users. Casey argues that this structure has prevented a common challenge among founders in the world of startups — when staff argue over equity in the company.

“Anybody who's working at the co-op, for the period of time that they're working on the co-op, is a member. And they are in patronage, and patronage is akin to equity,” said Casey. “What that means is that I'm really only going to be earning this pseudo-equity while I'm working at the co-op, so that puts to bed the idea that I should be holding onto it for afterwards. And on top of that, because co-ops are very, very rarely sold, the notion of the capital value of the co-op, and my chunk of that my slice, is not even a question. It's not even on the table.”

For investor members, their capital functions similarly to a hedge fund.

“In Brave, you can invest, say $10,000,” said Casey. “And what we do is we promise to give you your $10,000 back after 10 years, and in the meantime, you share in the profits while your $10,000 remains in the company. So that sounds a lot like equity, performs a lot like equity, and also performs a little bit like debt. But it's still not the same as somebody owning five percent [of the company]. So our cap table doesn't look like a cap table that you've ever seen before, because it doesn't talk about people's percentage of ownership. It's more about what percentage of the profits you would receive if you were to make a good profit.”

Casey says that while the co-op has been good at engaging with worker and investor members, they’ve fallen short on engaging with user members. It’s a failure that he claims responsibility for, he says, because these users of Brave’s tools have gone out of their way to join the co-op. It’s a gap that Casey looks to fill soon, particularly as the organization expands its reach of tools across North America.

Combatting the overdose crisis

Brave’s first MVP was a tool to request Naloxone: a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. The idea was that a user could push a button if they saw someone overdosing, and people nearby who were both trained in using and had access to Naloxone would get a phone alert to come and help. But no one wanted to use it in downtown Vancouver.

“I just learned, very heavily, [how to listen] more effectively and properly, post-that experience,” said Casey. “I understood that what [was needed] was a tool that would help people who are using drugs alone.”

While he didn’t specify which drugs in particular, Casey estimates that those who use on their own have over a 95 percent chance of overdosing. In talking to people with lived experiences in the Lower Mainland, the feedback he received from the community was a desire for an app that could serve as a digital supervised injection site, where users could remain anonymous, but be safe.

“A lot of people who use drugs think that they have a way to stay safe,” said Casey. “And that's one of the reasons why people can still justify to themselves that it's okay to use alone — it's a private thing.”

Today, the Brave App has facilitated over 9,000 drug-use sessions and counts over 30 overdose rescues to date. It’s in use across all Canadian provinces, one territory, and 35 U.S. states. But it wasn’t a solution for everyone, as Casey encountered users who didn’t always have strong wifi or phone signal to access the application. It led the Brave team to develop a button that users could push when in need of support.

“Within a couple of weeks, we had an MVP installed in one of the buildings for Raincity [Housing],” said Casey. “Much to everybody's surprise, the people at that building loved the buttons.”

Brave now has over 500 active buttons, which have collectively prevented over 110 overdoses across Canada and the United States. But the co-op encountered another challenge as it tried to scale — an installation of the buttons in washrooms didn’t prove as successful as the installation at housing sites.

Casey and the team went back to the drawing board and came across stillness sensors, which were first developed in rural Massachusetts. The team developed its own Brave sensor, rounding out the company’s stack of tools to combat the overdose crisis. The sensor monitors a particular area for movement, and if a detected person has been still or has remained in the space for a prolonged period of time, it sends a message to an appropriate responder to check the area.

“It’s a passive sensor, or it's a passive device, whereas both the button and the app require the person who is using to actually do something in order to activate the safety-ness of the tools,” said Casey “That's not the case with the sensors. They're in the bathrooms and working all the time.”

A Brave outreach table with details about the co-op’s suite of products. Photo: Brave Technology Co-operative

Earlier this year, Brave’s sensors went live in select bathrooms managed by Island Health. It’s the kind of scale that Casey attributes to being a “zebra” co-operative, given the company’s mission of helping to keep people alive.

A funny tagline is zebras build what unicorns break,” said Casey. “So it's like, don't move fast and break things: move slowly and build things.”

Today, the team of nine staff continues to develop its suite of products to scale solutions in response to the overdose crisis.

“​​Technology really does have the potential to [reduce overdoses],” said Casey. “If we who are building it can get it right, then we could build a tool — whether it's the app or something else — that could be available and accessible, and known to everybody who needs to use it. And then we can improve on that and wedge the door a little wider in terms of safety [...] We want the conversations to change and the stigma to be reduced. Our mission is just to keep people alive. And I really think it's possible.”

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