Two University of Michigan Ross School of Business alumni won a $1 million investment for their app, Companion, on the first episode of Apple’s new series Planet of the Apps last week. Lexi Ernst and Jake Wayne, graduates of the classes of 2016 and 2017, appeared on the Shark Tank-style show to discuss their personal safety app which launched at the University and began gaining traction nationally in 2015.
On the show, Ernst and Wayne pitched their business to a panel of four investors, which included Jessica Alba, will.i.am, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gary Vaynerchuk, while riding down an escalator.
“The Companion app allows users to invite anyone on their contact book to virtually ensure their safety. If they ever feel unsafe or nervous, they can automatically reach out to anyone in their circle, who will then be empowered to step in and help,” Wayne said, before receiving the green light from all four investors.
The app began as a way for students to be better prepared for dangerous situations on campus, according to Ernst.
“My co-founder Jake and I, we noticed a big problem on campus, we’d often receive crime alerts from DPS (the Department of Public Safety), and oftentimes we’d get an alert for instance on Hill Street right by where we lived 10 minutes after we had been there,” Ernst said. “So we wanted to find a way to be more proactive about our personal safety, especially on a college campus and we hoped that our peers would find value in that as well.”
Ernst and Wayne received an initial funding of $25,000 when they applied for the Michigan Business Challenge in their junior year, which they put towards the development and launch of the app, and have since seen rapid growth, extending beyond college campuses.
“It really pertains to every single demographic in every corner of the globe whether it’s elderly people using it with their children or who are trying to gain more independence in their daily lives," Ernst said. "So there really is no limit to this problem and who can benefit from technology like this."
Ernst added the community and classes at the Business School were indispensable in their journey to this point.
“The community at Ross has been an outstanding resource; I had so many teachers that gave me advice that helped me along the way,”
Ernst was specifically appreciative of the entrepreneurial community at the University and Ann Arbor and the Zell Lurie Institute.
“Without that community at Ross and the University of Michigan I don’t think we would be here today," he said.
Though the app was launched in 2015, LSA junior Sylvie Evarts said she thinks its objective is still relevant today and much needed for students who walk home from campus at night.
“I think the app is a really great idea,” she said. “Although Ann Arbor is generally very safe, there were times during the school year that I would feel nervous walking back by myself from the library late at night. DPS has a presence in the dorms and on campus, but it is difficult for them to cover all of the off-campus housing areas where most of the upperclassman live.”