$1 million Women's Safety XPrize to tackle sexual violence awarded to Indian start-up

Key Points
  • Last October Anu and Naveen Jain launched the $1 million Women's Safety XPrize competition to challenge teams from around the world to develop an affordable technology women can use to rapidly respond to threats.
  • The Women's Safety XPrize was awarded at the United Nations on Thursday to Leaf Wearables, based in New Delhi.
  • The company makes Safer Pro, a wearable device that allows users to press a button to send an emergency alert to a community of responders.
Indian members of NGO 'Aastha' hold placards during a protest in Mumbai for better safety for women following the rape of a student in the Indian capital.
Punit Paranjpe | AFP | Getty Images

There is a global epidemic of sexual violence against women that persists despite significant progress in gender equality for health, education and legal rights. The #MeToo movement in the United States launched last October and has kickstarted a movement to tackle this troubling issue after it was revealed that even the most prominent women in the media and entertainment industry have suffered from assault.

But even before the problem became a hot-button issue on social media, it was top of mind for Anu and Naveen Jain — technophilanthropists and the co-founders of such legendary companies as InfoSpace, Intelius and Inome. They launched the $1 million Women's Safety XPrize in October 2016 to challenge teams from around the world to develop a device that can inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert if a woman is in danger and transmit the information to a network of community responders — all within 90 seconds and costing under $40.

After scouring the world for a solution, the winning team for the Women's Safety XPrize was announced Thursday at the United Nations. A total of 85 teams from 18 countries vied for the top spot, but Leaf Wearables from New Delhi was the grand prize winner that met all of the Women's Safety XPrize criteria.

The five finalist solutions were tested to see how the devices might fare across a variety of
environments, including high-rise office buildings, college campuses, in public transit and at
home. Devices ranged from smart jewelry that can trigger emergency alerts to wearables
that detect physical gestures and speech recognition for emergency triggers. Most important:
All of the solutions from the finalist teams work in areas where there is no cell connection.

Leaf Wearables' technology, called Safer Pro, is an enhanced version of their smart safety device Safer. Safer Pro is a small chip that can be put into any device or jewelry. When a user is in danger, she can press a button on the device, which sends an emergency alert with location details to a user's guardians. It also lets you record audio.

According to Anu Jain, the $1 million prize will help Leaf Wearables scale up their business. "What makes Leaf's technology a good device for global use is the fact that it runs off BLE 4.0 technology and a mesh network so any message can leap from one device to another with a very low signal."

Anu and Naveen Jain: technophilanthropists tackling a global crisis.
Source: Anu Jain

An independent panel of judges culled all entries and chose the finalists for this award. They included former FBI executive Lauren C. Anderson; Nic McKinley, founder of DeliverFund, a nonprofit private intelligence organization; Supreet Singh, COO and director of Safecity (Red Dot Foundation); and Phyllis Newhouse, CEO of Xtreme Solutions, which specializes in IT business and cybersecurity consulting.

An overlooked epidemic 

"The goal is to change the global mindset over women's safety issues," said Anu. "For generations women's safety has been an issue no one successfully addressed, yet it's a stepping-stone to ensuring gender equality. It's time to use technology to solve this problem. We need to develop response networks which do not exist in much of the world," she added.

Violence against women — particularly sexual violence — is not only a major public health problem, it is also a violation of women's human rights. Global estimates by the World Health Organization indicate that 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Sexual assault knows no borders, and victims are of all ages and walks of life. In the United States the hidden threat is not often spoken about. The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimates that 1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years. Even more disturbing: 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

The situation is dire, especially in developing countries, because many nations do not have a universal emergency access number (like 911 in the United States) that victims can call to report a crime. Basic emergency reporting and response networks do not exist.

This epidemic has alarming ripple effects: It has stymied the growth of women in society and led to gender inequality and discrimination. Just as important, it has increased health problems among women. There are also economic costs when you consider each rape costs approximately $151,423 in the United States.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the enhanced version of the Safer device, Safer Pro, does not rely on biosensor technology.