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Winner Spotlight: A New Way to Guard Against On-Campus Violence and Attacks

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Farmers use guard llamas to protect sheep and other livestock from predators such as wolves and foxes. Similarly, the focus of the startup, Guard Llama is, above all, protection—only for university students on campuses across the country. The company was launched in direct response to a real-life attack at founder Joe Parisi’s alma mater—and came from his and his classmates’ desires to be more proactive in warding off future attacks.

Parisi described why he believes his solution is better than what else is out there and how he plans to grow his startup. Guard Llama was the winner in the Chicago Challenge Cup’s smart cities category and will go on to the Challenge Festival in May.

Tell me your origin story. Where did the idea for Guard Llama come from specifically?

Basically my senior year of college, (at Northern Illinois University) a freshman student went missing and her body was found four days later. So it was always something that, when me and the people I went to school with would get together, it came up. After graduation we were all talking about things that we lived through and things that had happened. Someone had pointed out the fact that NIU has all of these emergency call boxes that are all over the place. If you get in trouble you’re supposed to run up and hit it, and then the police come help you. It always struck everyone as ridiculous that, despite the fact that all of these things were scattered all around campus, nothing was around for this girl and nothing could help her.

We figured if universities are already investing in a system like that that’s clearly ineffective, if we came up with a way to mobilize that system and put one in every student’s hand, then that would be something they’d be interested in, too.

So take me from this mission to how the technology actually works in practice.

It’s a bluetooth remote, so all of our users are given a piece of hardware that they can attach to their keys, backpack, purse, whatever. If they get in trouble they just have to push the button on the remote. It sends their location and profile right to an emergency dispatch center. Police now know who they’re looking for and where that person is.

Explain the other options out there. You mentioned the call boxes. There’s 911. Why are these alternatives ineffective?

If you look at traditional methods like 911 and the call box, the limitations for those are obvious. 911, there are just too many steps. No one’s doubting the ability of the police to do their jobs if they have the proper information. That’s not the question. If I call the police and say there’s an issue at this address they will get there and do something about it. The problem that we’re having is there’s a disconnect between people in trouble and the authorities who can do something about it.

I always tell people, if you have the ability to dial 911—if you have the time to locate your phone, pull it out and dial 911 in an emergency—by all means do that.

(With) emergency call boxes, if you’re not next to one, it can’t help you. If you are next to one you have to hit it and wait in that exact location for someone to come help you while whatever problem was around you might continue to ensue.

Now, if you look at the competitive landscape beyond those, there’s a lot of people who notice the limitations of the current methods and are attempting to do something about that. All the solutions I’ve seen require you to have an app downloaded on your phone, and then you’re supposed to unlock your phone, open the app and hit a button within the app that shows your location and profile. And I just don’t really think that that’s a good solution. If you have the time to do that you may as well dial 911 anyway.

I know people who have highly hazardous jobs or do skiing, (and) there are avalanche distress beacons that you can buy. Most of those are $300 to $500, and they have a service fee as well … so it’s not very practical for an average person.

We think we’ve positioned ourselves with a fairly unique solution that no one else is doing, and we think that it provides an actual solution for people.

Where and by whom is Guard Llama being used now?

I have three universities that are looking to pilot. I’d rather not say who right now.

So, then, what are the next steps going forward to get traction?

Right now, since we locked up a number of B2B clients, the focus will shift to B2C to see how many individual consumers we can get, too. With both channels we’ll be going through universities…The next step is to get the product to these people, test it, make sure it works well and we’ll start hiring sales reps as well.

Why call yourself Guard Llama, of all things and of all animals?

Guard llamas have actually been shown to be 80 percent effective, which is higher than any other guard animal … If you look at our competitors they call themselves things that sound similar to Life Alert; that sounds like something your grandmother would use. We want to connect with a younger demographic.

What’s your background and the background of your team?

I’m a CPA. I went to school, studied accounting and did some private and public accounting. Then I jumped into the startup world, and I’ve been doing that ever since. The rest of the team is newer to startups but have sales backgrounds. I also have a really well-seasoned tech individual.

What did you get out of competing in the Challenge Cup?

You know, it’s always good to get in front of a crowd. I’ll never turn down an opportunity to pitch my idea, especially in public because there’s a new opportunity there.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…