Online healthcare entrepreneur Peter Loeb’s backstory reads like the script for a made-for-TV serial drama, although it’s one working toward a happy ending.
The opening scene is set in 2004, the dismal day the successful Internet executive discovered his 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, in her bedroom barely breathing after a heroin overdose. It was just the latest episode in a young life already haunted by alcoholism for almost five years.
But despite the near-death experience and repeated family interventions, it would take her two more years to get sober.
“I’m not sure that I can express to you at this moment the level of turning inside out that a parent does with a child whose life is threatened with this kind of stuff,” says Loeb, speaking via videoconference from his home in Northern California, pausing as he turns back the clock. “And how hard it is. It’s one thing if your kid has cancer but is still on your team and ill. But people, while they are in the depths of struggling with their addiction, very often become horrid, horrid people. They are made insane by the drug use.”
Flash forward to early 2013. The camera pans into father and daughter working side by side on a project close to both their hearts. Their 2-year-old startup, Lionrock Recovery, uses secure videoconferencing technology to reach people struggling with chemical substance abuse. Lionrock certainly isn’t a replacement for medical rehabilitation, but it offers a lifeline for addicts who might not otherwise have access to outpatient services either because they live in a remote location or are reluctant to seek treatment in a public venue.
Loeb says: “Usually you start a company by saying, ‘Ah, I see a need, and we’re going to go out there and we’re going to target that need. We know what the market segment is, we know what the economics are, and we’re going to go get it.’ I think because this has been more of a labor of love, almost my revenge against addiction, which has come to ravage my family, that this started as an experiment.”
Lionrock offers the 52-year-old serial entrepreneur a chance to use his 28-year background in financial services, entertainment and interactive media for a higher purpose than producing the next great videogame, as he did in high-level management positions at Electronic Arts and SEGA. For 26-year-old Lionrock community manager Ashley -– usually the first point of contact for those seeking help — the venture is an ongoing catharsis that celebrates her seven years (and counting) of being sober.
“I can talk the talk here and I can talk to people who are coming out of residential care very confidently about what we do, but Ashley speaks to the people who are calling us who are a day sober or not yet sober,” Loeb says with pride. “Who have finally worked up the courage to make the call, who are absolutely desperate, and she knows exactly what to say, because she has been there.”
For both Loebs, Lionrock pays homage to another family member -– Peter’s late sister, who lost her struggle with alcohol and opiate abuse before the age of 50. “She wore her body out,” Peter recalls, his voice tinged with regret.
Founded in 2010 after his sister’s death, Lionrock has been actively offering its services since late 2011. The backstory for its name is one that Loeb isn’t willing to share. Although the method in which treatment is delivered may be unusual, its counselors follow the intensive outpatient protocol laid out by the American Society of Addiction Medicine and adopted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Agency.
The full regime suggests 36 hours per month, including individual and group sessions. But Lionrock also offers a 14-hour per month program that costs $28 per hour. The company’s clinical team, medical advisers and addiction therapists include addiction experts who are primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of them have more than a decade of experience in their field.
“We feel strongly that we are doing the right thing, clinically, but we need to persuade everyone else of that,” Loeb says, describing the current phase of his startup as an experiment.
So far, Lionrock is doing pretty well at that. It has already earned a prestigious Gold accreditation from independent healthcare certification and accreditation body, The Joint Commission -– a title just 6 percent of all addiction treatment centers in the United States hold and one that confers an air of respectability that resonates loudly among medical professionals.
Given the Loeb family history, it seems fitting that a majority of those who have turned to Lionrock so far have turned out to be women. “We expected that young men would be our early adopters, because they are usually early adopters of technology,” Loeb admits, pointing back to his original business plan. “It’s turned out that it is women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. In America, in treatment centers, men represent 70 to 75 percent of all clients. In our practice it is reversed.”
Like programs offered at on-site treatment centers, Lionrock patients participate from as short as six weeks to as long as three months, depending on their individual plan. Some treat it as “prehab” and have moved on to more formal sessions. In some cases, Lionrock has referred callers to facilities where they can get the medical attention necessary to get clean — it also convinced one woman from rural Canada to relocate to a place where she could receive better social support for her rehabilitation. “A life of recovery requires a community of people who are also in recovery,” he says.
Although Loeb jokes about forgetting to shave before our high-definition video interview and makes the requisite self-deprecating remark about his receding hairline, for a middle-aged guy he is quite comfortable in front of his high-definition camera (set up in his garage with a fabric Lionrock banner separating his desk from the clutter behind it). It’s a habit acquired from numerous virtual teleconferencing encounters with his co-founder and business partner, Iain Crabb, who lives on the other side of the San Francisco Bay.
The two will often initiate conference sessions, brainstorm a problem, and then leave the bridge open so that they can work “together” for a while. “Eventually, I wondered if video might be useful in reaching places where it wasn’t possible to reach people before,” Loeb says.
While the rise of Skype and other video calling services have made Lionrock’s target demographic much more comfortable with the idea of conversing from computer to computer, the company is perpetually seeking an easier option, but not at the expense of 128-bit encrypted security or video quality. “People unconsciously associate what we do with television or the entertainment industry.”
The handful of angel investors behind Lionrock would doubtless love to see to see it go big, but for now, Peter Loeb is content to shepherd his modest venture one day at a time.
“When you do startups, there is never a dull moment,” Loeb says, when pushed to share advice for other would-be startup founders. “Probably the most important entrepreneurial skill to have is a tolerance for fear, because at any minute, the whole thing could go to hell. You have to say, ‘OK, maybe it will, but we are going to do 30 things to try to prevent that.’ “