June 15, 2015

Hartford startup pitches wearable safety device app

PHOTOs | Contributed
PHOTOs | Contributed
The Wearsafe device is slightly bigger than a quarter and waterproof to make it consumer friendly.

From high-tech glasses to smartwatches, wearable technology has become big business. Swedish consultant SNS Research estimates wearable devices will help wireless carriers alone drive more than $71 billion in additional service revenue by the end of 2020, as developers build applications that track everything from health and fitness to messaging and socialization.

But one Hartford startup, Wearsafe Labs, is working to create a wearable device with a more important function: personal safety.

The company is the brainchild of founders David Benoit and Phill Giancarlo, who saw an opportunity to leverage mobile technology for a higher purpose.

"The technology devices [like smartphones] have become such an integral part of our lives," Benoit said. "We wanted to create a product that could help turn your phone into a lifeline even if you can't get to it."

Their solution — the Wearsafe Tag — is a low-energy, bluetooth device capable of connecting remotely through an app, from up to 165 feet away, to a user's mobile phone to send alerts to their selected network of contacts. The tag itself — slightly bigger than a quarter and waterproof — is designed to fit neatly in a pocket or affix inconspicuously to clothing.

The company has attracted a strong contingent of advisors, including a former member of U.S. Secret Service, Rich Starpoli, who sees the importance of wearable safety technology.

"This product can prevent the unthinkable from happening," Starpoli said.

Giancarlo said there are broad potential target markets for his company's product — from corporations to senior citizens — but he sees a sweet spot with college women. The company cited research showing nearly one in five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or abduction during a four-year course of study.

College women were an essential part of the testing phase of the Wearsafe product, which has been in development for the past three and a half years.

"We gave a functional early prototype to 25 female students at Trinity College and asked them to use it for four weeks," Giancarlo said. "Not only did they report that they got comfortable carrying it, but more importantly, they felt safer with it."

That's because in addition to sending alert messages to a person's network of contacts, the Wearsafe tag uses a smartphone's GPS function to note the location of the user and audio around them, which is sent — in 60 second increments — to the network of contacts that the user registers through the Wearsafe app.

"A user can set up multiple networks," Benoit said. "If they go to school in Boston, for instance, they could use their network there, or if they're home in Connecticut, they may want a different network."

In the event of an emergency, Benoit said, proximity is important.

And in the case of a startup, so is money. To date, the company has attracted nearly $1 million from nearly 15 angel investors, Benoit said. Those funds have been used in large part for design, testing and manufacturing of nearly 10,000 units of the Wearsafe Tag that the company expects to launch for sale later this summer.

A July crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign is planned to raise additional capital and promote the product, which reflects a growing trend in the wearable technology space. In fact, SNS Research estimates the investors will pour more than $1 billion into wearable technology startups in 2015.

Those numbers don't surprise Giancarlo, who understands how big the market opportunity is for companies like his.

According to projections by Statista, one of the world's largest statistics portals, more than two-thirds of the population in North America is projected to be using smartphones by 2018.

That's good news for tech startups like Wearsafe, said Giancarlo, because — as his company pitches its products to would-be institutions like colleges and corporations — consumers in large numbers already own the most expensive component of the system: the smartphone, which often retails for hundreds of dollars.

By comparison, the Wearsafe Tag is expected to cost a fraction of that with a nominal monthly subscription fee available at individual and family pricing.

"It comes out to between 10-20 cents a day to afford our safety technology," Giancarlo said.

While both founders know it'll take time before their company generates revenue, they are bullish on its future.

While their social media and crowdsourcing campaigns will be national in scope, Giancarlo said their immediate sales focus will be the college-dense New England region. He said within five years, his company projects to have more than 1 million users.

"Our expectation is to generate between $50 million to $100 million in revenue by year five, derived from the sale of our service, various products, and licensing our technology platform to third parties," Giancarlo said.

For both founders, it's not simply about sales and revenue.

"It's very emotional for us," Giancarlo said, "because our product has redeeming social value."

Both he and Benoit are hoping that consumers flocking to wearable technologies as fashion accessories will also see the value in their safety too.

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