“SKeMAs”- a team of five Rochester-area students- are developing an app, called Via, to limit distracted driving among teens. This group of young women advanced all the way to the semifinal round of the global tech competition Technovation a few months ago. Now, they are working their way through the Youth Division of Minnesota Cup, making the roads safer one driver at a time.
Stela Baltic, Sophia Fulton, Maurine Macharia, Keerthi Manikonda, and Anushri Walimbe saw a problem affecting their peers and everyone around them. The girls originally designed an app, called Via, to log hours while training for a driving permit. However, they soon recognized a larger problem than missed driving hours: teenage distracted driving.
“We’re all teens ourselves and we all run these super busy lives, where we’re constantly communicating with different people,” Fulton explained. “It’s so easy to get caught up and start texting while you’re driving or even looking at your messages while you’re driving.”
To combat this issue, the team expanded the functionality of their mobile app Via to lower distracted driving rates among teens, and adults, to make the roads a little bit safer.
Once installed, Via reminds users to mute all notifications while driving. The app sends automated replies to anyone texting the user while they are driving and can even notify the text-er once the car has reached its destination.
Now, the girls are beefing up some features of Via to enable multiple user accounts and other capabilities. They hope to ultimately link the app to the on-board diagnostic system of the car.
“If we can get the phone on the same level as the car itself, that can allow parents to monitor driving habits as well,” explained Manikonda.
Such a connection could enable speed threshold monitoring, where parents could be alerted when their teen accelerates over a set speed limit. It could also allow for supervision of braking and reckless driving behaviors.
The team began building the app last summer and homed in their concept during the twelve-week long Technovation Challenge. This international competition encourages teams of four to five girls create, design, and build mobile apps to solve real world problems to inspire technology, entrepreneurship, and STEM careers in young women.
Since 2010, ten thousand girls from seventy-eight countries have participated in the tech challenge.
The Minnesota branch of the program, Technovation[MN], culminated in a state-wide pitch event, called Appaplooza, on May 7th at the Minneapolis Convention Center. This year, approximately two hundred fifty girls participated.
Two high school and six middle school teams advanced from Appaplooza to the semifinal round of the global Technovation competition, including the SKeMAs team. In the end, SKeMAs finished as runners up in the world for their category in this round.
Although the five girls on SKeMAs got to Technovation through different paths, it was clear that the experience was unforgettable to them all. Some, like Fulton, were always interested in entrepreneurship and saw the competition as an opportunity. Others, like Manikonda, were coerced into it.
However, “Technovation,” Baltic explained, “is all about expanding your horizons.”
As part of the competition, the girls learned to communicate and function as a team. Some learned how to code. And some learned about business development. They also connected with and got input from leaders in the community, including Techstars Product Manager Rachelle Oribio.
They also, most importantly, learned how to support other young women, friend or foe.
“You see all these unique, brilliant ideas coming from girls your age. And it just reminds you that we’re just as capable as boys of helping to change the world,” summed up Baltic.
Now, the team is in the middle of the semifinal round of the Minnesota Cup- the largest statewide startup competition in the United States. They’re working to make Via just a little bit better than it was during Technovation.
“For Technovation, they were really big on idea. Are you actually helping the community and are you using your…coding skills to do that?” Manikonda explained. “Minnesota Cup is all about the actual entrepreneurship.”
She said the team is a bit inexperienced in navigating the business side of things, whereas some of their competitors already have a viable product with sales.
Plus, they’ve run into a major competitor along the way: Apple. In June, a beta version of iOS 11 launched with a “Do Not Disturb While Driving Mode” to block texts, incoming calls, and notifications while the car is in motion.
However, the team doesn’t seem to be all that discouraged.
“One of our mentors, Rachelle [Oribio] spoke to us about this,” Walimbe said. She told the girls they just had to be better and one step closer than the competition to succeed.
Manikonda said the team is expanding some capabilities of the app that Apple doesn’t have yet and believes that integrating changes into the actual phone operating system itself is limiting.
“As app developers, I feel that we can take in feedback and get new updates out on the app quicker than software updates could do the job,” she explained.
With Apple looming on the horizon, the team is laser focused on Minnesota Cup and seeing where that experience can take them. They’ll learn if they advance to the final round this Friday.