A Hound for Weed

Dr. Mike Lynn has co-created a breathalyzer-type device that he says measures whether people are too stoned to drive.



Lynn said the Hound will be uniquely useful because it can tell if a person has ingested marijuana in the last two hours.

Photos by D. Ross Cameron

Mike Lynn was huffing and puffing up Mount Diablo on his bike when a vehicle left a blast of marijuana vapor in its wake. “I realized it was happening more and more, getting passed by stoners driving at high speed with smoke pouring out of their cars,” said Lynn, who both is an emergency room physician at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and a reserve deputy with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.

Lynn firmly believes that marijuana and driving can be a lethal combination. So the fit and youthful 50-year-old launched Oakland-based Hound Labs, a 3-year-old startup that has invented a dual cannabis and alcohol breathalyzer for identifying impaired drivers.

It was a bold move for Lynn and his family, particularly because his wife is his co-founder and the head of marketing. The Piedmont couple have four kids, ages ranging from 9 to 15. “To start a company is not for the faint of heart,” said Jenny Lynn, a veteran of business and government who admits that on occasion, her kids ate cereal for dinner because their parents were so busy. “We hope it works out, personally and financially,” she said of the startup. “We’ve taken a lot of risk.”

The Lynns, who often include their children in business discussions, could be poised for big-time success. Mike Lynn said he is confident that his handheld device—called the “Hound”—works, and he hopes to be selling it by year’s end. That will be just before California enters a new age in which the sale of recreational marijuana will be fully legal under state law (it’s already legal to possess pot).

The “Hound” will be uniquely useful, according to Lynn, because it can tell if a person has ingested weed within the last two hours—the time period during which a person could be too impaired to drive. THC, the intoxicant in cannabis, leaves the breath after that time, he said. Other tests rely on body fluids, which can contain THC after a person is no longer high, for periods ranging from hours to many weeks. “We finally have a tool to identify drivers who are actually stoned—and also to make sure we don’t arrest people who legally smoked pot the night before and are not stoned,” he said.

Yet the obstacles to success, including the chance for investors to recoup the roughly $4 million they have pumped into Hound Labs, remain numerous and imposing. Other companies are chasing the same market, potentially worth billions of dollars, especially if employers buy big. Hound Labs also needs proof that breath testing is effective at showing recent pot use, and clinical studies ongoing at UCSF could be critical. However, there isn’t a widely accepted standard for showing whether people are too stoned to drive, as there is with alcohol, though some states have set arbitrary THC-blood-level limits.

Mike Lynn may be better equipped than most to pursue such a daunting quest given his past achievements. In addition to being a doctor with several degrees, Lynn won a Fulbright Scholarship to Sri Lanka to study leprosy; a 2001 White House Fellow gig studying national security issues in the wake of 9/11; and a stint as a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

For 10 years, Lynn was also a venture capitalist in the medical device and biopharmaceutical sectors but discovered he wasn’t passionate about it.

He wanted a mission, a way to better society. So in 2014, he and his wife incorporated Hound Labs with Kuni Oh, an Oakland-based patent attorney and partner at Jackson & Co., LLP, who has engineering and scientific expertise. 

For scientific help developing a breathalyzer capable of measuring THC in parts per trillion, Mike Lynn turned to another former White House fellow and friend, Dan Fletcher, now chair of UC Berkeley’s bioengineering department. Fletcher, who advises Hound Labs, vouches for the science behind the “Hound” prototype.

Of Mike Lynn, Fletcher said he has an iron will, very broad vision, and genuine warmth toward others. “He drives hard, but he is a fantastic person to have a beer with as well,” he said. “Sometimes those two don’t go together.”

 

Mike and Jenny Lynn, of Piedmont, cofounded Oakland-based Hound Labs.

The Lynns chose Oakland for their headquarters because it is a magnet for tech talent, and they love the city. They weren’t fazed by the fact that their 22nd Street and Broadway office is just north of Oaksterdam, the zone where cafes, clubs, and patient dispensaries sell medical weed.

The Lynns stress that Hound Labs takes no position on whether people should use marijuana or whether it should be legal. The same is true of the Hound Foundation, the nonprofit they run to tell the public about dangers of driving stoned.

Some in the pro-marijuana world, the Lynns point out, actually want a device like the “Hound.” They hope it can prevent wrongful arrests and firings, in addition to catching stoned drivers.

“It’s definitely a product that is much in need,” said National Cannabis Industry Association Deputy Director Taylor West.

Less excited is Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the pro-marijuana advocacy group. He insisted by email that “recency of use is not proof of psychomotor impairment” and that THC levels are not reliably indicative either. Armentano also questioned whether Hound Labs’ technology works, and said he does not believe driving while high is a big problem.

That view took a hit in January when the National Academies of Science released an expansive review of marijuana literature and found, among other things, that “there is substantial evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and increased risk of motor vehicle crashes.”

Jenny Lynn compared the debates about pot and driving, occurring nationally as states relax pot laws, to the back-and-forth leading to the .08 percent legal limit for blood-alcohol concentration, which was only established nationally in 2000.

To influence the conversation, the Hound Foundation is making videos, working in schools, using social media, and raising money for research on how pot affects the mind and body. The foundation’s website features a stream of news stories that implicate marijuana in automobile crashes all over the country. One video the Foundation produced shows a remorseful young man who says that driving shortly after smoking pot caused him to crash and kill a young California Highway Patrol officer.

Coincidentally, the father of that slain CHP officer is an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy whom Mike Lynn knows well. Such calamities intensely motivate the Lynns, who are out to save lives as well as earn a profit from their invention, but they try hard to keep perspective.

Mike Lynn said volunteering weekly at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, the regional trauma center where he has worked for nearly 20 years, reminds him “of how lucky we are to be healthy, and how quickly—and often randomly—this can change.

“So Jenny and I prioritize family and work,” he added, “and try to find some time for friends, while everything else kinda falls to the side.”

 

Published online March 15, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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