Dr. David Nash joined Cenfluence as a member of the Life Sciences cluster. As co-founder and CEO of IDEM Systems, he is on a mission to fight the drug epidemic. The University of Central Florida (UCF) graduate applies extensive research expertise and business acumen to lead the development of technology that helps law enforcement officials better collect and analyze drug data to inform public safety initiatives.
Read on for highlights from Nash’s interview with us about IDEM Systems, his entrepreneurial journey and thoughts on what it will take to foster a more diverse innovation community in Central Florida.
What inspired you to launch IDEM Systems?
At IDEM Systems, we’re developing a tool for law enforcement and other first responders to go out and identify illegal drugs in the field, and then also take that information and analyze the data to develop reports about a region’s drug landscape and also for better drug intelligence.
My co-founder and I saw a problem in public health and public safety, and their ability to conveniently collect large-scale data on illegal drug distribution. For example, when the police encounter a supply of heroin laced with fentanyl, or if college students overdosed on fake Adderall pills that were actually methamphetamine, this kind of information is useful for the community of potential drug users in the area. There is a huge bottleneck in compiling this data from law enforcement and first responders who need it to gain better illegal drug intelligence for narcotics investigations. It also needs to be shared with public health departments so they can alert the community about higher-risk drugs that may be in the area. Without the ability to alert drug users about potential harm, too many people are dying from drug overdoses.
Personally, I’ve witnessed how drugs can destroy families and communities, and not enough is being done by public officials and the commercial market to address this, so my goal and my inspiration for this is to provide better technology to combat the drug epidemic.
How did you get started in this field?
I went to grad school for chemistry at UCF and I was put on a project funded by the National Institute of Justice to develop a better drug testing method for crime labs to use for drug screening. Crime labs are notoriously backlogged … they’re understaffed, they’re under-resourced and there are not enough people to do all the work a crime lab needs to do for the state.
The idea evolved into a handheld device that police officers can use to identify illegal drugs in the field, which would be better than the little chemical pouches used today that are known to yield false positives. For example, in Orlando, someone was sent to jail because their Krispy Kreme donut glaze tested positive for meth. So, we’re trying to provide them with better technology in a handheld device that can make it convenient enough to not only test the drug, but also transmit the data automatically for reporting.
Federal funding from the National Science Foundation continues to give us momentum so that we can develop this technology into a commercial product and help reduce the number of people who are overdosing on drugs.
How has Florida’s innovation ecosystem supported your business growth?
Orlando specifically is a great area for talent. My roots are at UCF, so I’m very aware of the potential talent pipeline coming from the university in the sciences, engineering, computer sciences, business and other program areas.
As small as Orlando and the Central Florida area is as a startup scene relative to the Silicon Valleys of the world, I feel the entrepreneurial startup scene here is very close-knit and everyone is willing to help each other. I’ve met many different entrepreneurs who have been in my shoes before, others who are currently in similar shoes and many who will soon join us – and everybody is willing to collaborate with each other. It’s been a great culture and great environment to work in because we’re so close-knit.
The UCF Business Incubator has been very helpful to what we do. Then, we have organizations like Cenfluence that help us secure additional resources from the local government. Obviously with Orlando, anyone thinks it’s Disney, it’s tourism, it’s hospitality. But we want to get to the point where Orange County and Orlando, and Central Florida are also seen as a hub for technology and innovation.
How has your involvement as a Cenfluence Cluster Member impacted your business?
The team goes above and beyond to help Cluster Member startups and their clients. Whether it’s helping us prepare for investor pitches, finding grant proposals that we can apply for, reviewing grant proposals when we draft them, connecting us with potential collaborators or just exposing us to local community leaders, it’s been very helpful for our business.
What’s your advice for other entrepreneurs?
My advice is to plan for a marathon and not a sprint. I’ve been in this for seven years now. Fortunately, we’re still going, but I remember in our first year I was just a naive kid, and I was thinking that we would get an investment within a few months and then be rich the next year. Of course, it’s very rare that any startup finds that kind of success in the second year. So, lace up the shoes and be ready for a long run. There will be a lot of downs, some ups, but just know that it’s part of the game. And as startup executives and founders, we just need to learn from those experiences, whether good or bad. When you’re younger, you think short term, but as you get older and get more experience, you realize the need to be patient.
How would you describe the state of diversity in Central Florida’s tech industry?
On a college campus, you tend to see more diversity, and that’s how it was at UCF. It was cool to see the students from all backgrounds getting involved in entrepreneurship. As for the rest of Orlando, I’m happy to see some of the same diversity – especially the few women entrepreneurs that are out here finding success in Orlando – however, it is lacking for the black community.
I think more needs to be done. Specifically, with the black community in tech, I just don’t think there’s enough being done to get the younger black generation involved. When I was a kid, I wasn’t really exposed to role models who were CEOs or programmers or engineers or scientists. My role models were athletes and music artists because that’s where a lot of the successful black people were that you’d see on TV. I think seeing a black president and some other entrepreneurs that are black did a lot to give some optimism to the younger generation and expose them to the idea that there’s more out there than being an athlete or being a rapper.
Once we get more role models like that – and I hope to be one of them in the future – we can go into elementary schools and middle schools, and expose students to a different type of success than being a celebrity. Exposure is important so they know what pathways are available, and can work toward those pathways either by getting into college or whatever else it may take to achieve their goals.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
I’ll admit, working in a startup can become overwhelming. What keeps me motivated is that we’re trying to do something, to help society out, and to help those people that may be addicted to drugs. We’re helping adults and kids who are accidentally overdosing on drugs, including patients who don’t have access to their painkillers so they’re going out and buying street drugs and overdosing.
I also love learning new things. I come from a background in chemistry. Most of my time in school was spent in a lab. Since then, I’ve started running a business. I’m learning how to do all this other technical stuff because our technology doesn’t only involve chemistry, it also involves optics, design, engineering, programming, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Just being able to learn all this new stuff is amazing, and I think it’s been a great experience because I’m a student of the world. I love to learn new things, and I think just that aspect of the job has kept me excited about going into the next day, and going into the next week, and going into the next month because I’m always doing something different.
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