Harvard Business School student Michael Martin (photo 1) explains the grand prize winner RapidSOS to onlookers. President Drew Faust and i-lab Managing Director Gordon Jones discuss a project called Porter’s Referral Center with Upasaha Khadka from Harvard Kennedy School (photo 2). Alok Tayi, a postdoctoral fellow in chemical biology, explains TetraScience, which develops an Internet-of-Things platform for drug discovery.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Smart response

5 min read

Innovation for emergency calls wins President’s Challenge

When Michael Martin’s father slipped while clearing snow and fell from the roof of the family’s home, he lay on the ground for two hours with a shattered hip and broken wrist, trying the whole time to call 911 from his cell phone.

“He couldn’t get through,” recalled his son. The younger Martin, now completing his M.B.A. studies at Harvard Business School (HBS), was inspired by the incident to help start a venture that aims to revolutionize the way 911 calls are placed and received.

RapidSOS won the $70,000 grand prize in the fourth President’s Challenge at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) on Thursday, 24 hours removed from capturing the $50,000 grand prize in the HBS New Venture Competition.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Martin, CEO of RapidSOS, which beat out nine other finalists at the President’s Challenge Demo Day. “The Harvard community has been standing by us. I must have bothered nearly every professor at HBS on this idea, and all of them have generously donated their advice and their time. We’re overwhelmed by the generosity.”

The flagship competition at the i-lab, the President’s Challenge invites participants to create entrepreneurial solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The RapidSOS team — Martin, Alex Santana, and Julia Cohen, all of HBS, and Nick Horelik of MIT — set out to improve an emergency system they said fails for millions of people every year. Sixty percent of mobile 911 calls can’t be located by the current system, which is based on a 1960s copper-wire infrastructure, Martin said.

“We are a way to push a button on your phone or connected device and transmit all your data directly to first responders,” he said. The technology will work in 137 countries across the globe, he said.

On top of the awards from the President’s Challenge and the New Venture Competition, RapidSOS just closed a Kickstarter Campaign in which nearly 700 people gave $60,000 to beta test the product. “We’re off to the races,” Martin said. “We’ll be fully launched at the end of the summer.”

Santana, among the first generation in his family to go to college, came to HBS “really wanting to work on something important. It’s very, very satisfying to see that the community agrees with what we’re doing.”

With the venture having pulled in nearly $200,000 in two weeks, Santana added: “Honestly, I’m still waiting for someone to wake me up.”

Three runners-up in the President’s Challenge were awarded $10,000 apiece toward their startups.

Rumi Spice seeks to cultivate peace in Afghanistan through sustainable market-driven economic development in Afghan saffron. Its team members are Benjamin Bines, Emily Miller, and Kimberly Jung, all of HBS, Carol Wang, who earned her J.D. from Harvard Law School, Keith Alaniz, and Christopher Counts.

Safire works with farmers to make clean cooking fuel from organic waste. The team consists of Aura Castillo, Francisco Mejia of the Harvard Kennedy School, Kevin Kung, and Tom Osborn.

TetraScience is developing an Internet-of-Things platform for drug discovery. Its team comprises Alok Tayi of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Peng Wei, Salvatore Savo, and Siping Wang.

Five members of the Rumi Spice group served in the military in Afghanistan. The team hopes to boost the market for saffron, a spice used in paella, risotto, and rice pilaf dishes as well as many Indian desserts, to benefit Afghan farmers who might otherwise grow poppies for the opium trade.

“Saffron gives farmers up to six times more income than growing poppy for opium,” said the startup’s CEO, Jung, a former Army captain who is currently completing her M.B.A. studies at HBS.

“Farmers make up 80 percent of the population in Afghanistan. Think about this from a global security perspective. To us, especially, as military service people who all have been deployed in Afghanistan, this is huge.”

Her fellow veterans in the group include Bines, who served as a Navy fighter pilot, and Miller, a former Army captain.

Nearly 300 hundred students across Harvard took part in the President’s Challenge.

“The i-lab has come to embody so many of the aspirations that we have for Harvard,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “It’s a place where thinkers and doers connect, a place where ideas transcend disciplines and fields, where people meet across the boundaries of schools, where meeting kindles deeper understanding that in turn leads to another answer or maybe another question.”

Faust encouraged a round of applause for Gordon Jones, the i-lab’s outgoing Evans Family Foundation Managing Director, who will depart to become dean of Boise State University’s new College of Innovation and Design.

“You have infused this building with an enormous amount of energy,” Faust told Jones. “You have made it so much more than a building. You have made it a model for all of us as we think about entrepreneurship and innovation and what they can be within this university.”