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As the Columbia business community prepares for the new companies and fresh ideas to come during Innovation Week, CBT looked back at five startups who sprouted in our entrepreneurial community. With brilliant skills and a desire to solve problems, these companies helped create our startup ecosystem.

This article was originally published by the Columbia Business Times. Photo by Anthony Jinson.

Safetrek

Founded in: 2013

People to know:  Zach Winkler (pictured), Natalie Cheng, Zach Beattie

Community connections:  Winner of app development competition at the Reynolds Journalism Institute Tech Showcase, MU students

When you open your phone and click on the SafeTrek icon (which is a little cartoon phone, with arms and legs, holding a S-emblazoned shield and running), a little thumb-shaped button comes up on screen. It’s a reassuring dark turquoise color, with instructions posted just above: “Hold Until Safe!”

Once you hold and release the button, a second screen pops up. It’s a keypad with the direction “Enter PIN.” If you enter your PIN, that means you’re safe; if you don’t, then the police are notified and dispatched to your precise location, which the app tracks via GPS.

SafeTrek is an obsessively simple product, founded to be a simple solution to a common problem.

“The ideas came up based on the environment students reside in,” Zach Winkler says. Winkler, now a graduate of MU’s computer science program, built the app as part of the winning team in the 2013 Reynolds Journalism Institute Tech Showcase student competition. He and co-founders Natalie Cheng and Zach Beattie created SafeTrek to bolster public safety on college campuses, improving on the existing system of emergency blue-light telephones scattered across MU’s campus, which cost the school more than $50,000 per year.

“We thought that was ridiculous, because those poles are completely useless,” Winkler says. “When you’re in an emergency, you’re not going to run up to a pole and wait for help to arrive while someone is trying to attack you. It just doesn’t make sense. So we thought that the ‘hold until safe’ triggering mechanism would solve the problem better.”

In the early stages of development, SafeTrek’s design was leaked on social media. The company started getting thousands of emails from people asking when SafeTrek was going to be available in their city — they needed the app.

SafeTrek’s original business model was to partner with police departments, who could use the technology themselves to improve their dispatching system and accrue data on high-crime areas. But it became increasingly clear that SafeTrek’s greater value was on a personal level. Personal safety can be inherently reactive (you can generally only place a 911 call after an emergency has started happening). But SafeTrek is proactive: by pressing the little blue button on their phones, users can feel in control of their own well-being. This psychological comfort has made the app particularly popular with sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, Winkler says.

“We have people contact us, and it’s the same story every time, where people say ‘I’m a sexual assault victim, it’s happened multiple times, I have PTSD from it, and I can’t leave my house. But now that I have SafeTrek on my phone, it’s given me the confidence to actually go outside because I have a way to get help if I need it.’”

The company is working on integrating SafeTrek technology across platforms, with brands like Apple Watch or Tesla. A SafeTrek account currently costs $2.99 per month, which the company uses to staff their 24/7 call centers that monitor SafeTrek users and alert police if someone signals for help. The company hopes to offset some of the cost in the future by using their data to help any entity looking for public safety data, like a university looking to replace those blue emergency poles.

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