Without the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship, University of Oregon students Harley Emery, a senior in the international studies department, and Alex Mentzel, a senior majoring in German history and theatre arts, wouldn’t be where they are today.
Along with a team that includes volunteer help from Eugene software developer Alec Savoy, as well as programmers and developers from all over the world, Emery and Mentzel are developing a new app called Averto. The purpose of the app is to allow citizens living in areas of ongoing conflict to submit safety alerts about incidents in their area, ranging from militia checkpoints to bombings and shootings.
Averto cofounder Abdullah Alhesnawi, a Libyan software developer based in Austin, Texas, had already been working on a similar concept. When Emery found out the app platform she’d envisioned was in the beginning stages, she and Alhesnawi decided to join forces as cofounders, and Averto was born.
There are currently 6,500 Averto users in Tripoli alone. The incidents are plotted on a map that users access on their phones, and plans are in place for text message alerts. The idea behind Averto is to bring information down to the civilian level, to allow people to share information without having to go through media or other unreliable sources.
“Not knowing that Abdullah was already building Averto’s software, the idea came to me last summer,” Emery explained. As an international studies major, she has a lot of friends from such places as the Middle East and Libya.
“After hearing their stories, and thinking about this idea, I started looking for feedback from people,” she said.
Without a tech background, she wasn’t sure if her idea was possible.
With this idea in the back of her mind, Emery participated in Insomni’Hack in November 2018. Part of UO’s Startup Week and sponsored by the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship, Insomni’Hack is a free, 24-hour hackathon open to all UO students, faculty, staff, and community members with a startup idea to network, navigate university and community resources, and launch their venture.
While at Insomni’Hack, Emery talked with developers about her idea and the response was positive. The next day, she entered UO Startup Week's Elevator Pitch competition and won.
“That’s how I started getting meetings with all these people in the community,” Emery said.
Working with Kate Harmon at the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship then led Emery to RAIN Eugene’s ID8 program, a series of weekly workshops where Emery learned the finer points of writing a business plan, pitching her idea, and how to use a pitch deck.
“Now, we have our own 12-page business plan,” Emery said. “That’s something we would not have without the support of RAIN and the Lundquist Center. We would not be anywhere if not for them.”
Soon, Emery’s longtime friend Mentzel was on board, bringing his expertise with social justice issues and values.
“Thinking about human rights, we look for ways we can partner with people without ending up in kind of a prescriptive situation,” he said.
“I imagine Averto being a site of connection—this moment of connection in an increasingly inward-turning world,” he added.
For this goal to be accomplished, however, reliability of information is of the utmost importance.
“We have moderators,” Emery explained, making sure there’s no information distributed by the app identifying specific people.
“The idea is not to tell people ‘this is who’s attacking whom,’” she said. “The idea is just to say, ‘This is a place where there is violence, so don’t go there.’”
To vet reports submitted by users, there’s also a reliability scoring system.
“Other people who are using the app can vote up or down based on whether they’ve verified the event is happening,” Emery said.
Moderators can see how reliable the local community rates the report, but also how the person who submitted the report has voted on other people’s past reports.
In addition to civilians, the Averto team sees data gathered as valuable to NGOs and news organizations.
“There seems to be a strong market for this kind of information for people who are trying to help in these countries,” Mentzel said.
Looking back, Mentzel and Emery said it’s been a whirlwind six months, but they are enjoying every minute. They are also thankful for the assistance and guidance provided by the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship and RAIN Eugene.
“I didn’t even know who to ask for funding before being taken under their wing,” Emery said.
They even recently participated in two national business plan competitions in early April 2019: Smith College’s Draper Competition, where they took honorable mention in the social impact track, and Texas Christian University’s Values and Ventures Competition.
As for next steps, they plan to continue entering pitch competitions and to seek funding to scale-up the Averto app to reach more countries.
“We’re also looking at various tech features to coalesce with the moderating—less algorithm, more human,” Mentzel said.
Most of all, both Mentzel and Emery said, “It’s time to go pitch!”