Can Wearable Tech Combat Sexual Assault?
ROAR is a startup that’s building a wearable device designed to deter attackers and notify loved ones.
Yasmine Mustafa knew things were out of control when somebody was abducted outside her Philadelphia apartment and raped. This wasn’t a bad part of town, either: The self-described serial entrepreneur lived in a pricey, well-lit part of downtown Philly.
At the time, her nerves were raw. She had just returned from a months-long, solo trip across South America, during which she was repeatedly warned of the risks of a thirtysomething woman traveling alone—and there were plenty of disturbing stories to illustrate the point.
“What is happening in this world?” she asked herself after her neighbor was assaulted. Surely, she figured, there was a way to use technology to chip away at the alarmingly high rate of assaults against women.
“Every two minutes, a woman is attacked in America,” says Mustafa. “What can I do?”
To tackle the problem, Mustafa did what she knows best: She started a company. Together with cofounder Anthony Gold, Mustafa launched ROAR For Good, a startup focused on empowering women. After a few iterations, they settled on their first product: Athena, a wearable fashion accessory that doubles as a sort of high-tech rape whistle. When its wearer senses danger, they can hold down a button on the device for three seconds to activate a loud alarm and flashing lights. ROAR then pairs with its smartphone app to alert local authorities and pre-designated loved ones that something is up and shares the victim’s location with those people.
“We found that women don’t like the self-defense tools that are out there,” says Mustafa. “They’re too hard to use. They’re afraid they’ll use them against themselves. They don’t want to be in hand-to-hand combat in the first place.”
Common self-defense mechanisms like pepper spray and Tasers also have one glaring user experience problem: You need to pull them out of your pocket or purse, something that’s not always convenient in the heat of a tense, unexpected encounter. “We thought, what if we could make them wearable?”
ROAR’s functionality isn’t limited to the moment trouble occurs. The product’s app will attempt to be preventative as well, thanks to a little bit of crowdsourced intelligence. Users can report trouble spots—say, a street corner known to be prone to catcalls, or a dangerously underlit side street—so the app can warn other users of trouble ahead. Mustafa likens this feature to “Waze for safety,” referring to the Google-owned traffic app that uses crowdsourced intelligence to flag trouble spots.
Mustafa and Gold aren’t the first to think about using the wearable tech craze and the ubiquity of smart devices to do something about sexual assault. Safelet and Revolar are both wearable personal alarms that, like ROAR’s Athena, broadcast the user’s location to the appropriate partners at the touch of a button. In May, Revolar yielded over $83,000 on Kickstarter. Both products use Bluetooth to connect to the user’s phone, where an app powers much of the back-end functionality. Although similar to Safelet and Revolar as a personal alarm system, Athena hopes to set itself apart by acting as a preventative tool as well, both through the Waze-like crowdsourcing and through educational efforts.
Curtailing sexual violence is a pretty ambitious and high-minded goal, and Mustafa and Gold know this. Instead of relying on hardware and software alone, ROAR will also donate some of it profits to charities dedicated to tackling sexual assault through education.
“We don’t want to just put a band-aid on the problem of violence against women,” says Gold. “We want to get to the root causes. And by partnering with organizations that are focused on teaching young boys—and girls—about empathy, respect, and consent, we know the positive change can result.”
It’s still very early in the game for ROAR. The company just completed a three-month program at the DreamIt Ventures incubator and is now looking for additional funding. Later this summer, Mustafa says the company plans on launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise not just capital, but awareness. So far, the project has gained a significant amount of attention in the local tech press and some feminist circles, solely through word of mouth. They’re putting off hiring public relations help for some time (the cost is often not worth it for cash-strapped, early stage startups), so Mustafa and her team are hoping that a crowdfunding campaign will generate more buzz—ideally, enough to rake in enough cash to expedite the production of the device, which they aim to ship later this year.
“We’ll know we’re successful when there is no longer a need for the products we’re building,” says Mustafa. “Nothing would bring us more joy than to see that [become] a reality. We wish the stats of attacks against women weren’t as horrific as they are. Our goal is to change that reality.”