Leah Yingling was in the safest of all places, her hometown of Johnstown. Or so she thought.
It was the summer of her freshman year at CMU. She was going for a run on a secluded trail where she had run thousands of times. Fortunately, she had her cell phone with her.
Yingling was attacked that day by an assailant in broad daylight. If she hadn’t had her phone, the day might have turned out much differently than it did.
Somehow she was able to use her phone as an effective deterrent, she says. “My mouth was muffled and I had a knife at my throat and was trying to blindly call 911 on my phone, which was in my pocket. But I couldn’t unlock it.”
She managed to get her phone unlocked and dial 911 in the midst of the attack. When 911 picked up, an alert sounded; the attacker grabbed her phone, threw her to the ground and ran.
Yingling’s story inspired three CMU friends—engineers all—to create the startup LifeShel, a company that is creating a unique mobile phone case and accompanying app to address the problem of sexual assault.
The products not only work to deter an attack, should a sexual assault occur, but create a community of defenders, says Jayon Wang of LifeShel.
The company is working out of AlphaLab Gear in East Liberty on its first products, the Capsi and the Whistl. The Capsi is a reservoir in the phone case that holds 20-30 spurts of pepper spray.
The Whistl, when activated, emits an alert sound at 110 decibels, which can be heard up to 300 feet away. Both can be activated with a single touch and will simultaneously make a call to 911.
In addition, an app is in development that will create a community of first responders, trusted friends who may be nearby who may be able to respond more quickly than the police.
“We want to create a turbo-charged charged neighborhood watch group to distribute the signal,” says Wang. “The app (which alerts the community) will operate independently of the product.”
The Whistl for iPhone 5 will be released in the fall of 2014 followed by the Capsi. An Android version is planned too.
The system can also be activated without unlocking the phone, which is crucial, says Yingling.
“There are too many cases out there that have not gone as well as they did for me,” she says. In her case, the offender was subsequently captured. Yingling has joined the LifeShel team as an advocate and publicist for the product.
LifeShel is also working with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape on the South Side on product development side.
“Our target market will be survivors of sexual assault who have gone on as activists within their community,” says Wang. “We figure they will be the best entry point for us, real champions of the product.”