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Why Minnesota entrepreneur Charlie Kratsch is offering a $1 million prize to create a mental health and addiction network

Kratsch, the founder of Infinite Campus, knows from personal experience that getting help for those experiencing mental health distress can be a confusing and frustrating process. 

Charlie Kratsch, founder and CEO of Infinite Campus: “Let’s build a statewide network of behavioral health providers and provide some logic to it.”
Charlie Kratsch, founder and CEO of Infinite Campus: “Let’s build a statewide network of behavioral health providers and provide some logic to it.”
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

A Twin Cities entrepreneur is offering a $1 million prize as seed money for any local nonprofit that can organize the state’s mental health and addiction providers into one easily accessible network. 

Charlie Kratsch, founder and CEO of Infinite Campus, a developer of software for managing data in K-12 schools, knows from personal experience that finding help for a loved one in mental health distress can be a frustrating, tangled web. He thinks that the right technology could make it all work more smoothly. 

The $1 million, which is coming from the Infinite Campus Foundation and could be distributed to one organization or divided among many, has the support of many of the state’s leaders, including Gov. Tim Walz, who was on hand earlier this fall when the prize was announced. 

Kratsch said he wanted to create a prize that was big enough to catch the attention of the state’s top thinkers and innovators. “The question was, ‘What is big?’” he said. “I decided on $1 million. That amount draws people’s attention. It could be less. It could be more. But a nice, cool, round $1 million felt like a good figure.” 

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Recently, MinnPost sat down with Kratsch at Infinite Campus’ Blaine headquarters, where he talked about his family, his career and his hopes for what this prize money can achieve. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

MinnPost: I know that your interest in streamlining mental health and addiction care in the state grew from your own family’s  experience. Can you tell me more about that?

Charlie Kratsch: About 10 years ago, my oldest son came home from school, he was about 16 at the time, and he was talking about how the television was talking to him. There were no symptoms prior to that, and my wife and I were concerned. As a parent you’re like, “Woah. This isn’t right.” We thought it was maybe drugs or something. We took him to the ER. They screened him, said, “No. He’s just fine.” They were about to release him, but since he was 16, my son had to sign a form. He went into the form and started editing it. The ER doctor asked him why  he was doing that, and he started talking about the people who were out to get him, and boom — 72-hour hold

That was the beginning of our journey into the mental health system. It was an eye-opener. We were at Mercy Hospital and there were no mental health resources there, let-alone beds. Growing up in Minnesota, you’re used to all the resources in the world, and if somebody tells you, “There are no beds,” it’s like, “What does that mean? How can we fix this?” 

MinnPost: Even 10 years ago there were no beds. It’s still like that today. 

CK: Oh yeah. We were in a locked room in the ER. I spent 14 hours sitting in a room with him, waiting and talking to each shift of nurses who came on and off. They started getting on the phone, calling Sioux Falls and Chicago, and we were like, “This is unbelievable.” I was just amazed, especially being a technology person. I’d ask, “So you go online and find this?” They’d say, “No. We’ve got a list of people that I know that I’m going to call.” The next nurse would come on and say, “I know some different people. Let’s see what we can find.” It was just mind-blowing. After the better part of a day waiting, we got lucky and a bed had opened up in St. Cloud. 

MinnPost: What made you decide that this would be a good way to spend your foundation’s resources?

CK: I created our company’s foundation as a way to focus our giving. As we grew as a company and started giving more and more, we determined we needed to create a mission for the foundation. And so that’s where I designed the three-legged stool of our community involvement. 

The first leg is K-12. That is what our business does. … And then through the foundation we manage the other two legs, the first being mental health and addiction. We do a lot of giving in that area. The third is law enforcement. 

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We really see the three working together: If K-12 fails, kids end up in prison. And from a mental health and addiction standpoint, usually that presents itself in youth or early teens where the issues start to manifest themselves. If you don’t detect it and treat it in time, you wind up in jail.  How the three work together has been fascinating to me. So this feels like a good match.

MinnPost: In the end, what do you hope that this prize will achieve ? 

CK: From a mental health and addiction standpoint, we want to catch things early. Once, I had a conversation with one of the women who’s been a leader in the state for many years. She told me something that stuck with me. I said, “The mental health system is broken.” She said, “It’s not broken. It’s never been built.” She said that we have just evolved to where we are but not a lot of thought has been put into how we got there. It’s just not organized. 

I’ve been fairly politically active over the last four years, but I wasn’t before that. As I talked to people I began to realize how at some point in their life, half of people are going to have a mental health or addiction need and in any given year one in four will have a diagnosable condition. So it affects all of us in one way or another.

We’ve gotten past the stigma phase. Now you can comfortably strike up a conversation with folks about mental health or addiction. You begin to realize how many people’s lives, either personally or with someone in their family, have been touched by a situation like we had. 

Where we’re at with this challenge then is, as we put it is, “Let’s start building a new system, or build a system, as it were.” 

MinnPost: How do you go about doing that? 

CK: Instead of designing it ourselves, because we’re not qualified to do that, or looking to government to design this system, because government has its own set of issues, maybe we just put a challenge out there and say, “Let’s build a statewide network of behavioral health providers and provide some logic to it.” 

