Members of the Soterra team meet to discuss upcoming initiatives. Their project involves creating a piece of technology that allows women who do not own smartphones to communicate when faced with instances of sexual assault. (Courtesy of Lena McDonnell)

Soterra uses technology to enhance women’s safety

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Globally, about one in three women are victims of sexual assault or abuse. These attacks are even more prevalent in areas where women don’t have trustworthy emergency responders, financial independence, access to internet or other everyday comforts that those in developed countries often take for granted.

Soterra hopes to play a role in reducing these numbers across the world, especially in the areas where women need the most help.

“Our goal is to close the gap of those who need the most help but have the fewest options,” team captain Lena Mcdonnell, ’18, said.

(Courtesy of Lena McDonnell)

The team of 17 Lehigh engineering students — of whom 14 are involved in the tech team and three focus on business and marketing — first came together in April 2017 for the XPRIZE competition. In November, they learned they are one of the 21 teams out of the original 85 that will continue into the semi-final round.

Soterra is the only collegiate team left in the competition, which Mcdonnell said leaves them at a slight disadvantage to the other teams. However, she said Soterra’s technology stands apart from the rest.

The product Mcdonnell and her Soterra team developed does not require a smartphone to work.

“We’re trying to get to those users who don’t own (smartphones),” Mcdonnell said. “Those are the people in need of the most help.”

The Soterra device is a small clicker object that can be carried in a pocket, bag or even clipped to clothing.

The technology the team uses is dynamic mesh network that allows the device to communicate with others within an area. If a user presses the clicker, all of the other devices within the range will receive an alert and continue to relay it until it reaches a gateway device, which Mcdonnell said can either be a phone with the Soterra app on it or a static node.

There’s also an option for the device to send its alert to emergency services, like 911, or close contacts that the user trusts, such as friends or family.

This April, team members will travel to Mumbai, India, through XPRISE to conduct product testing. The team will find out the results of the competition by June. The winning team will receive $1 million for product development and distribution.

Soterra has also received feedback from competitions and events such as EUREKA!, Creativate and the South by Southwest Interactive Festival’s Red Bull Launch Institute, which they attended during spring break.

Business manager Emily Randolph, ’19, said the team has several methods for distributing the Soterra product. Their goal is to form relationships with NGOs, women’s shelters and the United Nations to get the products distributed through organizations that women trust.

The students are also looking for ways to subsidize or eliminate the cost for women in underprivileged areas — either through these groups or by using methods, such as the TOMS business model, where people would purchase the device for the full cost of one product plus another to give to a woman who is unable to purchase one herself.

“Through this, we’d be able to connect the developed world and the less developed world,” Randolph said.

Design lead Michael Wu, ’20, said the team is considering using a technology licensing company to continue Soterra and get the product distributed, even as members of the team graduate from Lehigh.

Wu said the team started because of XPRISE, but he sees it succeeding even if Soterra doesn’t win the competition.

“I’ve worked on past group projects with other people, and I haven’t met anyone or been in a group where everyone is dedicated to its success,” he said. “Everyone follows the mission that we have, so I think that’s one main reason we will succeed.”

Mcdonnell and Randolph said their success comes from the team members’ passion for the cause, as well as the social responsibility they to have finish the product and distribute it to those who need it most.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have also made an impact on the team, as they emphasize the importance of combating issues of sexual assault and harassment across various gender, racial and socio-economic identities.

“We set out to build something,” Mcdonnell said. “We weren’t looking to change the world, we weren’t looking to combat this issue, we wanted to build something and apply our engineering skills to it. I think the reason it’s been so successful and the reason that we’ve gone so far and done so well with it is because it’s a topic that we’re all so passionate about and invested in.”

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