March 20, 2012 — The best protections against crime, universities generally advise their students, are to avoid walking alone at night, to look out for each other and to be aware of one's surroundings.
What if a mobile phone app could help students do all that and more, harnessing GPS technology and friend networks, as well as real-time data, to optimize the effectiveness of safe-ride programs, campus police patrol routes and emergency responses?
That's the vision of two University of Virginia students, who last week won a student startup competition at the South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, beating out four other finalist teams from around the country.
SXSW has become well known to entrepreneurs and investors as one of the places to spot early-stage technology ideas and businesses, especially in interactive media. Twitter and Foursquare are among the industry-shaking startups that got some of their earliest visibility and buzz – not to mention investors – at SXSW.
The two U.Va. students, Ashutosh Priyadarshy and Duylam Nguyen-Ngo, and their WalkBack app may not be the next Twitter, but they do believe the app can make a real difference.
"I think WalkBack is going to give students an unprecedented ability to look after each other and build a community of safety," Priyadarshy said.
The competition judges apparently agreed, awarding WalkBack the top prize at the "Student Startup Madness" kickoff pitchfest.
"The WalkBack app got the attention of the judges because it solved a growing problem on many college campuses," said Sean Branagan, director of the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and founder of the Student Startup Madness competition.
The kickoff pitchfest at SXSW launches the 2012-13 Student Startup Madness nationwide tournament, followed by regional events at host universities across the country and culminating in the national finals at the SXSW Interactive in March 2013.
The five-member panel of successful technology entrepreneurs judged the business merit and investment opportunity of the students' ideas, based on the strength of the idea, the strength of the team, market size and market traction, Branagan said.
WalkBack empowers students to improve their safety by "digitally walking each other home," explained Priyadarshy, a fourth-year electrical engineering major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
By physically bumping mobile phones together, WalkBack users can create an ad hoc friend network in which each friend can check on the others' safety status and location, and be notified automatically when they arrive safely home. Making this process as easy as simply bumping phones together is key, Priyadarshy said, so that students can do so as part of simply saying goodbye.
WalkBack also gives students fast access to emergency resources and provides valuable real-time data to campus police and administrators, enabling better emergency responses. The app will be sold directly to colleges, which will determine how best to use WalkBack data to optimize campus safety and emergency resources.
Priyadarshy and Nguyen-Ngo, a third-year student studying mechanical engineering, met a year ago at a 24-hour design competition put on by the Engineering School's Technology Entrepreneurship and Design Club. Each has technology and startup experience and skills that proved to be complementary for the WalkBack project.
Nguyen-Ngo spent last summer working on human-centered design at Stanford University's Calming Technology Lab and as a consultant for social networking startup bLife Inc. Priyadarshy has also spent time in Silicon Valley, as a consultant for mobile health startup Zero2One, where he did signal processing and machine learning, he said.
After submitting an executive summary of WalkBack on March 5, the duo were stunned to get word – just four days before the event – that they were among the finalists chosen to present to the judges, setting off an adrenaline-fueled scramble to get to Austin and polish their pitch.
Both returned early from spring break and got help on Saturday from faculty adviser Letitia Green, a managing partner in the Virginia Active Angel Network, who teaches an Engineering School course on entrepreneurship and financing. The students then drove four hours to Baltimore to hop a 6 a.m. Sunday flight, heard "no vacancy" countless times before they found a hotel room in Austin at the eleventh hour, and submitted their finalized PowerPoint presentation 10 minutes before the deadline.
"The whole experience was a head rush," Nguyen-Ngo said.
On Monday morning, they made their 15-minute pitch. "Standing in front of all of those investors, I realized how pivotal that moment could have been," Nguyen-Ngo said.
The WalkBack team won a prize package valued at more than $3,000, including a booth provided by Startup Debut at a technology conference of their choice, such as next year's SXSW or the Consumer Electronics Show.
But the competition's biggest prize is the resulting exposure and networking with experienced technology entrepreneurs and investors who can help the project come to market, Priyadarshy said. Offers of help are already trickling in.
The WalkBack team is aiming for a release this fall on both the iOS and Android platforms.
— By Brevy Cannon