Women safety is the only priority of this biotech startup
Jyoti Singh was a 23-year-old medical student when she was gang raped on a bus in India in 2012 before dying from her injuries, igniting an international firestorm about crimes against women.
Four attackers received the death penalty and the Indian government created fast track courts to hear rape cases. Like many others, India native Poorvi Mathur was left distraught by the story.
“It shook a lot of us in India,” said Ms. Mathur. “I wanted to do something about it.”
What the former Monroeville mother of two young daughters eventually did was help form a biotech startup company that is designing a device intended to make women safer. Ms. Mathur has since moved back to India with her family, while the family weighs plans for a return to the U.S., but the company’s three co-founders all have Pittsburgh-area ties, even though they don’t yet have a corporate office and use borrowed lab space in Oakland to test their hardware.
The early stage company — Hera Global Tech Inc. — takes its name from the wife of Zeus, queen of the ancient Greek gods. It was formed in 2017 and is funded, for now, by family and friends. The total investment so far was not disclosed.
But Hera Global has big funding plans for its formal launch: the company is a finalist in the Anu and Naveen Jain Women’s Safety Xprize, which is sponsored by the Culver City, Calif.-based Xprize Foundation. The winner, which will be announced in June, gets $1 million.
In the meantime, the company is scrambling to develop a wearable, waterproof device — about the size of a matchbook — that can detect danger and alert emergency contacts. The idea is to measure heart rate and other metrics that indicate apprehension, signaling danger.
The device could be worn by anyone, including firefighters and first responders, but women will be the company’s first target market.
Under one of the contest rules, the device can cost no more than $40, which the co-founders believe is achievable.
“I’m not nervous about it,” said Elizabeth LaRue, 46, a Hera Global co-founder and West Virginia native who received a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in library science and has years of experience teaching health informatics. “We’re making good steady progress.”
Ms. Mathur, 37, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, said the device will have global positioning system capability and could be worn on any part of the body. A piece of jewelry or cell phone with the same capability was ruled out because it was too easily removed or lost.
Ms. Mathur first tried out the idea of a wearable biometric stamp with a team of others at a startup event in 2015. Shortly after that, Ms. Mathur met Ms. LaRue through a friend.
Ms. LaRue had developed software that uses a cell phone app to alert emergency contacts when a person with a history of depression begins experiencing early symptoms. It wasn’t long into their first meeting, Ms. LaRue said, when they each had the same insight.
“Hey, this kind of works together,” Ms. LaRue remembers thinking.
Brady Sheehan, 23, a native of Windber in Somerset County, was referred to the two women by a Duquesne University professor, who thought they could use his expertise in machine learning. Mr. Sheehan, a Duquesne graduate with a degree in math and computer science, became a Hera Global co-founder.
“We’re going to help people,” Mr. Sheehan said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Ms. Mathur, who worked as a freelance costume designer at the Children’s Museum, said fashion design and a biotech startup is really not that much of a stretch.
“For good design to be good, it has to make sense to the context,” she said. “I believe this product can be used globally. We’re in an interesting space.”
Design issues are still being worked out, but one possibility is a sticky membrane device when watch and jewelry devices dominate the market.
The company faces plenty of challenges, including assuring the reliability of the device and financing for the business. The device will have an accelerometer, which can detect sudden positional changes in the wearer because of a fall or being struck, and data collection continues to mitigate the risk of alerts that are not true emergencies.
The company is entering a market that is heating up, according to a survey last year by International Data Corp., a market advisory company based in Framingham, Mass. Shipments of wearable devices were expected to increase 20.4 percent in 2017 to 125.5 million devices, compared to 104.3 million units in 2016.
Watches, wristbands and ear wear were among the most popular products shipped, IDC said, and women’s security devices were growing in popularity, according to IDC Research Manager Ramon T. Llamas.
“Is the growth still there, absolutely,” Mr. Llamas said. “I’d like to say women safety has come to the forefront in the wearables market.”
Source & Credit @ PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE.