The Department of Veterans Affairs is launching a contest that will dole out $20 million in prizes to entrants with the best ideas for reducing the thousands of veteran suicides that occur in the U.S. each year.
The competition, called Mission Daybreak, seeks to bring in "fresh thinking, outside perspectives and innovative concepts" that the department could use to help save veterans. Top winners will take away prizes of $3 million and $1 million, while others will get $250,000 and $100,000 for chosen proposals, according to a website for the VA contest.
"To end veteran suicide, we need to use every tool available," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday in a press statement. "Mission Daybreak is fostering solutions across a broad spectrum of focus areas to combat this preventable problem."
The issue of suicide has been particularly difficult for the VA and the military, and both have labored for years to find effective solutions. In 2019, a total of 6,261 veterans committed suicide.
The VA is hoping winning ideas could lead to at least a 10% drop in the number of those deaths, said Matt Miller, director of the VA's suicide prevention program office.
"What we are really trying to foster and harness is those ideas that can be rapidly developed, scalable across our system and can make a big difference quickly. When I say big difference, [I mean] 10% or more decrease in veterans suicide," Miller said.
As part of the contest, the VA is seeking ideas in 10 focus areas, such as using artificial intelligence or machine learning to review digital data and online footprints to determine risk; making the Veterans Crisis Line more effective; and reducing the stigma of seeking mental health treatment.
Other focus areas include lethal means safety -- promoting safe storage of firearms and medicines that could be used in a suicide attempt -- and firearms suicide reduction, as well as improving response to veterans in crisis, and supporting veterans during their transition from active-duty service and afterward.
Miller said the $20 million Mission Daybreak contest will serve as a “marketplace” to drive innovation.
"Within this marketplace, we create an idea, we create a vision, of what we're looking for to advance the veterans suicide prevention mission," Miller said.
Anyone can participate, including individuals, researchers, corporations and advocates. In the first phase of the program, participants will submit concept papers to the Mission Daybreak website that contain solutions in one or more of the focus areas to significantly reduce veteran suicides.
Thirty finalists will be selected to move on to the second phase of the competition, during which the VA will award them each $250,000 and provide additional resources and support to develop their ideas. An additional 10 entrants will receive a "Promise Award" of $100,000, but they will not move on in the competition.
In the second phase, participants will be required to develop a road map for delivering their proposals, from building a prototype through testing and evaluation to delivery. The finalists will present their ideas to judges in November.
Two first-place winners will each receive $3 million, three second-place winners will each receive $1 million, and five third-place winners will each receive $500,000. The prizes come with no strings attached -- winners do not have to use the money to develop their ideas or fund any programs.
The contest comes as the number of veterans who died by suicide in 2019 -- the most recent year for which the VA has complete data -- declined from the previous year by 399, a trend Miller said appears to be continuing.
"The data that came back to me this morning was that we are running lower at today's count than we were last year at the same time and in the year before at the same time," he said.
Yet the suicide rate among veterans when compared with the general population remains exceedingly high, about 32 suicides per 100,000 people in 2019 for veterans compared with 17 per 100,000 for non-veteran American adults.
"We have made significant strides in veterans suicide prevention," Miller said. "But one area where we have not had a decline is the percent of [veterans who died by suicide using a firearm], so we are opening the market to talk about what we can do to better address firearm/lethal means safety."
Mission Daybreak is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge events, which were designed to tap into the ingenuity of industry and researchers to solve complex problems, such as developing autonomous cars. The first DARPA Grand Challenge, which took place in March 2004, was a race between self-driving vehicles on a 142-mile course across the Mojave desert.
No team won, with only one vehicle able to travel seven miles before getting stuck on an embankment, but the contest is widely considered to have generated much of the safety and sensor technology seen in vehicles today. Less than two years later in the second Grand Challenge, five vehicles completed a 132-mile course.
The VA is encouraging prospective participants to join virtual information sessions and roundtables to learn more about the program. Concept papers are due no later than July 8.
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.