Lifeshel founders design 'Whistl' to deter sexual assault
The three co-founders of LifeShel see a market for helping people who feel unsafe and want protection.
Their startup company is targeting students and others who could find themselves the victim of an attack — and aims to keep them safe with a smartphone device that uses technology to contact friends and police with an instant message and sends a high-pitched alarm to those nearby.
LifeShel's founders are moving quickly to develop their device in an emerging field called activity tracking, and are among a small group of companies that are pushing to get products to market late this year or early next.
Nearly 300,000 people a year experience some form of sexual violence, according to One in Four Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to rape prevention.
“It takes a serious team and serious technology to tackle a serious problem,” said LifeShel CEO Jayon Wang.
The device — a high-tech smartphone case they call “Whistl” — is activated by a single button. It emits a 120-decibel noise and simultaneously notifies preselected contacts and authorities. It connects via an accompanying app using wireless technology on an Apple iPhone 5. They plan to add Android capability later.
Wang and fellow co-founders Siri Ramos and Alan Fu say they want everyone to be able to socialize, enter a relationship and walk at night without fear of being alone in a dangerous situation.
LifeShel technology is undergoing beta testing in Pittsburgh this month by about 80 volunteers, Wang said. The goal is to make sure “the features are useful in their daily lives and adds peace of mind and a feeling of safety.”
All three believe they have a “heavy responsibility” to get LifeShel's technology right for legal and security reasons.
Their target is a spring 2015 release, once the design is finalized, functionality is certified and they arrange for manufacturing. They initially plan distribution online but will reach out to college campuses, Wang said.
So far, with little publicity besides a website, LifeShel has received more than 200 pre-orders. It raised $50,000 in funding from a Carnegie Mellon University entrepreneurs fund, along with other funding it declined to disclose.
The CMU engineering graduates have been working since October at AlphaLab Gear, an accelerator sponsored by Innovation Works, a state-funded agency in Hazelwood that invests in technology and hardware startups. The AlphaLab program gives entrepreneurs up to $50,000 in financing, mentoring and space to work.
“They've hit on a problem that is at the top of mind for many people now,” said Ilana Diamond, AlphaLab Gear managing director, on LifeShel's founders and their goal of deterring sexual violence. “This is a national and world issue, and they have a solution. In a society where we've crowd-sourced almost everything, safety is the next step. You've got a lot of friends around who want to help, and this gives them a method to do that.
In September, LifeShel plans a campaign on Kickstarter.com to raise funding. Wang said LifeShel recently signed an agreement with Dragon Innovation Inc. in Boston, which specializes in helping entrepreneurs with product development and manufacturing. A Dragon spokeswoman could not be reached.
“We have been centered to get the product to look sleek and not be compromised by usability issues,” Ramos said. “Simplicity is the key, especially in an assault situation” and to prevent false triggering of its notification capabilities.
An early design used a pull-out pin to activate the unit. But tests found the pin could get caught inside a purse, or get tangled in hair if held close, Ramos said.
The case design features a teal-colored strip, he said. The color is used to promote Sexual Assault Awareness Month by National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
The founders believe important support came from President Obama during a recent visit to Pittsburgh.
Obama established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January to strengthen enforcement efforts and provide schools with tools to combat sexual assault.
During Obama's visit here on June 17, he was asked a question about how startups can address the White House efforts, Wang said. “That allowed us to make contact with White House representatives.”
Two days later, on June 19, Wang, Ramos and Fu went to the White House and met with task force members. “It was a very positive experience. They supported what we're doing, and very much appreciated it,” Wang said.
Alison Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, said her agency is working with LifeShel to help development. “They are developing a tangible tool to reduce sexual violence rates, and we have been helping them in any way we can,” she said.
LifeShel's founders each have taken PAAR's sexual assault counselor training — a 40-hour course, Hall said. “I applaud them for really understanding the issue.”
LifeShel has competition in the activity tracking marketplace.
A startup named Cuff in San Francisco is embedding electronic chips in jewelry, and is marketing bracelets made of leather and metal that have embedded electronics and connect with smartphones to provide personal security functions. Cuff has been featured in the New York Times and TechCrunch.
Another named First Sign Technologies in Scottsdale, Ariz., is doing the same with hair clips, which can detect sudden movements that could signal an assault, according to Entrepreneur Magazine.
Wang said, “The more activity there is in the space is a good thing, because that means there will be more ways to protect our client base from sexual assault.”
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.