Michal Sela was beaten and stabbed to death by her husband at home in the presence of their young daughter. Her horrific death in 2019 caused a public outcry in Israel and led to a wave of protests against domestic violence.
The murder led Lee Sharir, now 27, to found a startup called Relyon that assists people in distress.
“The original idea came from the story of Michal Sela, of blessed memory, who for 17 hours bled to death only a few steps away from a phone,” she tells ISRAEL21c.
“We understood that there are emergencies in which you can’t pick up the phone, say where you are, how you’re doing or assess the dangers posed to you.”
Sharir started a social initiative that developed an AI voice-activated personal safety app enabling users to activate their phones from afar using only their voice by calling out passwords.
Once activated, the app starts off a string of predetermined actions, such as calling family members, security hotlines and location-tracking services.
“We have voice algorithms that are embedded in an app or non-wearable sensors that allow really good communication with the other side – a family member, friends, a hotline, depending on who your emergency contacts are – while it calls for help in a quick and effective way,” she says.
Women don’t want to, or need to, involve the police in every case. The hotline and scouts provide an initial response, and then decide whether or not to involve the police according to the woman’s wishes.
“The police are meant to respond to cases of impending threat, not to give emotional response to everyone. The hotline that we work with can accompany you home if your feel unsafe, for example, or call neighbors or friends. They have a protocol and know what to do according to what you set out,” Sharir explains.
Beyond domestic violence
The initiative began with the support of the Michal Sela Forum, an NGO established by Sela’s sister to promote technological innovation to prevent domestic violence; the Israeli Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services; and the Joint humanitarian organization. It later evolved into a startup company.
“There isn’t a day without challenges,” Sharir notes. “We had the classic startup challenges, such as the time it takes to develop a really good product and understand the need of our users and clients.”
There were also funding difficulties at first.
“We were a social initiative and weren’t sure who’d pay for the product,” she adds. “Our work sounded like something that needed to be an NGO, not a startup, until we understood that we have more target audiences. We were viewed as a purely social initiative, and investors certainly weren’t interested in domestic violence. And they can’t be blamed – they want to see how they’ll get ROI on their money.
“It took us a while to develop our business model and see what other populations can benefit from our services, so that it wouldn’t be a niche field but something that can be turned into a larger company, and we’ve since expanded into more areas.”
Those areas include doctors or social workers who work in environments prone to violence; and building sites or schools that can use Relyon’s sensors to alert authorities to sounds indicating theft, vandalism or shootings.
Relyon is expanding the product to security companies and families, with a service soon coming out in Israel to help parents communicate with their children and call for help in case of emergencies.
The company’s founders also plan on launching the product in the United States soon.
Somewhere to turn
Relyon was founded in 2020 and employs eight workers in the Tel Aviv offices of gaming company CrazyLabs, which has a partnership with the Michal Sela Forum. It is funded by the Israel Innovation Authority, the Joint and paying customers.
The Relyon team in their offices overlooking the Tel Aviv skyline. Photo courtesy of Relyon
Relyon now sells its product in a B2B format through the social services ministry, an HMO and a security hotline. These distribute the app to their clients – for example, women in danger of domestic violence or doctors working in remote clinics. Overall, the startup has a few hundred users.
In the case of women, Sharir notes that the app is used on a weekly basis.
“There have been women using the app in real-time cases of violence, which led to the women being taken to hospital and the men to the police. But this weekend, for example, we had cases of filing complaints.
“One woman saw her ex outside her house and used our sensor to call the security hotline. The hotline sent out a scout, who ensured that the man wasn’t on the premises and called the police to get testimonials and details to file a restraining order. Unfortunately, we have a lot of women right now in violent relationships or women exiting such relationships and such things happen,” she says.
“The most fundamental thing is that women feel that they have somewhere to turn. It’s not only an app or a sensor, but a product that makes you feel safer in knowing that there’s someone a call away that’s available for you 24/7, who will arrive at the scene and know your case.”
Sharir says feedback has shown that Relyon has been “able to raise your feeling of personal safety and ensure that you receive [the needed] service.”
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Produced in association with ISRAEL21c