While at Cal Poly, students Maxwell Fong and Elan Timmons heard — for the first time — a statistic women know well: 1 in 4 will be sexually assaulted during their college career, according to the Association of American Universities.
In the era of #MeToo, this may not seem surprising; stories of assault and harassment not only at the college level, but at most every point in a woman’s life, have flooded social media and news outlets.
But for Fong and Timmons, back in 2016 was the first time they had realized the prevalence and fear of sexual assault among their female peers.
“That seemed too high to us,” Fong said of the one in four statistic. “Pretty quickly we kinda just learned, surprisingly, that every female college student we talked to had felt unsafe walking home alone at night, but we also learned that every guy we talked to just had no idea that this was a problem for half of the people in their lives — including ourselves.”
Now the two, both graduates, are working on an app called Ulzi that they hope will eventually put an end to sexual assaults all together.
From stories to safety
Soon after hearing the cataclysmic statistic, Fong and Timmons founded Current Solutions, an online platform for people to share their stories of assault.
“When we first started, sexual assault and even campus safety was not an issue as widely spoken about as it is now,” Fong said. “When we started, it was still an issue that was largely ignored, swept under the rug and suppressed. And people were not comfortable coming out with their stories.”
The first published account was from a fellow student and friend named Nicole. The morning after her story was posted, they awoke to three emails from women who were inspired to share their own stories.
“At that point, we knew we had struck a nerve,” Fong said.
It snowballed from there. More and more people continued to send in their individual experiences; add in some hefty coverage at major news outlets like The New York Times, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, and soon the group was swimming in emails — hundreds per day.
“We kind of just were feeling overwhelmed,” Fong said. “At that point, we were getting hundreds of emails pouring in every day of people sharing their stories, their problems but also the solutions they wanted to see. So we sat back and listened to all these solutions and suggestions, and we did our best to roll that up into one comprehensive safety solution that people were asking for.”
Thus, Ulzi was born. The name (pronounced ool-zee) is a Tibetan Buddhist word for “the endless knot.”
Fong and Timmons have partnered with not only sexual-assault survivors, but also police, political activists and a myriad of other mentors to help create their new safety-driven app. Chief among those is the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and SLO Hothouse. (Ulzi is housed at the hothouse’s downtown San Luis Obispo office space.)
“We really attribute a lot our success to the connections and the network we’ve been able to build within this growing tech community,” Fong said. “I think the tech community here is definitely growing, and it’s definitely blowing up. We believe it’s one of San Luis Obispo’s best-kept secrets.”
To date, the startup has raised about $1 million in venture capital. It employs about 30 people.
“I think that the team we have now is absolutely driven by that (idea), just creating less assault survivors in the first place and actually preventing sexual assault from happening,” Fong said.
What it does
So what does Ulzi do?
The free app, which will be available to download in March, features a range of personal security features, including a “red alert” that notifies the police of your location, starts recording audio and video on your phone for evidence, sends a notification to your friends and/or family and notifies people nearby who also have the app that you are in trouble, with the hopes that someone could intervene.
Fong describes that last feature of the app as “crowd-sourcing safety,” to help fill the gap between the incident happening and police response time.
“It’s really bringing the community into the solution,” he said.
One of the most novel features of the app is its “yellow alert” — an option for if someone is feeling unsafe and needs help removing themself from the situation.
“After talking to hundreds of assault survivors, what we learned was ... when it was leading up to the sexual assault or a rape, survivors were often faced with one of two choices,” Fong said. “The two options they had were either do nothing or call the police. There was no middle step. The feedback we kept getting was, ‘I don’t want to escalate it, but I also don’t feel like I can do anything.’ ”
When a user activates the yellow alert, it sends a message to designated contacts saying the person is feeling unsafe and asking that contact to help get them out of the situation.
“So your roommate, say on a college campus, can swing by and be like, ‘Hey, let’s go grab some yogurt,’ ” Fong said. “Totally automatic, and you can do it without anyone noticing. That was huge, and we think that does a lot in the way of preventing sexual assault — and not just responding to it.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg: The app also features an option to map out your planned route home, and if you stray from the path, it will request the person to put in their password to confirm they are OK. If they don’t get a response or if the wrong password is put in, it’ll send in help.
It also can detect violence using your phone’s accelerometer and other activity tracking features.
“If your phone senses you were pushed or your phone was destroyed, we’ll send in help,” he said. “You don’t actually have to have the app open, and we can actually keep you safe automatically.”
Awareness and beyond
Though the app has practical safety aspects, Fong said he also hopes Ulzi can have a greater impact on awareness, as well.
“I was kind of that classic oblivious person who didn’t know anything about this issue,” he said. “One of my personal goals is getting other people who are maybe oblivious to this issue, not oblivious to this issue.”
Here, Ulzi has made what some might call an unlikely ally: fraternities.
Fong said upon reaching out to various fraternity leaders around California, he was greeted with more willingness to partner with Ulzi than he initially expected.
“We’re approaching fraternity men who are saying, ‘Hey, this is absolutely our opportunity for us to be a positive force in our community,’ ” he said. “And they’re saying, ‘When sexual assault happens, we’re getting pointed to as the bad guys, when in reality, 99 percent of us are just good guys who want to make a difference in our society. If we got a notification that someone right outside our house was being sexually harassed or assaulted, we want to know about it. We want to actually do something to help.’ That was kind of an unexpected response.”
Ulzi is even currently in the works with numerous Greek organizations to launch a campaign in the coming months about standing up to sexual assault.
That’s not all that’s on the horizon for the company: It was one of 21 chosen as a semifinalist in the $1M Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE competition in June.
The global competition challenges its participants to “leverage technology to create accessible and affordable safety solutions that help tackle violence and harassment against women.”
“Something that we were totally oblivious of at the beginning, we’re realizing this is not just implications in our community, but communities worldwide,” Fong said. “So when XPRIZE came around, I think that’s kind of a natural permutation of where safety is going.”
Each of the semifinalists were given six months to create a deployment-ready prototype that will be tested live in front of a judging panel in a simulated testing environment in Mumbai, India, in April. The winner will be announced in June.
Fong said he thinks the competition, and its focus on how technology can improve our safety, is right in line with the company’s mission to “improve safety worldwide, one community at a time.”
“Right now, people still use pepper spray, they have their keys in their hands, they call somebody on their phone. But we all have these computers in our pockets, though, right? ” Fong said. “The world is changing, but safety hasn’t. And we’re setting out to change that.”