Jogging along a trail in a safe community, Leah Yingling carried just a few items, including her cell phone, when an attacker suddenly came upon her.
"When I thought of sexual assault, I thought of it as something that would never happen to me," she said.
Yingling was able to dial 911 and the call was enough to scare the assailant away. But her ordeal sparked an idea among some of her Carnegie Mellon University classmates.
"We saw how a sexual assault could really affect [our friends] lives," said Jayon Wang, CEO of LifeShel, which creates hardware and software that broadcast signals in distress situations.
Wang, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon's engineering program, partnered with two friends to create LifeShel and the company's first product, Whistl -- a smartphone case that wirelessly connects to 911 dispatch when the phone's owner places their fingertips over two buttons simultaneously.
"We are taking 911 and trying to introduce it into the new age of data that we have access to," Wang said. "Previous models for 911 was to dial, connect and describe your situation."
Whistl speeds up the process by sending rescuers the users' pertinent personal information and their location based on the phone's GPS signal, sounding a 120-decibel alarm and emitting a bright light, while maintaining the look, feel and weight of a regular phone case, Wang said.
The buttons incorporate the same technology that allows smartphone users to select apps on the screen with their fingertip, but not, for instance, with a pencil. "If it is in your purse or pocket, it won't be set off by another object," he said.
If someone mistakenly triggers Whistl, safeguards are in place.
"You will get an opportunity to swipe your personally selected safety color to prevent any alarms from being activated," Wang said. "If you select the wrong color, it will tell your phone you are being forced to swipe the wrong color or someone else did. Then it will turn off the noise alarm and the [light], but the hardware on the phone... will still be able to send the data to emergency responders to bring help to your location."
The trio presented the product at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia Oct. 18 -- receiving praise, as well as questions about the security of one's personal data and the choice to place the burden of preventing an assault on the potential victim.
Wang explained the information is encrypted to ensure its security and the phone case can contribute to the larger societal changes needed.
"How can we use technology to shift the needle in our culture?" he asked.
While he acknowledges the importance of education to reduce the number of assaults, Wang reasoned Whistl reminds its users and fellow community members of lessons learned.
"Education gives people the power to change all our worlds," he said.
"A hardware device that people could touch everyday," he continued, "that could show myself and my community I know the importance of prevention."
A retail price for the phone case, which several dozen people already preordered through LifeShel's Kickstarter campaign, is not yet set as the LifeShel team continues to work to cut costs, Wang said.
Whistl will be released in summer 2015.