This is an article from the spring 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Not every CEO sleeps on an air mattress in his friend’s apartment.
But Nathan Pilcowitz (A.B. ’15) isn’t your average CEO. At 24 years old, Pilcowitz has strong opinions about the power of digital technology for public safety, interests that he and his colleagues combined into a powerful safety app called Companion, which has been downloaded over half a million times in 138 different countries.
“We wanted to integrate your GPS locator with your contact book,” Pilcowitz says. “The sensors on your phone are so powerful these days that an app can tell where you are and how fast you’re moving. Put all of that together, and you’ve got a pretty powerful instrument right there in your pocket.”
Here’s how it works. You click into the app and pick someone from your contact book to walk you home virtually. From afar, your companion keeps track of where you are and when you make it home. You have the options from inside the app to log when you feel nervous or to call the authorities. If you start running, the app gives your virtual chaperone 15 seconds before automatically prompting them to call the police.
“Our tagline is ‘Bringing public safety into the 21st century,'” Pilcowitz says. “But what we really mean when we say that is that we want everybody to have a tool that they can trust that will actually get them from point A to point B and make them safer. Not just make them feel safer, but to actually make them safer.”
Risk and Reward
It’s all about the safety net.
As an undergraduate, Pilcowitz threw himself into projects, working three straight summers at a venture capital firm and working on a startup called Vengeance, which offered multipurpose discount cards to students on campus. (The card has remained popular, and franchises have since popped up at other colleges.) He experimented with projects constantly, not worrying about whether a particular project succeeded or failed, happy to work hard on things that he cared about.
“You can always fall back on your classes,” Pilcowitz says. “But even outside the curriculum, college gives you the ability to really make so many of your own choices. You can play video games all day or you can put your energy into making something. Ten years after you graduate, you can’t stop working just because you have an idea, but in college you can. If there’s one thing that I want to preach to everyone, it’s that, as a student, you should try to do everything.”
As a rising junior, Pilcowitz found himself working on a lot on other people’s projects, helping friends make business plans, navigate development resources, and estimate startup budgets. But he itched to do something on his own. Around that same time, he was throwing around the idea of a safety app with some of his friends, and the Companion app was born.
“It was summer, and my friends and I were getting these crime alerts,” Pilcowitz says. “The students weren’t even on campus, and we still saw stuff happening. And we thought, how can we make a dent in these numbers? We knew we couldn’t promise to solve the problem 100 percent, but we wanted to do something. And we knew the first step was to figure out what people actually wanted, what they would actually use.”
A small team of five students from various colleges worked together on the app, and once they had something they could test, they took it to campus. For over half a year, Pilcowitz and his team stood on the Diag—“I was that guy,” Pilcowitz says, “that guy on the Diag asking you to download my app”—giving away pizza, donuts, bagels, even socks with the Companion logo on them to get students involved. The team built a massive database of responses, and the first thing they set about fixing was the ease of use.
“We needed it to be automatic,” Pilcowitz says. “At first you had to manually start your trip and you had to manually end it. Now, when you get to your destination, the notification is automatic. When you start running, the notification is automatic. People can spend less time thinking about using it, which hopefully means more people use it more often.“
The team was ready to let their app loose on the public. But they weren’t quite ready for what would happen next.
Everyone and Everywhere
During the summer of 2015, the team placed the app on a website called Product Hunt, and in September, Pilcowitz’s world exploded. Local media picked it up, and then national media did the same, with segments on the Today Show and CBS News and articles on CNN and in Business Insider, Cosmo, and Playboy. The Companion team was gobsmacked.
“We quickly saw that Companion was a product that didn’t just resonate with college students,” Pilcowitz says. “This was a much bigger problem. In business, we talk about the ‘total addressable market,’ which is the largest number of consumers that your product can be useful to. And for Companion, my kind of smartass answer was, our total addressable market is the world. For a problem like this, it’s the world.”
The app experienced tremendous growth in September, and in October the team set about refining the product, fixing the bugs, working to create what Pilcowitz hopes will one day be “the most trusted brand in the world.” The hope is that in the future, Companion will allow a global community of safe travelers to help each other, pointing out dead streetlights, for example, or trash-filled areas, street closures, or any number of issues affecting public safety.
Eventually, addressing as large a problem as public safety around the globe might require the company to grow and move. But for now, Pilcowitz and his team are eager to stay in Ann Arbor to work with the local community to make their town safer. And if that means sleeping on an air mattress while he does his part working out the bugs and cyberinfrastructure of the app, that’s a sacrifice that Pilcowitz is happy to make.
“It suits me,” Pilcowitz says, “sleeping on an air mattress in my friend’s apartment. I don’t want to ruin any of the energy that’s coming from living like this right now. It keeps me honest, keeps me working, keeps me interested. I don’t want to move on until I’m sure it’s time.”