MechSE graduate students win first place in Cozad competition

TEC News Stories

5/1/2013 9:21:00 AM

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Two MechSE graduate students, Nishana Ismail and Timothy Deppen, won the top prize at the Cozad New Venture Competition on April 13, 2013, being chosen as the "most fundable venture" for their personal-protection technology.

Their team, Servabo, intends to create and market a wireless "panic button" of sorts that can be placed on a keychain, a phone case, and other personal accessories. This one-click device, called "AllAlert," would interface with a smartphone via Bluetooth to provide personalized life-saving features, such as sending text, email, and phone messages to emergency contacts and services.

Ismail and Deppen, passionate about women's safety, started talking in the fall of 2012 about trying to find better personal safety solutions. They surveyed their friends and the general community to try and discover what kind of protection most people would want.

"The original idea was to build a more effective pepper spray," Ismail said. "We found that most people would like something by which they could call for help rather than something that is more offensive like a pepper spray. Something like that is still there in the background for us someday maybe, but we are more focused right now on getting people help quickly and easily."

The team wants AllAlert to be very broadly personalized, both in terms of the situations in which it is used and the services that it provides. The button will be able to notify all desired contacts through multiple communication channels and activate additional safety features like an audio/visual alarm or locking the phone. Who is contacted and which features are activated can be tailored for each situation. AllAlert can be used in emergency situations such as an assault, or just uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations in which pulling out a phone and dialing it is too inconvenient or conspicuous. It can even work if the phone is stolen, as long as the button is pressed while it is still within a certain range.

The Cozad New Venture Competition is a contest run by the Technology Entrepreneur Center and the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The competition is designed to encourage students to create new sustainable businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area. Teams create business plans around topics of their choice and are provided mentors and workshops to help them stabilize their business plans. By winning this contest, Servabo received $25,000 and won acceptance into the I-Start program, which provides 90% funding for the cost of first-year legal services, accounting assistance, and website development.

"The Technology Entrepreneur Center has been fabulous in terms of providing resources and giving guidance," Deppen. "The Research Park has classes nearly every day with people coming in and talking about how to build a market, how to make a business plan, how to find funding, etc."

The team says the Research Park has provided a wealth of information and support. Their first mentor was Kenneth Taylor, director of Neustar Innovation Center.

The team has also received support from entrepreneurs within the MechSE Department and from MechSE alumni including Eduardo Torrealba, winner of the 2013 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize for his startup Oso Technologies, and Scott Daigle, CEO and Co-Founder of Intelliwheels, Inc. and the winner of the 2011 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize. The team says these young entrepreneurs gave them an advantage over the competition by sharing their experiences building their own ventures.

"It was just a project like anything else," Ismail said, "but the more we got into it, the more we started thinking about it and working on it, we thought that if we could even save one person that would be a great thing. And then it started becoming more than just a project, something more important, and motivated us to try something innovative that will have a positive impact."

The team aims to launch a Kickstarter campaign by the fall of 2013, by which time they hope to have a very refined prototype.

"We did a provisional patent, put together the prototype, and have started recruiting people to do some beta-testing of what we have so far," Deppen said. "Now that we won the competition, we kind of have some publicity. We’re going to make Servabo official by getting incorporated, creating a website, and promoting the brand in the community."

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