Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Quinn Fitzgerald and Sara de Zarraga — the women who run Flare — say that in real life, uncomfortable and even dangerous situations don’t often call for pepper spray. If a woman wants to remove herself from a date, party, or even a threatening situation in the workplace, she’s not going to want to reach into her bag for a repellant.
That’s why Fitzgerald and de Zarraga — who graduate from Harvard Business School this month — began developing a more realistic alternative for safety last year.
Now their company is on its way to producing a technology that can be placed inside of jewelry (or other accessories) so that customers have a way to escape threatening situations and contact people they love. One press of a button on their Flare device signals the user’s phone to ring, as if they’re getting a call. A press and hold of the button sends a message to the user’s contacts of choice.
The duo is in the testing phase, working with engineers to come up with the best designs for the product, and as of April 25, Fitzgerald and de Zarraga have a $75,000 boost. Flare bested more than 50 teams to win the top prize in the social enterprise category of Harvard Business School’s New Venture Competition.
“Business can and should be a source for doing good,” Fitzgerald said.
The Flare partners, both of whom have had experiences with sexual assault, say the prize will help bring in more investor money, which they’ll need to get the devices ready for sale.
At this point, they’ve made prototype bracelets, which look like your average piece of jewelry. On a recent morning in the Harvard Innovation Lab, which has served as their business headquarters while they’ve studied at HBS, de Zarraga pressed a button on one of the bracelets and held up her phone, which was already ringing, the contact on the screen: “Mom.”
De Zarraga noted that not only does the phone call give her a reason to excuse herself in a bad situation, it also sends a message to anyone making her uncomfortable.
“It reminds them that you’re a person,” she said.
At the very least, it gives her a reason to walk away.
The business partners know they’ll have competition; public safety has become an industry, and there are already a list of apps that aim to help people protect themselves. Circle of 6 makes it easy for users to send word to friends and family. Another app, Guardly, calls itself “mobile crisis communication.”
But Fitzgerald said apps aren’t always helpful in an emergency.
“The difference between apps and us is that in a moment where an assault happens, you go from ‘I’m getting this weird vibe’ to ‘I need help very quickly.’ Seconds do really matter,” she said.
Another company, the California-based Nimb would be the closest competition. It’s taking pre-orders for a wearable ring with a panic button that sends word to friends and family. But the Flare owners say its products are best for the way people actually live. It’s hidden inside accessories that people already use.
The other hope with Flare, the business partners say, is that once it’s on the market, it can be a source of data for customers. The company will be able to track whether signals are set off in similar places — maybe even on one specific street corner or campus. (Fitzgerald and de Zarraga say that users would be given the choice to opt-in for data, and that the devices would only track the location of signals, not the whereabouts of users.)
Jodi Gernon, director of HBS’s Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, said the pair’s challenge will be finding the right investors, who might not be the typical venture capitalist.
“They’re probably going to have to go a different way,” she said. “This is just a typical product that many VCs may not understand — unless they have daughters.”
Gernon said investors can also be reluctant to support “wearables,” but she said she sees Flare as having the potential of Spanx, a product that took over a market.
“If they get the right market, it has the potential to be a very large business,” she said.
Gernon said the team’s commitment and rapport should help attract the right support. She notes that venture capitalist Arthur Rock (for whom the Rock Center was named) always considered the makeup of a team as much as the business.
“They’re determined,” she said of the Flare owners. “They’re passionate about what they’re doing, and they have been working nonstop to bring this product to fruition.”
Fitzgerald and de Zarraga say the prize is a big step.
“Investors see this as a huge vote of confidence,” Fitzgerald said, of the New Venture win. “It’s a great sign of the passion that we bring to this issue, and the deep thought that we put into how we tackle the problem.”
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