Startup set to launch platform connecting those in recovery with peer support

Surrounded by innovators from all over the world, Melissa Dittberner prepared to share her story.

A story of her own recovery from addiction.

Of the startup she co-founded, Straight Up Care, which aims to connect others in recovery with peer supporters – or “peer-preneurs” as she has taken to calling them.

And of a bigger vision where small-business people grow from South Dakota and serve others even nationwide.

Dittberner, or “Dr. Mo” as she’s known, brought the message recently to none other than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where an NIH fellowship allowed her not only to speak but also to learn at a boot camp about entrepreneurship and innovation.

It couldn’t have come at a better time.

“One of the things I really took away was the concept of lateral innovation – taking something in existence and creating it to a niche space or thinking about things differently,” she said. “People learn how to create things that work for them in their lives, so look at what’s already been created. What’s out there, and how can you make that innovation into something larger and amplify it?”

This week, she takes big steps forward in that direction. The first peer supporters trained by Straight Up Care will see their first clients – others battling various forms of addiction and looking for someone who can speak the language while offering a helping hand on a path to recovery.

“My theme for the week is courage,” Dittberner said while preparing for the launch.

She pointed to a woman who just lost a child to addiction at the end of the last year and already is training to be a peer supporter for others. She mentioned a graduate from drug court “who was so excited because she was graduating and already had a job lined up to do peer support,” Dittberner said. “It’s been so exciting to see what that looks like.”

Going from concept to implementation of any business has its hurdles – and this one overcame plenty of them. Along the way, Dittberner connected with the FAST Launch program at the end of 2022 and completed the program a few months later.

FAST Launch is a growing program provided through BioRise, a new nonprofit initiated by South Dakota Biotech designed to help connect early-stage companies with funding.

The program is available with a U.S. Small Business Administration grant through the Federal and State Technology, or FAST, Partnership Program.

“The funding we got through FAST Launch was crucial to us moving forward at the pace we did, so it’s been amazing,” Dittberner said. “And we’re already been talking to Joni (Ekstrum) and BioRise about how we’re planning to build entrepreneurs through Straight Up Care and how we can connect those people with the same kinds of resources and support.”

Straight Up Care is utilizing an algorithm to effectively match peer supporters with those who could best benefit from their lived experience – a process that will continue to be honed as data for the program builds.

“Elements like this – the blend of technology and human health – is what connects us in the biotech space,” said Joni Ekstrum, executive director of South Dakota Biotech.

“Melissa has made significant progress and is building so many valuable relationships that we see a lot of potential for this startup to begin to scale. This is the kind of company that BioRise is positioned to help support, so we’re excited to lift up this early success.”

Straight Up Care has gone on to receive funding through a START-SD grant administered through SDSU. The federal program is funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration through four Rural Communities Opioid Response Program grants to complete work to increase access to and effectiveness of prevention, treatment and recovery services for substance use disorders in South Dakota.

“That will offer 1,000 hours of peer services for people in South Dakota in certain counties,” Dittberner said. “And we’ve been working with the nonprofit Emily’s Hope on an overdose response grant, so people who have overdoses or struggle with substance abuse disorders are able to get free services.”

The grants help pay the peer supporters – people often trying to recover themselves as they build a stable employment base and are encouraged to think like entrepreneurs. Straight Up Care helps brand them through various marketing, including “Reduce the Stigma,” a new TV channel on Roku TV and Amazon Fire.

“We’re letting people in recovery know what the trajectory can look like for them in recovery,” Dittberner said. “You might become a peer, but there’s a next step. What does it look like to become a peer supervisor or become an entrepreneur and use your lived experience to speak in communities or on boards?”

She estimates 100 peer supporters are going through training. A recent class of 10 in Yankton filled up. She’s starting to advertise for people in need of the services, but as word has gotten out, “I get people asking all the time ‘Who can I connect with?’” she said. “I don’t think we’ll have a problem finding those spaces.”

Beyond South Dakota, she sees opportunity to work nationwide using virtual health tools.

“As our peers build their portfolios, they’ll be able to work across the U.S. while we’re building this huge workforce in South Dakota,” she said. “I love that people in South Dakota will impact not just South Dakota people, but people all over the country.”

To learn more
To connect with Straight Up Care, email Dr Mo.
To get connected with FAST Launch and its upcoming events, click here, or email.

The Federal and State Technology Partnership Program provides funding through the U.S. Small Business Administration to organizations to execute state/regional programs that increase the number of Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer proposals leading to an increase in the number of SBIR/STTR awards from women, socially/economically disadvantaged individuals and small businesses in underrepresented areas – typically rural states. FAST awards build the SBIR/STTR ecosystem through outreach, technical and business assistance, and financial support.

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