VA Exploring Options for a Grand Challenge to Prevent Suicide

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The agency is looking for a contractor to help run a possible multi-phase competition, including outreach and potentially raising private-sector funds for the prizes. 

The Veterans Affairs Department is gauging who can help produce and manage a multi-phase, multi-year grand challenge competition that would encompass the creation of a comprehensive digital ecosystem for evidence-based solutions to help prevent veteran suicide, according to a recent request for information.

Plans to launch a suicide-prevention contest had been brewing for a bit, but the agency’s Chief Innovation Officer Michael Akinyele told Nextgov Friday that circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic compelled VA to accelerate that process. He offered a glimpse into the potential competition and final digital platform that the agency ultimately hopes to help catalyze.

“The unemployment rate hit 14.7% today, and as we've learned from past recessions, when there's record high unemployment, you see an uptick in suicide and suicidal ideation,” he explained. “So as long as this pandemic continues to slow down economic activity, we need to gear up to put in place what we believe are meaningful solutions that can address the root cause of suicide and suicidal ideation.”

The RFI is “exploratory,” Akinyele said, so the responses VA receives will ultimately help officials determine whether or not to proceed with this approach of having a main contractor to drive the grand challenge. In the document, the agency indicates that the chosen partner would need to provide management support services necessary to help build the program from the ground up—and seamlessly execute the competition from beginning to end. The dedicated collaborator would support the delivery of everything from the timeline, scope and design of the complex challenge, to technical support, strategic communications, fund management, and beyond. 

Those who are interested in doing so are invited to respond to the RFI by May 21. 

If the agency opts to take this route, the ideal collaborator will have thorough experience executing “grand challenges of this scale,” which Akinyele noted could be elaborate multi-phase competitions with global audiences and significant prize money. Though VA would provide some of those funds, “the hope is the vendor would be able to facilitate outreach and increase fundraising for the prize purse, so that it's not just taxpayer-funded money that goes to support this effort, but actually potentially private funds from companies and others who are interested in solving this problem,” Akinyele said. 

He likened VA’s vision to that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s iconic autonomous vehicle-focused grand challenge—“where we have a defined product vision, if you will, and we're essentially looking for innovators, engineers, and solution providers from around the world to see if they can develop a solution to meet all the ideas and requirements we have, in order to help end the national tragedy of suicide.”

The final digital product the agency ultimately hopes to see built through the challenge can be considered a marketplace or ecosystem of “evidence-based services which support suicide prevention and reduce suicidal ideation,” the document states.

“To visualize it, think of the ecosystem as a digital front door to assessment, intervention and education resources that have been proven to reduce or eliminate suicidal ideation, and really stop self-harm,” Akinyele explained. 

The agency is ultimately envisioning the creation of a user-friendly platform where veterans’ (and possibly others in at-risk groups) can gain enhanced access to a range of services, such as scheduling, assessments, mental health resources, and more, while preserving their identities and privacy. The agency also hopes to personalize and customize services to directly meet veterans’ needs and recognize certain risks in users’ personal lives, information about care paths and more, all in support of those tapping into it. Much of the tech and services available to at-risk veterans today can be overwhelming in content and ultimately exhaust those who try to use them, Akinyele noted. 

“So the vision here is as you go through and experience the ecosystem, there's some automated learning that's going on about the user and the users’ needs, fears and concerns—so that the information that's presented to that user is curated for their specific needs and it’s evidence-based,” he said. “It's envisioning a very dynamic environment.”

Work to develop the potential grand challenge supports federal efforts outlined in the MISSION Act of 2018 and an executive order “to empower veterans and end suicide,” that President Trump signed in March 2019. But to top agency officials, it’s rendered all the more necessary by the national pandemic, which amplifies the stressors that veterans face as a population highly vulnerable to trauma, and subsequently suicide.

“We've just seen the numbers stay the same or go up over the last couple of decades and we need to make a big, bold stand and engage a global audience to try and finally put an end to the rate of growth and turn the corner on this national tragedy,” Akinyele said. “So that's what we're trying to do with this effort.”

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