Wearsafe Labs Inc. co-founders Phill Giancarlo and David Benoit have strong ties to entrepreneurship and innovation. They developed their startup based on an idea to use wearable technology as a safety device and the need to create a socially responsible company. Innovation Destination: Hartford learned about the ways the Hartford-based technology startup is working to revolutionize mobile and wearable safety products.
IDH: Tell us a little about your background—did you always have an entrepreneurial drive?
GIANCARLO: From a young age, I have always tinkered and actively dreamt up ideas for new inventions and products. I always sought out innovative work and led successful startup operations prior to co-founding Wearsafe.
I am a University of Connecticut alumnus with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering. I have an extensive background in consulting and served for nearly 10 years as Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for the Hartford’s Investment Management Company (HIMCO). I also have more than 20 years of experience developing mobile applications, designing public safety products and managing complex information technology platforms and support organizations.
BENOIT: I am an intellectual property attorney who has always focused on technology-related transactions and representing technology-focused clients. While not a computer science major, I always was drawn to the dependence on technology by companies large and small and enjoyed playing a role in negotiating how that technology would be used and supported. Having handled extremely complex and large technology deals for some of the largest companies, I really enjoyed representing smaller technology early-stage clients because of the larger role that I often played in their organizations.
GIANCARLO: While we have a strong technology background, ultimately the problems that are solved by technology are for the benefit of people. Because of this, we bring with us a passion for making products that will make a difference in people’s lives.
IDH: How did you develop the business concept for Wearsafe Labs?
GIANCARLO: Dave and I had spent a good portion of our careers in the corporate world. While we learned a lot and accomplished many great things, we found that we were missing the entrepreneurial environments that we had experienced in the past. We also felt a strong need to do something that mattered. Whatever we were going to do together, we wanted it to have socially redeeming value.
The specific idea for Wearsafe was born out of many tragic events that had happened in Connecticut, including the Cheshire home invasion. Dave and a group of friends and former colleagues were discussing how technology could be used to make something that everyone already had even better—a smartphone.
The group envisioned that there had to be a way to allow people to request aid using their smartphone even if it wasn’t in their hands, including if it had been taken away them. From this idea, the Wearsafe concept was born, and I quickly became involved.
We then began working to take Wearsafe from concept to reality. We created a set of objectives to create an easy-to-use and highly reliable product that could be used by virtually anyone in an emergency situation. From there we began in-depth work with the university accelerator programs from the University of Connecticut, Trinity College and the University of Hartford.
IDH: What role did the accelerator programs play in your business development?
BENOIT: We started with an idea that has very broad applicability to many diverse markets and we needed to focus on the most viable initial markets, what it would take from a resource and capital standpoint to enter those markets, and what the minimum viable product needed to be.
The early research identified a very strong need and opportunities in two initial markets: the institutional college and university market (comprised of 18 to 24 year olds) and the active lifestyle consumer market (e.g., active exercisers and competitive sports enthusiasts).
The accelerator programs were instrumental in providing us in-depth consumer and student access. The programs conducted extensive research, interviews and surveys helping us understand consumer needs, expectations and biases. These were used along with the input of several classes of students who worked with us over a year and a half to refine our design and market approach.
We know that personal safety is only going to work if it can be used daily. Wearsafe needed to ensure that people would use the product and wear the Tag, so we were able to work with students—who are also a large component of the active market as well. We knew that if we were able to provide them with what they asked for as well as what our research has shown is the most effective solution, then Wearsafe would be a better product.
To a large extent, this is a product that has been designed by student for use by students. We could not be happier with the outcome and are extremely grateful to UConn, Trinity College and the University of Hartford for their continuing support of Connecticut-based entrepreneurs and their forward-thinking approach to partnering with early-stage companies to solve complex problems.
IDH: In August 2015, Wearsafe Labs successfully completed its Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $100,000. How does the company plan to use those funds?
BENOIT: Kickstarter is great for bringing in early adopters that are critical for a new product to succeed. These adopters help to spread the word and provide some really great feedback on initial product launches, so we knew we wanted to be a part of that.
