Anti-Suicide Software Wins Prize
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 02:02
After last year’s Startup Hoya Challenge attracted 50 applicants with only 20 percent presenting socially conscious business models, Co-Chair Darius Babel (MSB ’14) decided to create a new competition held this past Thursday evening that focused on socially responsible business models.
“We might just be event planners on the surface … but I like to think we took some spirit in noticing a problem and solving it,” Babel said, emphasizing that the term “socially responsible” does not limit startups to the nonprofit sector.
“What we hope to do is raise awareness throughout the schools, not just in the business school,” Babel said. “This isn’t just a not-for-profit; it can be a wide variety of things.”
The competition featured eight socially conscious business initiatives founded by students that ranged from a nuanced system for donating to the homeless to a reintegration program for formerly incarcerated individuals. Each group gave a three-minute pitch followed by a two-minute question-and-answer session with the panel of five student and five faculty judges.
Spencer Walsh (MSB ’14) won the $750 Sweetgreen Innovator Award for Madison’s Angel, a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent teenage suicide by monitoring Twitter accounts. Parents — especially parents whose children have been diagnosed with depression — can register their child’s account with the service to be notified if their child tweets certain buzzwords suggesting suicidal intentions.
Walsh was inspired to found Madison’s Angel when his best friend, Madison Cox, committed suicide after tweeting his intentions hours before.
“After he committed suicide, we took a step back and thought, ‘What could I have done to prevent this?’” Walsh said. “I wished I could have given him a phone call. Even if that phone call may have not changed the outcome, it still would have been nice to talk to him and remind him that everyone cares for him.”
While developing Madison’s Angel, Walsh encountered problems differentiating between dangerous uses of certain buzzwords or words used in jest.
“If you took the word ‘kill,’ someone could say, ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ or you could say, ‘Georgetown’s going to kill Syracuse,’” Walsh said. “We started making the software more refined and the past about six months have been testing the software and fine-tuning key words.”
Madison’s Angel has been well-received by its test audience of 200 of Walsh’s family friends.
“Even on a small scale, it’s great feedback,” Walsh said. “There haven’t been any situations as serious as Madison’s yet, but there have been some that was just being lonely … and the parents would just know that and have the chance to call their kid.”
Looking ahead, Walsh said he hopes to transition his product to a beta stage where he can test the response on a larger scale. The National Suicide Prevention Agency asked Walsh to release his product a few months ago, but Walsh wanted to perfect the service to honor his friend.
“We wanted to make sure this was a good thing for Madison, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t tossing out a bad product in his name,” Walsh said.“It is such a strong cause, and there’s a strong story behind it, and the more publicity we get, the more we feel like we’re remembering Madison. You always look at something like this and think, ‘Out of all the bad that happened, what good can we make of it?’”
Joshua Leslie (COL ’13) was awarded second place for Himalayan Spirit 8848, a for-profit clothing line produced and manufactured in the Himalayan Mountains in his home country of Nepal. The company focuses on increasing gender equality and aiding those in poverty by planting a seedling for every article of clothing purchased to aid the reforestation of mountain regions in Nepal, creating jobs for rural families and building girls’ toilets in local schools.
Himalayan Spirit released its first collection in December 2012 and currently offers five women’s pieces, three men’s pieces and a unisex scarf. Leslie plans to use his profits to install solar panels in the buildings where his clothing line is produced.