A Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) alum, a Stanford Impact Founder fellow and a first-time founder, Drew Barvir is the co-founder and CEO of Sonar, an innovative mental health insights and support platform. For Barvir, expanding access to this support is a professional mission with deeply personal roots. Like many Americans, he has experienced loss as a result of mental illness.

Enter Sonar, Barvir’s mission-aligned new venture. The company blends artificial intelligence (AI) and insights from social media with support from vetted peer counselors to predict and expedite timely mental health support for young people. With an emphasis on text-based communication, Sonar’s evidence-based recommendations reach teens directly, eliminating common barriers to support amid the nation’s ongoing youth mental health crisis. The company also partners with schools to scale its reach and provide aggregate insights about district-wide mental health concerns.

Through Sonar, Barvir is a 2023-24 fellow of the Alpine Social Ventures (ASV) program. Established in 2022, ASV aims to support the next generation of social-impact leaders by providing capital and insights to help get their businesses off the ground. Below, find Barvir’s reflections on founding Sonar, using AI and chat-based technology to predict and support teen mental health and leveraging the professional connections he’s made as an ASV fellow.

By combining AI with human connection, we’re giving students a monitored, judgment-free space to notice and cope with any challenges they’re facing.

Tell us about Sonar’s origin story. What inspired you to start this company?

I have a family history with serious mental illness — my mom developed it as a teen, and my sister did as well. I experienced some personal loss in this area, so I always knew mental health care would be part of my life.

I had a winding journey to wanting to focus on it for my career, which started in volunteering and then doing my own research and early stage investing in mental health tech innovation. I eventually joined a start-up, and then I went to Stanford GSB with the goal of building in the adolescent mental health space. I came into it very open-minded, but based on the work I had done, I was thinking about two specific areas: accessibility, and then the reactionary and session-based approach that we commonly use today for support.

Young people today are often unable to access traditional mental healthcare because of cost, availability and stigma. So, why not come at it with an innovative approach to meet students where they are?

Can you contextualize why this mission is so important?

We’re facing a national youth mental health crisis, as communicated by the Surgeon General a few years ago. In 2021, 42% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, compared to 28% of students 10 years prior. Unfortunately, 22% of high schoolers seriously considered suicide in 2021. That figure was 30% for girls and young women. And then, in 2023, 59.8% of youth with major depression did not receive any mental health treatment. There are just so many systemic challenges around this crisis.

Sonar is not meant to be therapeutic or clinical. That’s intentional because everyone deals with challenges in their lives, and sometimes those can lead to a moment when you do need more intensive mental health support. But sometimes, you just need to think through them and cope with them and then continue to build and be stronger. We describe Sonar as a smart well-being companion — it’s for everyone. It’s meant to be something that can help users identify well-being challenges and unhealthy behavior and work through them in a personalized way.

How does Sonar reach students, and where does AI technology fit in the equation?

We mostly interact with students over text messages because its low friction and judgment free, just like talking to a friend. Our initial product used our proprietary natural language process models to analyze students’ social media, search and text message data (with consent) to surface moments for support and make recommendations. When we started to beta test Sonar late last year, we saw both positive feedback and unintended engagement. Students were responding to the recommendations we were sending to them and also reaching out to us unprompted to share challenges they were facing. What we realized is that young people today are seeking an instant, safe and judgment-free space to talk about stuff that’s happening in their lives. But a chatbot experience doesn’t work because it quickly becomes frustrating when conversations become more complex.

So, we thought, maybe there’s a better way to do this — to continue with our approach to early identification, and build on an accessible, nonclinical, chat-based leg of the stool. By combining AI with human connection, we’re giving students a monitored, judgment-free space to notice and cope with any challenges they’re facing.

Building relationships and taking advantage of the broader Alpine Investors community has been incredibly valuable for us.

Why partner with school systems as well as students and their families?

We wanted to be accessible to all students, not just families who would be able to pay for Sonar. For context, most schools have shared with me that counseling staff or external therapy providers typically cover just 1-5% of students. That’s because of the costs associated with staffing, mental health stigmas, the number of students who actually want support, and then also the availability of actual therapists or counselors. The value we’re adding to schools is supporting their students — we’re filling a need that they just couldn’t address but was clearly there. Over 50% of students in the schools we’re live with are engaging with the AI tool.

We also provide schools with aggregate insights on their student body. We don’t disclose personal information from any student, but we show data like time of engagement and topics of conversation. For example, we told one of our partner schools, “Hey, 30% of your students are talking about bullying. Maybe you should do a school-wide intervention about that because clearly there’s something going on here, and you might be able to make a change.”

How did you first get connected with Alpine Investors, and how has the ASV program benefited Sonar’s growth?

I had a lunch-and-learn with Alpine Investors Founder and CEO Graham Weaver during my first year at GSB, and that’s how I became aware of Alpine. The following year, I became aware of the ASV program. It was right at the point when Sonar’s team and I were deciding that Sonar is what we wanted to dive into full-time.

Frankly, the program enabled that in some ways — it provided us with the funding to have the confidence to go out and continue to build and raise some additional dollars on top of that coming out of graduation. We found out we were going to be part of the program in April 2023 and then we were fortunate to receive another Stanford fellowship right around the same time. That’s really what got us started.

Through the program, I’ve met executives from different education portfolio companies. This includes EVP and Co-Founder Ryan Patenuade from FEV Tutor, and Chief Growth Officer Scott Perksy and General Counsel Joshua Minty from Wilson Language Training. They’ve helped me understand the sales process to schools and provided specific advice on how to do contracting and meet legal requirements in different states. It’s also provided specific data and analysis on where we should be focused in the early days.

Based on your experience, do you have any advice for future ASV fellows about how to make the most of the program?

Building relationships and taking advantage of the broader Alpine Investors community has been incredibly valuable for us. I’ve made so many different connections with executives from portfolio companies or through my pod—a group of Alpine’s staff that have volunteered to help Sonar during this program– that have unlocked doors and helped me navigate different challenges. I would say, explore the Alpine ecosystem, understand what companies they’ve invested in and where they may have expertise, and don’t be afraid to ask for introductions.

What is your vision for the future of Sonar?

The next couple of years are focused on education and trying to give as many students as possible access to Sonar. We’re also aiming to build out our track record, both in terms of efficacy, and showing engagement and value with student populations. Ultimately, the vision is to empower preventative mental health support and be the well-being companion in everyone’s pocket. We hope to change and save the lives of millions!

Read more about Alpine’s Force For Good initiatives here and the ASV program here.

Certain statements about Alpine made by ASV fellows herein are intended to illustrate Alpine’s business relationship with such persons, including with respect to Alpine’s facilities as a business partner, rather than Alpine’s capabilities or expertise with respect to investment advisory services. ASV fellows were not compensated in connection with their participation, although they generally receive compensation and investment opportunities in connection with their ASV company roles, and in certain cases are also owners of portfolio company securities and/or investors in Alpine-sponsored vehicles. Such compensation and investments subject participants to potential conflicts of interest in making the statements herein. Past performance not indicative of future results. Results may vary materially and adversely. Please see Alpine’s Terms of Use for additional disclaimers.
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