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We caught up with Arda Ozcubukcu, Co-Founder and Director at NeuroSight, a harm reduction organisation preventing avoidable deaths and reducing drug-related harm.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Arda: Hi, I’m Arda, I have a background in neuroscience. I did my bachelor’s degree at UCL, which is where I initially developed an interest within the field of recreational drug use as we learnt about psychopharmacology. From this, my personal frustration started growing, learning about drugs and their effects in the body, alongside the impact of these within society, caused me to move into drug policy, doing my master’s in science policy. NeuroSight developed as an extension to my educational areas of interest, as our model combines policy, education, and research within the recreational drug space. We help organisations navigate the complex field of harm reduction by following evidence and best practice. Our clients concentrate in the hospitality industry and the education sector.
The uniqueness of our model stems from combining three areas of harm reduction (research, policy and education) to provide a systematic approach, because while other organisations (particularly charities) provide education around drugs, none of these carry out research or offer policy work. We do research to understand and frame the problem, deliver educational interventions to inform individuals and guide their behaviour and offer policy work to provide an environment that supports the wellbeing of individuals.
We incorporated as a limited company by shares in June 2021, so we are still at a very early stage trying to build a sustainable company. We were massively affected by COVID as a lot of our initial projects were stopped when the nightlife industry shut down. Currently we are focusing on universities but will expand to the entertainment sector.
As well as running NeuroSight I also still get involved in research projects at UCL, and I work part time at Clerkenwell Health, a Contract Research Organisation specialisng in psychedelic medicine.
Arda: To explain the origin of NeuroSight I’ll introduce Drugs and Me* which is an educational website that provides evidence based, non-judgemental, harm reduction information to individuals for free. Drugs and Me was started by three students at UCL, I had the privilege of joining them at a very early stage as a researcher. Whilst I was working there a lot of organisations approached us asking for help with organisational harm reduction campaigns – as a reaction to these requests we started NeuroSight.
Our first project was with Leads University Students Union, where we holistically approached harm reduction with the university. Researching drug use among students, we reviewed their drugs and alcohol policy, wrote a bespoke policy, and helped them run a campaign
Another of our initial projects was with Ibiza Rocks, a party hotel in Ibiza, with whom we proactively addressed drug related deaths. We trained their staff on how different types of drugs effect the body, recognising overdose and how to manage people who have taken too much of a drug. We prepared messages and posters for common areas in the hotel and provided them with policy recommendations such as different ways of increasing water accessibility to ensure it was cheap and easy for hotel guests to stay hydrated.
The year that we worked with Ibiza Rocks was the first year that nobody died due to drug use at the hotel.
Arda: The team is the core members, myself, Ivan Ezquerra Romano, who is currently doing his PhD in neuroscience, and Paul North. Paul has done a lot of work with Volteface, which played a pivotal role in the advocacy work around legalising medicinal cannabis in the UK, so Paul has brought a lot of experience around advocacy and stakeholder engagement. Our team skills really complement one another. Harm reduction must be based on evidence, which we have via our academic background, and we need advocacy because it is controversial, our team brings the best of both skillsets.
We were planning to move to the growth stage last year, but COVID stopped that, so we are keeping the team small currently. We are very lucky to have Drugs and Me as our main partner company, as well as connecting with a few others within the harm reduction field, so if we need to do a large-scale project, we have access to other people’s skills.
Arda: Currently we are focusing on universities, so all our marketing and sales efforts are going into that area. One of the issues is that there has been no in-depth research into recreational drug use at universities, so it is hard to communicate the scale and impact of the problem. In addition to conducting our own research, we are approaching this in two ways, we are engaging with the unions to influence the policies in a bottom-up manner, whilst also talking with organisations at a higher level, such as policy institutions and associations. We are trying to build an environment where the university decision makers can offer harm reduction without concern of controversy.
As life goes back to normal after the pandemic, we will be expanding our offering to the entertainment industry due to the huge need and potential within this sector. Just last weekend, the first weekend of clubs being open, it was on the news that two people died because they took some pills. The need is clear, so we are going to approach clubs and festivals, supporting the night-time economy with harm reduction.
A bit further down the line we will approach private schools, we have done a few initial projects in private schools, and they were well received. Meanwhile, we are approaching local authorities and governments in opportunistic ways, currently we are working with the Maltese government who are switching to a more harm reduction focused approach.
Arda: There are so many challenges when working within the recreational drug space. But I would say the biggest challenge has been that drug use is stigmatized, so harm reduction is viewed as a controversial approach, making it very challenging to convince the decision makers within the organisations. Because this is viewed as a moral or criminal issue the ‘blame’ can often be shifted to the user, ignoring the legal duty organisations have to ensure health and safety, which creates a barrier even to having that initial conversation with organisations. We overcome this by creating advocacy and engaging with different stakeholders within an organisation to align their interest.
And secondly, because drug use is a sensitive and controversial topic we can’t engage with the usual marketing and sales methods, so our approach has to be more reactive than proactive, or inbound rather than outbound.
Arda: I don’t think we are the best people to ask about investment because we don’t have any investment ourselves yet. We had clients paying for projects from the very start but we now need investment to keep designing digital platforms and keep growing. We only joined one investment competition so far, that we didn’t win, but we think this is related to the stigma around drugs, it is viewed as a high-risk area. But this also means that there isn’t much competition from new organisations, no one is doing what we are doing. Harm reduction has traditionally been driven by non-for-profit organisations. However, large sums of money are flowing into the cannabis and psychedelic space. These markets are about to become legal at a global scale, so many are rushing to get in position. But this rush means that there’s little time to work on health-related topics and implement practices for the long-term sustainability of these emerging industries. We are offering a professional service that spans research, education and policy to fill this gap, which is entirely unique.