The idea started on a lunch break at Dave Benoit’s law firm.
The conversation turned somber when a colleague mentioned his ties to the Petit family, three of whom died in a brutal home invasion in Cheshire five years earlier, in 2007.
“We came together and said, ‘It’s like the clocks ticking and we want to do something that makes a difference in our lives,'” said Benoit, a West Hartford resident. “We keyed in on one specific incident. The folks who took the [Petit] family over and perpetrated those awful crimes, they took away the family’s smartphones and cut the phone lines.”
That’s when Benoit and business partner Phill Giancarlo came up with Wearsafe, a wearable tag that pairs with a person’s smartphone and, with one discreet touch of a button, connects them to a network of family and friends during a crisis.
“When I’m a bad guy, what am I going to do first? Take away your phones,” Giancarlo, of Lebanon, said. “The problem we had to solve was, you have an $800 super computer in your pocket. But if you can’t use it, what good is it? What could we do?”
When the Wearsafe button is pressed, family and friends immediately receive an alert through email, text and their Wearsafe app, a group chat is started and friends and family can see where someone is located with the GPS information provided, as well as instantaneously hear audio from their location, Benoit said.
The tag provides the user with a confirmation vibration to let them know their alert has been received and help is on the way. Family and friends also can call 911 directly from within the Wearsafe app, Benoit said.
The white, oval-shaped tag is no bigger than the size of a thumb and can be clipped onto a person’s clothing or key ring. Right now it can pair with iPhones just over 220 feet away, but the pair is working on connecting the device with other smartphones, including Androids.
In March 2013, Benoit, a technology lawyer, and Giancarlo, an engineer, began researching how they could make their device, and took part in a Startup Weekend at the University of Connecticut, where they presented their idea and later were assigned four graduate students to help bring it to fruition, they said.
After that, the pair partnered with 25 Trinity College students, who researched and tested the device for a semester, Benoit said.
It wasn’t until one female student reported that wearing the tag made her feel empowered that Benoit thought the idea might “have legs.” The student said she stayed at the library until midnight, took her tag out as she walked across quad and felt like her friends were with her, Benoit said.
“It allowed people to say, ‘You know what? All my friends are with me, I can do anything I want,'” he said. “If I could replicate that virtually, through something I already use and a little device that I wouldn’t even have to think about, yeah, I would be empowered to do things that I normally wouldn’t do.”
Since then, the pair has raised $4 million to fund the development of their product, Giancarlo said. In December, a former Goldman Sachs partner led a $3 million investment into the wearable tech company, Wearsafe Labs, with offices in Hartford.
Wearsafe Labs has sold about 4,000 devices, each at $39 with subscription options starting at about $4 a year, Giancarlo said. The company plans to fully launch the device in February, he said.
In July 2015, Benoit and Giancarlo met with Dr. William Petit Jr., the sole survivor of the Cheshire home invasion that inspired the device. Their conversation with Petit and his sister, Hannah Chapman, at the main office of the Petit Foundation in Plainville was difficult, and very emotional, Benoit said.
“We didn’t want an endorsement,” he said. “We wanted to say that we had a couple of strangers so touched by what happened to that family that we felt that if we put in a little time and effort, we could prevent someone else from going through that.”
Former U.S. Secret Service agent Richard Staropoli, who currently serves on Wearsafe’s board, met the pair through a mutual friend, and said the Wearsafe concept is fantastic, especially with the increasing number of reported assaults and rapes on campuses and worldwide.
“There is nothing in that push button that you can’t buy off the shelf,” Staropoli said. “This is not the flux capacitor and it’s not powered by uranium. It’s all off-the-shelf components that no one has ever taken the time to put this all together.”
Benoit and Giancarlo are not “MIT, PhD computer programmers,” he said. They didn’t need to be.
“These two guys are what you would see in the movies. This is Steve Jobs and Bill Gates,” Staropoli said. “These guys managed to catch lightening in a bottle, got together in their garage and were able to build something that is innovative, that is incredibly reliable and that fits a need perfectly.”