In addition to distributing products to these folks, the money is enabling us to start up mass production and place orders for even more units. Our mission is to positively impact 10 million lives in the next 10 years. The more Wearsafe users we have, the closer we are to that goal. Kickstarter has been a wonderful way for us to get a jumpstart with users.
We’re also using the proceeds to hire additional staff to help create new version of the product and support our users.
IDH: Explain how the Wearsafe Tag works.
GIANCARLO: Wearsafe is about getting help fast without requiring the user to have to fumble with their smartphone during an emergency. No advanced planning or preparation is required other than wearing the Tag. Wearsafe enables anyone who can press a button to call for aid instantly and discreetly, allowing them to focus on their situation and not their phone. Because there’s no preparation, the Wearsafe Tag empowers users to safely and confidently embrace all of life’s adventures.
The Tag is a Bluetooth Low Energy device that runs for up to six months on an inexpensive coin cell battery. Unlike software-only apps that require the user to directly interact with their phone, the Wearsafe Tag can be up to 200’ from a user’s phone and still be able to request aid.
The Tag is paired with the Wearsafe app, and with a discreet press of a button, will send trusted family and friends an alert that includes streaming audio and updated GPS locations, and connect them through a private chat so they can provide informed and appropriate help. If additional assistance is needed, contacts can dial 911 directly from the Wearsafe app and share critical information.
Plus, the sender’s Tag vibrates when the alert is sent and each time someone in their network views their alert, so the user is getting discreet feedback that friends are already responding to their situation.
IDH: Why send an alert to friends and family first instead of calling 911 or Campus Safety?
BENOIT: Research has shown that most people will wait until a situation has escalated to a critical point before calling emergency responders, but if they know they are calling a trusted friend or family member first, they will ask for help earlier. This allows network members to react sooner, with access to critical information, and possibly prevent a bad situation all together.
If campus safety or emergency responders need to be contacted, those receiving the alert can quickly convey information to first responders.
In addition, we’ve created an easy way for any dispatch operator or first responder to quickly gain access to all of the critical information created by an active alert simply by accessing a secure portal through any desktop or mobile browser—there’s no need for them to even have the Wearsafe app on their phone.
IDH: Where do you see your company in the next three to five years?
BENOIT: We believe that within three years, we’ll be a major presence on college campuses helping to significantly stem the tide of sexual assaults and violence in these institutions.
We will also be launching other new products over the next several years. We are currently finalizing patent applications for these products so we cannot disclose them at this point.
In addition to our own patent-pending activating devices, we’ll be enabling other devices including smartwatches (Pebble, Apple, Garmin, Androidware, etc.) Our approach is to create a personal safety platform that supports a range of proprietary and third-party devices our users can use as their method of calling for aid.
Within five years we envision empowering many of these other third-party products and uplifting them and their brands with intelligent personal safety capabilities.
The Wearsafe platform has the potential to quickly become a lifestyle choice for almost all demographics all over the world. From young children to older adults, anyone with a smartphone who can press a button can be connected in an instant.
IDH: What is the best thing about living/working in the Greater Hartford region?
GIANCARLO: Working in Hartford is a great choice for a startup. Commercial real estate is affordable, the talent is great and we’re perfectly positioned to commute to other major cities like New York and Boston. There are a lot more resources and tools available here for startups and small businesses than ever before.
IDH: Any advice for entrepreneurs or startup business owners?
BENOIT: While everything starts with a great idea, you can only move forward and succeed when you build a great team. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort putting together an amazing and talented team, and we continue to focus on this as we grow.
We also can’t stress enough to continually test and refine your ideas and strategies. This has been invaluable for us and we continue to do this as often as we can. It’s never as simple as “build it and they will come.” You have to know what people need, what they will accept and what will turn them off to be able to succeed, and the only way to do this is to test.
Be prepared to work hard. Really, really hard. Each day you tackle some new challenge. But because it’s your own, and everyone is passionate about it, you don’t mind the hard work and long hours. When you get to work on something you love, the rewards come in small and large doses, in all different ways. And if your passion also helps other people live safer lives, well, then you’ve hit the jackpot.
Finally, have fun! Entrepreneurship is a journey, and if you do not love it then you need to take another path. If you enjoy what you’re doing then your passion can come through and you’ll feel really great about what you accomplish.