HBS is an incubator of ideas. Students come to campus for two years to collaborate, innovate, and dream big. There are many entrepreneurial opportunities and resources available for budding startups and young entrepreneurs – and one highlight is the annual HBS New Venture Competition.
Students interested in participating in the contest can pursue one of two tracks: the “Business Track” for ventures with economic returns or the “Social Enterprise Track” for ventures that drive social change.
Teams choosing to pursue the Business Track have a few important steps they need to take before the contest, which you can see here. After doing the initial legwork, teams pitch their plans on Super Saturday and each team is evaluated by 5-6 expert judges - a mix of entrepreneurs, operators, and investors. Ten semi-finalists are chosen to compete in the next round, and the competition culminates with a live finale in which a winner and runner up (as well as crowd favorite) are selected. The winner receives $50,000 in cash prizes and the runner up receives $25,000 – and both receive significant in-kind legal service prizes.
This year’s winning team was RapidSOS – a startup that has reinvented how we reach first responders in an emergency. We checked in with RapidSOS’s CEO and Co-Founder Michael Martin (MBA 2015) to learn more about RapidSOS and his experience with the New Venture Competition this year. Here’s what he had to say.
Over a foot of wet snow had fallen when my father climbed up the ladder to clear the roof. My father remembers it as a blur, but in an instant he was lying in the driveway with the excruciating pain of a shattered hip and broken wrist.
Surrounded by only the snow piles of our rural Indiana home, my father painfully tried calling 911—but the call failed. For nearly two hours my father lay on the frozen driveway, his body temperature dropping while trying to reach first responders. Yet due to weakness of cell phone reception, it wasn’t until my mother came home from work to find him motionless in the driveway that she was able to call 911 from a landline phone.
911 was originally developed in the 1960s. The New York Times previously noted, as the system ages, “it is cracking, with problems like system overload, understaffing, misrouted calls and bug-ridden databases leading to unanswered calls and dangerous errors.”
A recent multi-state 911 outage left 11 million Americans across seven states without 911 service. Over 6,600 calls were lost including those from Alicia Cappola, a young mother who tried calling 37 timesbefore giving up and grabbing a knife to force out an intruder.
Despite all the ways that technology has transformed our lives over the last 50 years, when we need technology most we are trapped using this dated infrastructure. The result is that though applications like Uber allow you to call a car to your precise location – reaching first responders requires dialing a number and having a detailed conversation where you articulate your precise location and type of emergency. Recent investigations by NBC News and USA Today found that 60% of mobile 911 calls can’t be accurately located. A 2013 study cited by the FCC estimates that over 10,000 lives could be saved annually if we could more accurately determine a caller’s location in an emergency.
After an early career spent helping to commercialize new technologies, I entered HBS committed to finding a better way to utilize all of the technologies that we carry in our pockets to assist emergency response. I could not have known how much this institution would shape and assist that goal and mission.
Over my two years at HBS, I spent countless time with faculty and staff refining the technology and business model. Professors like Chet Huber, the former CEO of OnStar, helped us think about our go-to-market strategy while the Harvard Innovation Lab and Rock Center for Entrepreneurship taught us how to build and organize an agile development team. Meanwhile, we reached out to countless alumni in the technology and telecom space. Again and again, we were blown away by the generosity of the HBS community, as people donated hours to advise and mentor us.
With the help of over a hundred 911 dispatch centers, we developed RapidSOS One-Touch-911, a mobile application that with one-touch transmits data off of your device (including your precise location, type of emergency, contact information, and medical/demographic data) directly into 911’s existing system. The technology is universally compatible with every dispatch center across the United States. The result is a system that dramatically increases the information available to dispatchers, accelerating response times, and saving lives.
The technology will ultimately work in over 135 countries globally – putting first responders one touch away regardless of where you travel and what language you speak. For the 60 million Americans that are non-native English speakers or the 8 million Americans that are hard of hearing – this technology dramatically increases access to emergency services.
RapidSOS One-Touch-911 links to physical panic buttons, smart watches, and other wearables. We are currently working with a developer on a sexual assault prevention ring that can be used to trigger an alert. Simultaneously, the app notifies loved ones – so that your friends and family are always connected in emergencies.
The company has won most major start-up competitions across the United States, but the culmination of our HBS experience was winning the HBS New Venture Competition and Harvard President’s Challenge. We had worked closely with HBS’ expert entrepreneurs-in-residence to refine our business and technology – two years of collaboration and mentorship culminated in six days where we brought in over $200k in funding from the HBS New Venture Competition, Harvard President’s Challenge, and closing our Kickstarter campaign (bringing our total competition winnings to close to $500k).
As I graduate, RapidSOS is a 17-member team with partnerships globally to bring emergency communication to the 21st Century. It’s been an incredible two years, and I can’t help but look back on it all with humility and wonder at how far our team has come and how much our idea was nurtured and evolved during the course of my time at HBS.
Join the movement to #Revive911!
See Michael's winning pitch here.