The Rural Edge: A Mental Health Startup In The Time Of COVID

Like many startup founders based in small towns, Bill Hudenko took what you might call a roundabout path to entrepreneurship. Hudenko started off as a professor, and became one of the world’s experts on the acoustics of laugh production in children. In essence, he knew more than just about anyone about how kids laughed. As part of the work, Hudenko “fell in love with computers” and taught himself how to program. 

After taking a position at Dartmouth College, Hudenko sought to combine his expertise in computer science and psychology, and in 2012 he started his first company to enhance the delivery of mental healthcare through technology. In 2017, a company called Voi bought Hudenko’s company, and he joined as Chief Science Officer. As a new company, together they asked themselves: “Where could we make the biggest difference in behavioral health?” The question wasn’t just about profit; it was about how innovation could make a real difference in the lives of patients. 

Hudenko and Voi chose to focus on suicide, a life-or-death issue in behavioral health without many tech-based solutions to address it. Using Hudenko’s expertise and collaborating with researchers at the University of Vermont, Voi built powerful technology around two product lines: Voi Reach and Voi Detect. 

Voi Detect is, according to Hudenko, the “only empirically validated screener for imminent suicide risk.” With just a two minute survey on an iPad, Detect can assess risk as accurately as a trained psychiatrist, and its logic learning node technology means it gets smarter over time. 

Voi Reach is, to Hudenko, a “complete rethink” of how to keep those at risk of suicide safe. When people with suicide risk are discharged from the hospital, there’s often no follow-up support, leading to renewed risk. Looking at the research, Hudenko learned that the “most effective way to keep people safe is by engaging their natural support network, with friends and family showing patients that they care and are connected.” Voi Reach works through an app that connects the patient to a mental health coach that can message them, while also onboarding close friends onto the app who are trained in how to best support the patient. As Hudenko said, “To my knowledge, it’s the first system ever designed to reach out to patients before they’re in trouble, with natural language processing allowing the app to identify high-risk messages and respond with an expert within 5 minutes.” 

Together, the two products are wielding powerful technology to save and improve lives—and it was all built from Hanover, NH, another example of cutting-edge innovation created in small towns, not major tech hubs. In February, Voi moved operations from Dartmouth to the Black River Innovation Campus in Springfield, Vermont, supported by an Opportunity Zone investment from the CORI Innovation Fund. At Dartmouth, Voi benefitted from the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network and the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship, which helped connect Hudenko with “a network of alumni founders, business leaders, and investors.” 

Now with BRIC, Hudenko says Voi is “excited to be part of the dynamic space—there’s a powerful story to be told about building a center of innovation and leveraging resources from multiple companies in Springfield’s unique location.” 

With their new location and support from BRIC along with the investment from CIF, Voi is positioned to grow—at a time when demand for its services is unfortunately greater than ever. Hudenko predicts that COVID-19 is going to cause a “landslide need in mental health that is just now surfacing.” Voi’s Detect and Reach services will be particularly important in rural areas that often lack strong mental health infrastructure and are already seeing a severe decline in mental health outcomes. Voi’s approach around AI-augmented and collaborative care that uses technology to aid clinicians is, they believe, the “most scalable, cost-effective way of managing health long term.” The next wave of healthcare innovation is coming from Springfield, VT. 

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This story is part of CORI’s Rural Edge series, which features conversations with the people who are changing the narrative about what’s possible in rural America. To see more profiles of rural innovators or to learn more about CORI’s work building digital economy ecosystems in small towns across the country, you can sign up for our newsletter. If you’d like to nominate a compelling rural leader for the Rural Edge Series, let us know

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