This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.

Clinical health trials are a key step in ensuring that new treatments and drugs are safe and effective for the general public. The participants in these trials are intended to represent the population that will be using the drug, but many are severely lacking in diversity.

Data from the United States Food and Drug Administration shows African-Americans only account for 5 percent of clinical trial participants, while Latino Americans make up just 1 percent.

For many minorities, that means the side effects of certain medications aren’t known before they’re released to the general population.

At Clinispan Health, co-founders Dezbee McDaniel and Dr. David Lipsitz, are working to bring more diversification to important medical trials.

“The more that we can get a specific group into a clinical trial and get them as part of that drug development process, the better the outcomes will be when they take that drug. As a person of color, I’ve had my own experience with understanding a lack of involvement in the drug development process and the adverse effects of not being involved,” said McDaniel. “Someone that looks like myself, for example, might take something like ibuprofen. If there weren’t enough people that looked like me in that trial, I’m going to see inadvertent side effects that weren’t accounted for in my specific genetic makeup.”

Clinispan isn’t McDaniel’s first experience with entrepreneurship — and his previous connections and experience helped him find co-founder Lipsitz and jumpstart the idea.

After participating in as many entrepreneurship programs as possible at the University of Chapel Hill and the Launch Chapel Hill program, McDaniel was able to plug into the community and find the mentors and resources he and Lipsitz needed.

“As an alum of both UNC and programs there as well as Launch Chapel Hill, Dez has been able to plug back in with mentors and with resources as needed. Not only that, but he’s also been able to source talent and find coworkers, interns, and even potential partners,” said Vickie Gibbs, executive director of the UNC Entrepreneurship Center. “With Clinispan, they have this balance of business and medical, older and younger, and minority leadership. It’s diverse teams that really succeed, because they can look at things from all angles — and I think that’s part of their differentiation, as well.”

“Many people don’t even realize that there is an issue, so highlighting this company is also putting a spotlight on the issue,” she continued. “More people need to be aware of it and need to get engaged with companies like CliniSpan in order to solve it.”

According to McDaniel, people of color can be wary of health trials, largely due to past mistreatment they’ve experienced. Because of this wariness, Clinispan focuses a large portion of their efforts on educating individuals that would be suitable candidates for these clinical trials.

The company’s community outreach program takes on the bulk of this responsibility, making sure people feel comfortable before signing them up in the company’s software.

In providing information on what a clinical trial entails and why diversification is important, Clinispan is able to encourage more people of color to enroll.

“We are focusing heavily on African-Americans right now, but we want to grow to Latinx, Native Americas and other groups, as well as in more rural areas and with women. We want to focus group-by-group so that we can be able to speak the language of the group we’re talking to and relate to them as best as possible,” said McDaniel. “We do actually have sign-ups nationwide, everywhere from  Georgia to California to here in North Carolina as well. We do have a heavy focus in North Carolina, but we’re growing to a more national presence.”

Like many startups, CliniSpan is focused on increasing revenue in order to expand the reach of their business. Right now, outside of increasing people to sign up for their software, McDaniel and his team are working on raising $250,000 for their seed round.

For Gibbs, she sees the work the company is doing as more than deserving of growth.

“He has a passion for what they’re doing, and I think that passion is what really drives you as an entrepreneur — because you’re going to have good days, and you’re going to have bad days. But I would love to see their approach become a standardized approach when it comes to how medical professionals engage with a variety of communities that are typically underserved in clinical trials. In doing so, we may see better efficacy and safer drugs in these communities,” said Gibbs. “Maybe they can license this methodology to others, and it becomes a standardized way for there to be a long-range impact, so that all communities can get equal access to drugs, preventions, and whatever else the trials might deal with. Right now, I think they’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”

Especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased diversity in medical trials is crucial in properly testing vaccines.

Recently, CliniSpan helped with recruitment for a Novavax COVID-19 study located in Durham and Chapel Hill. At the Durham site, they were able to send 17 percent of African-American referrals, and at the Chapel Hill site, they were able to send 20 percent.

As the company continues to grow, McDaniel hopes to see a positive impact on the health and wellness in minority communities as a result of increased participation.

“The more that we can get a specific group into a clinical trial and get involved, the more efficient that drug will be. The more that we can get a specific group into a clinical trial and get them as part of that drug development process, the better the outcomes will be when they take that drug,” said McDaniel. “What we want to see is everyone able to take medicine that’s good for them specifically.”

This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.