The robbery inspired the two mechanical engineering students to address the problem of people being without a lifeline in the event that they've been mugged or attacked. Deppen, 30, who received his PhD last year, and Ismail, 26, who's still pursuing her doctorate, began collaborating on ways to improve campus safety, and just last month they celebrated the one-year anniversary of their hardware start-up, Servabo (Latin for "I will keep," as in "protect"), which is trying to prototype, perfect, and bring a new personal-safety device to campuses across the country.
Deppen and Ismail began by spit-balling ideas in a local restaurant after their friend was robbed. Initial concepts, such as a next-generation pepper spray that caused skin rashes, quickly fell by the wayside as they began the process of surveying hundreds of students across campus. What they discovered is that their classmates just wanted an easier way to call for help.
"Our tendency as engineers was to go to overly elaborate solutions," says Deppen. "That's what you find out when you talk to consumers.”
Eventually, the solution evolved into Shadow, a small, covert piece of hardware small enough to fit in your palm or on your key chain. When pressed, the one-click device delivers a subtle buzz—no lights or sound, as not to alert your attacker—and activates a companion app on your smartphone via Bluetooth, which then sends a customized emergency message to friends, family, or police, along with your location.
Last April the cofounders entered their device in the Cozad New Venture Competition, a university start-up challenge, and won the Most Fundable award and accompanying $25,000 prize. That seed money has helped propel them towards their ultimate goal, selling the technology to universities, including their own. Deppen mentioned competitors such as Zomm, as well as products geared toward an elderly market, but they think Servabo's focus on campus safety sets them apart.
"We really care about the cause," says Ismail. "We care about being champions of campus safety and fighting violence against women."
Now working out of the EnterpriseWorks incubator in Champaign's Research Park, Deppen and Ismail believe they can fine-tune the technology enough to sell the devices for $30 a piece on a large scale starting in the first quarter of 2015. Currently, they're working on finalizing the design and are engaged in a pilot program with campus police. They've spent months soliciting feedback from campus safety officials to help refine the device. They even started the "Snapshots of Safety" video series, short stories meant to personalize the issue of campus security and the problems Servabo and Shadow can hopefully help solve.
"In an ideal world, we'd hope you wouldn't need this device," says Ismail. "In an ideal world, that's the goal."