UW News

June 6, 2018

GIX team competes for $1 million XPRIZE for women’s safety

UW News

group photo

A team from Global Innovation Exchange competes in the XPRIZE competition. Shown here are (left to right) Nicholas Becker, Zoe Zou, Archisa Guharoy and Yuntao Wang. Not pictured is Noah Hollmann.Dennis Wise/University of Washington


Globally, one in three women face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. That number soars to 92 percent of women in New Delhi, India.

Leveraging technology to improve this situation is the goal of the Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE. The $1 million competition was created to incentivize leaders in innovation from around the world to develop transformative technologies that increase women’s safety and empower communities. The grand prize winner was announced in New York.

Out of nearly 100 registered teams, five made it to the final round. “Team Saffron” from the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX), a new model of experiential education founded by the University of Washington, China’s Tsinghua University and Microsoft, traveled to New York, but another team was selected to receive the prize. This is the furthest that any UW team has ever made it in an XPRIZE competition.

Read more about Team Saffron on GeekWire.

The UW students have developed an inconspicuous wearable emergency device about the size of a half dollar. The device monitors physiological signals and allows the person wearing it to trigger an alert for help, even if the user is physically restrained. The team uses machine learning to process the signals produced by the user. Although small, their device has big potential.

“Through technological innovations, we can make meaningful improvements to women’s safety that leads to lasting impact over time. We hope to contribute to making the world a safer place for women and communities around the world,” said the team leader, Nicholas Becker, a UW doctoral student in electrical engineering and GIX dual-degree student.

“However, technology alone cannot solve such a huge issue as women’s safety,” Becker said. “Large-scale change will be achieved when innovative technology solutions coincide with broader shifts in education, culture, society and support from the government. That is why Saffron was created.”

“The role of technology is especially useful in places like India, where access to government-provided emergency services may not be widely available,” said teammate Noah Hollmann, a fellow GIX student.

XPRIZE organizers say the winning team’s technology needs to autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert while transmitting information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds. To facilitate accessibility, the manufacturing cost of the winning solution must be no more than $40 U.S. dollars.

“Safety is a fundamental human right and should not be considered a luxury for women,” said Anu Jain, the prize namesake and a Seattle-area philanthropist and entrepreneur.

Becker met teammate Yuntao Wang, a postdoctoral researcher in the GIX program at China’s Tsinghua University, where both were working on research in human-computer interactions. Becker learned about the XPRIZE and after collaborating with Wang on various research projects, the pair realized they could combine their experience to compete.

“The human-computer interaction research we were conducting together at the time had so much overlap with the Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE, it was very good timing,” Becker said.

Wang realized the pair shared expertise and passion to pursue solutions. “It’s like this XPRIZE was made for GIX which heavily focuses on connected devices and Internet-of-Things solutions,” he said.

The competitive landscape that Saffron is up against is tough. Of the mostly for-profit companies, some are established and have received prior funding. For the five-person university team, this is a big project with high stakes.

Still, the small UW team has the ability to be agile. Rather than adapt an existing device or business model to the prize, Team Saffron has built the technology from the ground up for this specific purpose.

In competition, Team Saffron had to prove its device’s effectiveness in an office environment, moving vehicles and an elevator shaft — scenarios that reflect real-world situations for women. They spent time in Mumbai, India, earlier this year testing the device in these settings.The device works, even if the user is physically restrained, for example, if someone’s hands and feet are bound. The device also works without having to reach and unlock their phone, which can save crucial time when women are in a dangerous situation.

Once activated, a number of people are notified. The authorities, and also a community of people including relatives, friends, loved ones and neighbors. It has potential to improve safety among women, especially in India where access to emergency services may be limited.

“This is very much a real issue in India,” team member and fellow GIX student Zoe Zou said. “It’s a huge part of the story. Being female myself, this really motivates me to come up with a good solution to help the situation.”

Teammate Archisa Guharoy, also a GIX student, has family in Mumbai. She said she knows of people who have experienced sexual violence. To her, participating in the challenge has been personal.

“The competition means a lot to me and my family,” Guharoy said. “I believe we have a real shot, I’m excited to win.”

While the team has plans to start a company if they win, they’ll be satisfied with the experience no matter the result.

“Even if we are not the winner, it’s a pretty amazing experience and a cause that is extremely important to us and for societal progress,” Becker said.