VA taps 10 digital health innovators for $20M challenge to reduce veteran suicide

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) tapped 10 digital health innovators for their suicide prevention solutions as part of its $20 million Mission Daybreak grand challenge.

VA launched the multiphase challenge in May 2022, receiving more than 1,300 pitches for the initial phase from veterans and veteran service organizations, community-based organizations, startups and universities. 

A total of 30 finalists made it in phase 2, and 10 were recommended as winners by a multidisciplinary judging panel. The finalists participated in a virtual accelerator program designed to help them develop road maps for prototyping, testing and evaluation.

“Our Veterans need and deserve suicide prevention solutions that meet them where they are, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach,” VA Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal, M.D., said in an announcement.

Fierce Healthcare spoke to a few of the winners about their mission and what is in store for 2023.

The two first-place winners, each receiving $3 million, are: 

  • Stop Soldier Suicide’s “Black Box Project,” a tech solution that identifies and analyzes data from digital devices of veterans who died by suicide to develop machine learning models that identify unknown risk patterns. 

  • Televeda’s “Project Hózhó,” the first mental health app for American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) populations designed in partnership with AIAN and native veteran communities. The solution incorporates traditional healing practices like storytelling to reduce suicide and improve access to VA resources. 

Televeda was founded as a platform to combat social isolation in vulnerable communities. After a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to bring broadband to rural communities, the organization decided to design a resource for indigenous communities. Project Hózhó, meaning “balance” or “wellness,” will use the award to build out its storytelling curriculum and to recruit native veterans to lead digital literacy workshops in their communities. The app aims to be a culturally appropriate, evidence-based support tool for AIAN veterans.

When it comes to Western medicine, “it’s not fair to say it’s the only way to treat issues,” Mayank Mishra, Televeda’s co-founder, told Fierce Healthcare. Native communities have their own healing practices, and “it’s just the right and respectful thing to do, to acknowledge that in our infrastructure.” 

The three second-place winners, each receiving $1 million, are: 

  • ReflexAI, an AI-driven tool that can help the Veterans Crisis Line train and maintain their responders

  • Sentinel, a mobile app designed to reduce veteran suicide by encouraging safe storage of firearms

  • Battle Buddy, a virtual mental health app that promotes resiliency among veterans at risk for suicide. The app’s interactive, conversational AI uses content from VA’s Suicide Safety Planing program for daily check-ins. 

Battle Buddy was developed through a partnership between the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and the SoldierStrong Foundation. The partners’ goal was to create an app that was “sticky,” or engaging enough to keep users coming back, Skip Rizzo, Ph.D., director of medical VR at the institute, told Fierce Healthcare. Daily check-ins allow the virtual assistant to get to know a user, like their triggers and distractions, and help them in times of crisis. It can also recommend they call a loved one or crisis hotline with the click of one button.

SoldierStrong will be helping USC raise additional capital to finalize the product and get it to veterans through the VA. It hopes to eventually connect with wearables to analyze sleep, exercise and other health data. “By winning such a significant prize, that opens up a lot more doors for us,” Chris Meek, co-founder of SoldierStrong, told Fierce Healthcare.

The five third-place winners, each receiving $500,000, are: 

  • Even Health’s Cabana, a VR-based group support platform for veterans who have survived a suicide attempt

  • NeuroFlow, a tech platform that offers veterans tailored resources and digital care around the clock while measuring evolving behavioral health needs to inform care teams of risks

  • Overwatch Project, a peer-based intervention program that empowers veterans to intervene with at-risk buddies, offering to temporarily hold onto their guns or take protective storage measures

  • OxfordVR’s gameChange, a digital therapeutic with the Food and Drug Administration’s breakthrough-device designation, which treats severe social isolation—a precursor to suicidal thoughts and behavior

After a pilot with nonprofit Wounded Warrior, where gameChange was deployed to wounded veterans with traumatic brain injuries, OxfordVR saw meaningful reductions in avoidance, anxiety and depression. That led the company to focus on the veteran population, where social withdrawal and isolation is highly prevalent. The company merged with BehaVR in late 2022. With the award from the VA, BehaVR plans to continue scaling within the VA. 

  • Team Guidehouse’s data platform integrates social determinants of health and social media data into the health record and an external dashboard to identify veterans at risk for suicide. It also provides insights for suicide prevention. It’s a partnership between Red Hat and Philip Held, Ph.D., of the Rush University Medical Center.