A Scranton startup will take a final step next week in a competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs that aims to end veteran suicide.

GUIDE, a digital app company based at the Scranton Enterprise Center, will travel to Washington, D.C. on Nov. 4 to give a live demonstration to a panel with hopes of winning up to $3 million. The company is one of 30 finalists in the Mission Daybreak challenge, a contest that the VA includes in its 10-year strategy to bolster suicide prevention.

In 2020, over 6,100 veterans took their lives, according to a recent VA report. The data shows veteran suicides decreased in 2019 and 2020, dropping to a low not seen since 2006.

But in a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said preventing suicides is still the department’s “top clinical priority.” The nonprofit Stop Soldier Suicide estimates that veterans are 57% more likely to die by suicide than those who haven’t served.

VA data for Pennsylvania from 2020 shows that the commonwealth’s veteran suicide rate is on par with national numbers. That year, 240 veterans took their lives in Pennsylvania.

In an effort to prevent suicide, GUIDE’s app asks users to practice daily mindfulness exercises and engage in micro-learning courses, all while anonymously chatting and sharing thoughts with other users. Developers hope the tool will help those who have experienced trauma, and they’ve targeted first responders and former service members in the app’s development.

Patrick Sandone, a Dunmore native who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” founded GUIDE after grappling with depression.

After graduating from Dunmore High School, Sandone went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Columbia Business School. He worked on Wall Street, later becoming a venture capitalist.

He eventually founded and then sold a profitable internet marketing company called NetDriven that had over 100 employees in 2015. By most accounts, Sandone has had a successful life. But something felt off, he said.

“I found myself feeling really burned out. I found myself depressed, a lack of meaning, a lack of purpose,” he said. “And I wondered, ‘After all the things I’ve done in my life… why do I feel this way?”

Sandone took a four year break after the sale of NetDriven. He worked with psychologists, life coaches and a shaman. He even tried a vision quest.

“I fasted for four days and was basically on this mountaintop by myself with just four gallons of water, a tarp and a sleeping bag,” Sandone said.

After all of that self-exploration, Sandone said he emerged in a much better condition. He also realized how valuable it is to process emotions, especially heavy ones that stem from trauma.

“Your nervous system gets overloaded, and basically you can’t process all the emotions that come in in the moment,” he said. “They get stored in the unconscious, so dealing with trauma is basically going back and feeling all those feelings.”

That’s when Sandone had the idea for a new project. The makings for GUIDE began to take shape just a few years ago.

1 of 2  — A Scranton startup…

GUIDE is headquartered at the Scranton Enterprise Center on Lackawanna Ave.

Tom Riese

2 of 2  — … and a digital app

GUIDE will travel to Washington, D.C. on Nov. 4 for a live pitch and demo day, a part of the VA’s Mission Daybreak Challenge. If awarded the top prize, they could win an additional $3 million in funding.

Terrell McCasland, GUIDE’s head of product, said the app isn’t meant to funnel users into therapy and counseling.

“We’re trying to get people before they really get into a clinical state and need those types of interventions,” McCasland said. “We want to try and catch people when they’re feeling lonely before that becomes isolation.”

The Scranton-based company was already awarded a $250,000 grant from the VA in September for being chosen as a finalist out of a pool of nearly 1,400 entrants.

The VA will choose 10 of the top 30 finalists for additional awards by the end of November. At most, GUIDE could receive $3 million if chosen as one of two first-place winners. The VA will award $1 million to three second-place contenders and $500,000 to five third-place finishers.

“We think we have a good chance of winning,” Sandone said. “I think whether we win or not, … there’s a good chance we’ll find some ways to work with the VA and veteran service organizations to bring our technology to more veterans so that we can really make an impact.”

Groups like America’s Warrior Partnership (AWP) estimate that former service members take their lives more than twice as often as determined by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

In a report called “Operation Deep Dive,” the organization looked at data from eight states and the Department of Defense with the help of the University of Alabama and Duke University. Pennsylvania wasn’t included, because raw data wasn’t made available by the VA or the state, according to AWP. The VA did not respond to requests for comment on data sharing.

Via WVIA News