CHAMPAIGN — Tim Deppen and Nishana Ismail were determined to do something after a friend of theirs was mugged in January 2013.
At the time, both Deppen and Ismail were mechanical engineering students at the University of Illinois.
The friend, a graduate student, was walking on West Clark Street in Urbana when two people came up from behind and took her purse, including her cellphone.
The friend had to wait for someone to come along and borrow a phone to report the crime, Ismail said.
Deppen and Ismail were considering entering the Cozad New Venture Competition and wondering what the basis of their business should be.
Initially, Ismail said, their idea was to come up with "a better pepper spray" — something that could irritate an attacker's skin, instead of the eyes.
But as they talked with potential customers, they realized some people weren't comfortable carrying something that could hurt themselves or someone else.
Instead, Deppen and Ismail focused on a new way to get help fast in emergency situations — something that wouldn't involve fumbling with a cellphone.
They also wanted to avoid any mechanism that would call "911" automatically, fearing the device might be tripped by accident.
What Deppen and Ismail came up with was an "electronic panic button" that would send a pre-set message by cellphone to designated friends and family members.
The information could be sent as a phone, text or email message. The user could predetermine a message — for instance, "I am in danger. Call 911."
In addition, the message would specify the user's location. Their initial system provided the user's latitude and longitude; the current system provides the street address for their location.
Besides specifying which friends and family members to alert, the user could update the device to reflect his or her expected whereabouts — for example, "leaving work," "night class," "on a blind date" or another description provided by the user.
Deppen and Ismail's idea was chosen as the "most fundable venture" in the 2013 Cozad competition, and it went on to win honors in other competitions.
Servabo was one of 32 semifinalists in the national Student Startup Madness competition for digital businesses, and the company won the Student Startup Award at Champaign County's Innovation Celebration this year.
Deppen and Ismail have also been working with mentors at Allstate as a result of involvement in the Illinois Corporate/Start-Up Challenge, which matches startup companies with Fortune 500 companies.
Now it's time to turn the concept into a product. Servabo, which has quarters in the university's EnterpriseWorks business incubator, is developing prototypes for the base device.
It plans to do beta testing on the system, known as Shadow, this summer, and the company is planning an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign for August, with hopes of raising $85,000 from Web users who like their idea.
Deppen, Servabo's president, said the company has targeted the raising of $200,000 in seed funding, and has already gotten more than a quarter of that. Some came from angel investors, who got behind the idea when they heard it presented at an Urbana-Champaign Angel Network meeting.
Ismail said the company is also applying for support from seed accelerators that work with small businesses that help them grow.
Deppen, 29, of Champaign is originally from O'Fallon, Mo. He came to the UI in 2003 and got his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering, the last of which was completed in 2013.
Ismail, 26, of Champaign is originally from Calicut, India. She got her undergraduate degree there, received a master's degree from the UI and is now working on her doctorate.
Deppen had planned to work for a national research lab, thinking it would be a great way to help people. But from his Cozad experience, he realized he could also have a direct impact on people's lives through Servabo — and elected to stay in Champaign.
Ismail said she wanted to be a professor and "do something impactful."
"I never thought entrepreneurship would be that," she said.
She said the company has gotten outstanding help from other entrepreneurs, from business and legal consultants and from startup proponents at the university, including Jed Taylor of the Technology Entrepreneur Center and Laura Frerichs of the UI Research Park.
"I was all set to leave," Ismail said, "but now I don't think I can live anywhere else. Is there any place as inexpensive as Champaign-Urbana?"
Deppen and Ismail agree the name of their product, Shadow, is easier to grasp than the company name, Servabo (pronounced Ser-VOB-oh).
That name, Deppen said, is Latin for "keeping you (protected)." That reflects the company's motto, "keeping you safe and secure."
Shadow's base station theoretically could be worn as a pendant, key chain, wristband or clasp — and it can send a message to a smartphone within a certain distance. So even if the phone has been snatched, someone using Shadow can message for help, and the phone will send a message without the snatcher's knowledge.
Deppen and Ismail said they're considering a recommended retail price of $30 for the Shadow device, although the app for the smartphone will be available through free download.
Although they envision high school and college students to be the principal users of Shadow, Deppen and Ismail expect parents — especially parents of students going off to college — to be the prime customers. They also think some adults will want to get the device for older parents, to help keep them safe.
How it's pronounced: Ser-VOB-oh
What it is: Business developing push-button device called Shadow that can alert friends and family via smartphone if the user encounters potentially dangerous situation
Founders: Tim Deppen, who received a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois last year, and Nishana Ismail, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering
Location: EnterpriseWorks, 60 Hazelwood Drive, C.
What's next: Prototypes of device in May; beta testing of device this summer; Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign in August; launch of product in early 2015.