Maybe we start by creating a set of regional networks, because building one statewide network is a huge challenge. Maybe what we can do is divide the state up into a dozen or so regions, because what’s needed here in Anoka County is very different from what’s needed in St. Paul or in other places. And then if we can show how a specific region can function, we can bring the state in to scale it up statewide. There’s really no rules about how it can happen. It’s open.

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MinnPost: How will the money be awarded? 

CK: The grant itself may be a single $1 million award, or it may be a series of awards, like a whole consortium of different organizations working together, with different amounts for different pieces in that consortium.

MinnPost: To add up to the $1 million? 

CK: Yeah. Maybe there’s five different organizations that participate. Maybe it’s all at once. Maybe there’s progress payments over time. If somebody’s got a good idea, let’s start, but let’s not dump it in all right now and make ’em stupid, as often happens in business. 

MinnPost: So the idea is that you want somebody to create a network that brings everything together so that individuals in crisis know what to access and what they need and how to do it?

CK: I’ve put as little detail as I could in place because I didn’t want to steer the idea. It’s not an RFP, saying, “build this.” It really is just a handful of core outcomes that I think are important. 

The first part is, having gone through the system myself, information about: where do you go for resources. My wife and I took our son to the ER. That may or not have been the best place to go. I want to create something that helps people understand where do you go when you’re in crisis —  kind of a single, one-stop shop. Even with all of the resources my wife and I have, we struggled. So how does a single mother, or somebody with their own behavioral health issues, figure this out? 

There are a growing number of resources available, but when I talk to these organizations they often tell me they struggle with getting in touch with those who need their services. Could this hub do that? That’s the second part. 

Then the third is helping to coordinate care. It just amazes me that if you are an inpatient in a hospital, their job, in a week or less, is to get you stabilized and out. What happens next? Usually you’ll hear, “Here’s some pamphlets.” They expect you to figure it out yourself. You  need more than that.

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How can we, by creating a structure or network, create this single place that people can go to where they learn about all the resources that are available to them in their region? How can this network provide continuity of care across all different providers? 

MinnPost: From the outside, at least, this project seems so huge that $1 million doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

CK: Sure, when you think about it in its entirety. But if you look at one particular region and someone who is sitting there with this great idea but can’t get it off the ground, this is that seed money or capital they need to get it started.

I’d like to see someone show me how what they’re doing is working. Because if you can show that, the money will flow. 

It doesn’t have to cover the whole state: If you can build it for just one region and show that it works, then you can go back to the state of Minnesota and say, “Now we should do that times 16.” We talked about that when the governor was here and he agreed. 

It’s not the state’s job to fund risky projects. I wouldn’t want my tax money to go to that. That’s where foundations like ours come in. We can fund that. But if we can demonstrate that something works, why wouldn’t the state of Minnesota want to fund that? That would mean better care for people in the state of Minnesota — and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. 

MinnPost: Do you  have a sense that the nonprofits you hope will create this will have some specific expertise in mental health or addiction care? 

CK: I don’t know. That’s the cool thing about it. Folks and organizations I’ve talked to come at it from every aspect, from established institutions like Allina to small startups. 

Being a technology person in this situation with my son, what I saw was that currently the state has a point-to-point network. Every organization, every provider and whatnot has to communicate with every other provider in the area to get anything done. 

I believe it is more efficient to have a hub-and-spoke network. It may not seem like a big difference. An Allina could be that hub. Or, if you’re in a rural environment and you don’t have any of those resources, you could do this for a loose network of providers.  

It could be something as simple as an individual in Thief River Falls who says, “I’m going to create a shop of three people and we’re going to get a phone number and a website and we’re going to help coordinate all these things.” We’d say, “Cool. Explain more. How would that work? How is that sustainable? How would you integrate with the hospitals? How would that facilitate a more streamlined billing?” 

We’re not looking for anything specific. What we’re looking for is good ideas. 

MinnPost: Is there a deadline for organizations to submit their ideas?  

CK: What we’ve been telling people so far is here is a form they can complete and we’d like them to get that to us by the end of the year. And then, at the start of the New Year, we’d would like to start to evaluate those and then follow up with them and maybe mix and match ideas. Nothing will be proprietary. We may see a good idea over here, but there is no way they are going to be able to do that. Maybe we go over here to a group that can do it and say, “Let’s start here. You can build it up, make it sustainable and then we can go back over there.” 

MinnPost: Basically it’s a million-dollar pot from which these nonprofits can pull. 

CK: I’ve loosely modeled this on the XPRIZE. The concept of the XPRIZE is you’re not putting the money in to completely build out something. You are putting the money in to leverage a lot of things that are already going on, to start pushing things and to get people to start thinking like entrepreneurs in places where people don’t always think like entrepreneurs. 

I think behavioral health is like that. There are a lot of individuals with a nice little practice with a half a dozen professionals on staff, but they’ve never really thought of, “How do we scale this up?” I want to encourage them to think like that.

MinnPost: Will you be making the final decision on what organization gets the prize?  

CK: I anticipate that when we get to the point of evaluating proposals, the people at our foundation will be weeding out the obvious non-fits and then we’ll escalate that to the point where we’ll have some really good candidates and then we’ll be bringing in some outside folks. Not a committee, but two or three people who’ve been in this career forever and have very diverse opinions. Then we can sit down and look at it and say, “What about this?” “How about if we did that?” We’ll be in a room with a very small number of people and then make some decisions.