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P&Q’s Top MBA Startups: RapidSOS, ‘Tech To Save Lives’

Michael Martin was about to get mugged.

A senior associate for an energy technology fund, Martin was walking alone in New York City late one night in 2012 when he realized he was being followed. A man had been walking behind him on the same side of the street for a few blocks, making the same turns. Martin started to jog, and the man started to jog, too, closing the distance between them.

“It was pretty clear what his intentions were,” Martin tells Poets&Quants. “As I kind of kicked into a light jog, he did the same — I was able to get my phone out and I realized in that moment that there was no way I was going to be able to get on my phone, dial a number, and have a coherent conversation.”

Martin got lucky, arranging an Uber pickup with a car that happened to be very close by. “Everything worked out — I jumped in the car and everything was fine,” he says. But the experience stayed with him. And it became the germ of an idea that led, a short time later, to the founding of RapidSOS, an advanced emergency communication and management company whose mission is to help foresee and forestall emergencies, warn people in harm’s way, and improve response times with the aid of data and enhanced connectivity.

“I grew up in rural Indiana and moved to New York City for my first big finance job, and like many New Yorkers I had my ‘Welcome to New York’ mugging experience,” Martin laughs. “It was my first time ever needing to call 9-1-1, and that was when I realized just how difficult it is in the middle of whatever your emergency is to get out your phone, dial a number, and have a coherent conversation about who you are, where you’re located, and what’s occurring.”

RAPIDSOS IS BORN AND GIVEN A HARVARD UPBRINGING

Michael Martin

Founded in 2013 by Martin, a Harvard Business School MBA, and CTO Nicholas Horelik, who holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT, RapidSOS has raised a total of $19.56 million in less than five years, including $14 million in Series A fundraising on April 25 of last year. That hugely successful round helped RapidSOS leap 28 places in the Poets&Quants ranking of top MBA startups, to 27th place from 55th last year.

In Martin’s case, success should comes as no surprise. He holds an MBA with High Distinction from HBS, where he also received the top entrepreneurship award for Class of 2015, the R.F. Jasse Distinguished Award in Entrepreneurship and Leadership. A Rhodes Scholar finalist out of undergrad, he was named one of the “Best MBAs” by Poets&Quants in 2015 and named to the top of the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 Healthcare list.

Martin already had founded RapidSOS by the time he started at HBS in the fall of 2013. His plan was to use the experience being at one of the world’s best business schools — and best startup incubators — to build up his fledgling company.

“HBS was probably the best place in the world to develop the leadership skills needed to start and run a company,” Martin says. “And I was fortunate to be there at an amazing time for entrepreneurship at Harvard. As you know, they’ve really focused on it over the last few years. And since my co-founder did his Ph.D. at MIT, I think we were really able to harness resources from both institutions.”

A NEW APPROACH FOR AN OLD SYSTEM 

Nicholas Horelik

RapidSOS offers three overarching services: first, that it is “transforming emergency response” by creating faster, more effective responses — as much as five minutes faster in an emergency, with a 2% to 10% reduction in mortality and a 6.9% reduction in healthcare treatment costs. Second, RapidSOS offers “safety and security across our life,” connecting the devices of family, colleagues, and responders “in an ecosystem of safety, security, and wellness.”

Finally, the company touts an “unprecedented knowledge of when and where emergencies are occurring globally,” giving users the potential to predict and preempt trouble that could impact their own lives.

After he launched the company, Martin quickly realized the scope of the challenge across the United States. “The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that this is a system that dates to the 1960s and is one of the oldest parts of America’s infrastructure, and it serves millions of people every year,” he says. “Last year there were more than 10,000 fatalities that occurred after people had called 9-1-1, and they didn’t know their address and that location information is crucial.”

CONNECTING EMERGENCY RESPONDERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY

But harkening back to his own experience, Martin thought, “If I can push a button and get Uber, why can’t I push a button and get an ambulance?” And the answer was in the data.

“What we’ve built — and it took a while, much of the last five years — is a universal data link to every 9-1-1 center in the United States,” Martin says. “Previously these were voice-based systems, so in any emergency you need to have an actual conversation. Obviously that’s particularly challenging in the case of a heart attack, or an assault, or whatever the emergency is. So with data now we can pass your precise location but also medical data with a wearable device, or traumatics data from a car, home sensor data for structural fires, all sorts of information. We provide that data for free to every public safety agency, so this goes not only to 9-1-1, it also goes out to the ambulances, to the fire departments, etc.”

And what about their business model? RapidSOS sells those wearables, car sensors, and home security systems, as well as mobile phone apps. And when the company helps reduce mortality rates by 2% or 3% for a billion-dollar life insurance business, for example, “it’s actually pretty substantial for their bottom line,” Martin says.

“The last five years involved a lot of work to finally start to connect devices onto a platform — there are 6,300 9-1-1 centers in the United States and over 70,000 first-responder agencies, so interfacing with all of these different systems took a long time. But we are now live across the country with that. And now we think 2018 is really the year when — with the partnerships that we have in place — we can make sure that every American will have access to this technology. 2018 is going to be a big year for transforming emergency response across the country.”

DON’T MISS POETS&QUANTS’ TOP MBA STARTUPS OF 2018 and TOP B-SCHOOLS FOR VC-BACKED STARTUPS