Companion App Allows Users to Keep a Digital Eye on Loved Ones

It took the University of Montana until 1994 to hire its first female campus safety escorts—a fact I know to be true because I was one of those escorts, along with my friend Taska.

In those pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days, we circled campus once the sun went down armed with reflective vests and brick-like walkie-talkies, waiting for university police dispatchers to radio us with our next assignment. The mostly female students who requested the services of campus escorts usually did so because they didn’t want to walk alone at night.

What a difference 22 years and a host of new technologies makes. These days, a University of Michigan student startup is attempting to modernize the process of safely getting home alone by developing a peer-to-peer app called Companion, which allows users to connect with family, friends, or public safety officials to keep an eye on them virtually as they walk home.

Companion co-founder Lexie Ernst said after a stint last year in U-M’s Desai Accelerator, Companion is now looking for different ways to partner with universities, organizations, and cities to deliver data about where users are feeling particularly unsafe.

Before heading out, Companion users plug in their destination data and choose people from their contact list to add as companions. (The companions are not required to download the app.) Then, with just a few taps, users can let their companions know they’re ok, feel like danger is imminent, or to immediately call the police. There’s a feature called Smart Trigger, where users can tell the app to check in on them after a certain amount of time. If the user doesn’t respond to the check-in prompt, the app automatically alerts companions.

Ernst said she and her co-founders created the app after realizing other options for getting home safely could be problematic. Many college students don’t have cars. Calling a service meant to reduce drunk driving proved to be inconvenient. And the buses were hit or miss. Most often, she would end up texting a friend that she was heading home and request a check-in in 10 minutes, or she’d plan to have a phone conversation that would last for the entirety of the trip home, but that felt like a reactive way to go about it. Ernst thought there had to be a better way.

Once the Companion team started doing customer acquisition research, the company realized that people didn’t want a solution to the problem that involved jumping through lots of hoops, so the idea of an app where users only had to enter their destination information was born. Companion, Ernst said, is automated, predictive, and it works in real time, freeing users to pay attention to their surroundings.

Ernst said Companion, which is a free app, now has approximately 1.2 million users in 194 countries. In addition to earning a spot in the Desai Accelerator, Companion won best business in U-M’s Michigan Business Challenge competition and $25,000 in prizes in 2015. The five-person company is in the midst of raising funds to support its growth plans, which include making custom app dashboards for universities that will better inform school officials where students perceive danger to be lurking. (The University of Michigan is set to get the first custom Companion app.) Once Companion perfects U-M’s app, it will offer customization to other universities for a fee.

“Right now, we’re trying to hammer down customer retention and making the best product possible,” Ernst said. “After that, we’ll focus on how to monetize.”

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