Silicon Labs recently had the opportunity to sit down with Andrea Perdomo to discuss the personal safety company she co-founded, Revolar. Perdomo, who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia as a child, shares her personal inspiration behind the product and explains some of the design challenges she experienced launching a simple yet powerful IoT technology that alerts loved ones if the user is in danger.
Can you tell us a little bit about your company Revolar?
Revolar is a personal safety technology company. We created a small device that you clip onto your clothing, key chain, handbag, etc. The device is for those moments where you just need to connect with your loved one. The device is connected to your phone via Bluetooth. There are three different alert levels. The first is a “hey, I’m home or I’m safe” alert. Two clicks is a yellow alert, which is for when you are uncomfortable or just want someone to be with you virtually. And the third alert is for full blown emergencies. We launched our first product in 2015 and launched the new version in April of this year.
What prompted you to create the technology and the company?
My co-founder, Jackie Ros, and I were close friends before we started the company together. Jackie’s younger sister was the ultimate inspiration for Revolar. Her sister was assaulted twice by the age of 17. In both circumstances, her sister didn’t have time to reach for her phone and call for help. Jackie wanted to create a magic button that her sister could press that would let people know where she was and that she needed help. And that’s pretty much what we did. We realized nothing like this existed yet. There were products such as Life Alert and 24/7 trackers for your kids, but nothing in the middle. We had no technology background at all, but we figured out how to do it.
I’m originally from Colombia and I moved to the U.S. for safety and security reasons after my grandmother was kidnapped for eight months. She’s OK now, but if she would have had Revolar, we would have known her last whereabouts and known something was wrong. Then we could have started looking sooner. Instead, we went a whole month without knowing where she was.
What were the circumstances? Was she held for ransom?
Yes, ransom. It was back in the 90s – everybody was getting kidnapped left and right. And my Dad said, “This is it, we can’t live here anymore.” So I’ve been surrounded by the mentality of “stay safe” or “don’t talk to strangers.” Moving to the U.S., it’s definitely safer here. But at the same time, Revolar is for those moments where you just can’t predict it. We started Revolar in Denver – just the two of us – and we slowly grew our team. I went to business school and I’ve always said you don’t know how to start your own business until you do it. We eventually figured it out and found a team of advisors and investors who believed in what we were doing.
What kind of stories and feedback have you received from the users?
We have learned that our customer base is broad – we have male and female users from every age group above 13 years old. So customization of the experience is important. Not everybody is the same – a red alert for one person might be totally different for someone who has food allergies versus someone who is a runner. So we started enhancing our software. Now users can customize messages and change contacts for each alert level. We also learned that people were using Revolar just on the weekends or when they thought something would happen. So in our new version we created ways people can use the device regularly and not just when they need it. For example, the new version will beep so you can find your keys or phone. We also activated step-tracking for active users who want to use Revolar to count steps.
That’s great you’re learning how people are really using it.
Interestingly enough, people are using it for reasons that I never thought of. I kid you not, I know people are using it to let friends know what bar they’re at. Or if they go on a hike, they use it to show people what hike they went on. Or they take check-ins while they are shopping to remember where they were.
Is there a way to aggregate the data about where people of certain ages congregate or use their devices most frequently?
When we talk to police or governing bodies of cities or universities, we always get that question. They say, “You’re telling me that we will know when people are feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable?” A perfect example is if we’re getting a bunch of yellow or red alerts from a certain fraternity at a college campus. We know a lot of this information is sensitive and personal to our customers and we want to respect everyone’s privacy. But at the same time, if we can get our users to let us know why they are using Revolar, we can help people in the future.
Can you tell us about the process of building the device?
Our proof of concept was built by an engineer we contracted with in Colorado. Within three months, we had a functioning prototype. It was jankie and we had to unplug it to set off the alert. We also had to convert our phones to Androids because that was the only way to build the app. We later brought on an advisor who was both an electrical and a mechanical engineer. In two weeks, he built the prototype we ended up using in the first version of our product. We then found an industrial designer to contract for us and that part was fun – making sure the design was pretty. Once we started the manufacturing process, our contract manufacturer brought on the CTO and started putting all of the pieces together.
Was the design of the product a challenge since it hadn’t been done before? Or was it a process smooth?
Oh, no. It was really hard. I remember every engineer I talked to said “Oh, that’s easy, we can do that.” But then there was always something. One of the challenges was size. The battery life was another challenge. And the button, making sure the button was concave enough to remove the risk of false alerts. And features – there were so many features we wanted, but we couldn’t compromise the size or battery life. Initially, we thought it would be a great idea to have four buttons. Then we learned how much it would cost and how much it would drain the battery. Most of the Bluetooth chips that existed at the time powered cell phones or sent messages with high-bandwidth, and we didn’t need all of that. We ended up going with Bluetooth Low Energy because everything else would have taken longer to make. It took us over a year to have the final product.
What specific Silicon Labs products are in the device?
The Wireless Blue Gecko SoC. The product helped us achieve a longer battery life and create our small form factor.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I think we’re going to start seeing people consolidate IoT. Especially as we hear people say they don’t want to charge another thing – they want devices to do multiple things. Most people have no idea what IoT means – I’d say 80 percent of the world or more. I still run across people who don’t know what Bluetooth is – or what a wearable is. So although technology is moving fast, there is still a big gap in education. I also think we’ll see wearables and IoT in places that you would never imagine, such as clothing and handbags. I believe tech will become fashion. Probably not in the next 5-8 years, but in the next 20.