UC-Berkeley ‘is getting sued for sexual assault and it’s hard to get them on the phone’
As California colleges encourage students to be passive recipients of sex and then accuse their partners of failing to obtain “affirmative consent,” one Oakland startup is going in the opposite direction.
Robocopp is marketing its first product, the “Grenade” wearable alarm, to local college students as a personal-safety device that can guard them against sexual assault as well as muggings.
Grenade’s reliance on users to activate the alarm – affirmatively defending themselves – may explain why the nearby University of California-Berkeley has chosen not to make bulk purchases of the Grenade for students as part of its sexual-assault prevention efforts.
The school “is being sued and scrutinized because they’ve done nothing to help address [sexual] assault, let alone end it,” Robocopp co-founder Sam Mansen told The College Fix in an email interview. “They have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the problem” rather than give students tools to defend themselves.
When a user pulls the pin out of Robocopp’s Grenade, the device makes an ear-piercing noise that’s intended to scare off attackers and alert those nearby that someone is in danger.
“It increases personal safety. The deterrence aspect of it can scare [away] petty crimes,” Jill Turner, Robocopp public relations director, told The Fix in a phone interview.
The Grenade looks like a thumb drive and comes with a cord, so it can be worn on the wrist, placed on a keychain or shoved in a pocket. It retails for $27.99, or $99.99 for a pack of five, and includes a five-year warranty.
Curiously, Amazon is offering different discounts on the device based on its intended use: A version of the Grenade marketed under a different name, for safety-conscious hikers, is marked down to $19.99, while the Grenade as such is $23.99.
The Grenade’s design is based on university research that says sound is one of the main ways to scare off criminals.
Robocopp cites research by a University of North Carolina-Charlotte criminologist that found four in five burglars “would attempt to determine if an alarm was present before attempting a burglary.” It also cites research from 1988 on Swiss banks, which found that nearly 7 in 10 men holding up a bank run away empty-handed “as soon as the alarm is heard.”
“We are using it to solve problems,” said Mansen, who focuses on tech and design, in a phone interview with The Fix.
For colleges, “it helps campus security track down people who need help. They can’t be everywhere, but to track down a sound is a lot easier,” said Mansen.
Though Robocopp wants to “prevent any kind of assault possible,” Turner said, she acknowledged that the Grenade “is not a blanket solution to all instances of sexual assault.”
The company is four months into the development of its flagship Grenade and has sold a few hundred devices so far, which are also available in two stores off campus, in Berkeley, and from Robocopp’s own website.
Turner said “a lot students have purchased” the Grenade, but Mansen doesn’t understand why campus officials don’t show a greater sense of urgency by proactively giving students devices like the Grenade.
“[UC-]Berkeley is getting sued for sexual assault and it’s hard to get them on the phone,” he said.
Developed to protect his sister at UC-Berkeley
The issue is personal for Mansen who said he designed the Grenade for his sister, a Berkeley student, so she would “feel safe” on campus.
“We would table outside the Berkeley campus and tell students about it who are walking by,” Mansen said. “Our first paying customer was a Berkeley student.”
Yet relevant officials “don’t actually care about campus safety,” Mansen said. Robocopp staff “met with a couple of their safety office staff members and they had zero interest” in new crime-prevention technology.
Robocopp has also had trouble getting the Grenade sold at other universities because they are “bureaucratic,” Mansen said.
Mansen speculates that campus offices dealing with student safety “have zero incentive to be creative” and “will receive funding regardless of their output. … You need a couple of entrepreneurs who are 20-40 years in age and are into the latest gadgets” to run an effective office, “not burnt out bureaucrats who have zero knowledge or interest in safety.”
Robocopp isn’t trying to corner the market for anti-assault technology, Mansen said in an email. “We want ALL university administrations to start handing out their students (men AND women) effective personal safety devices,” even if it’s not Robocopp’s.
“You can do nothing about it or you can build a tool that anyone can use,” said Mansen.
Sales hurdles haven’t stopped the team from working on Robocopp’s next-generation product, the Sentry.
Resembling a wristwatch, Sentry essentially turns the Grenade into a smart beacon. When users activate the device’s ear-splitting alarm, their GPS location will also be sent to a dispatcher at the nearest police station. It will come with 24/7 support.
Users can also program five phone numbers into the Sentry, which will receive a text message with the location of the wearer when activated.
Though college students are the main targets for Robocopp, people in different walks of life have praised the Grenade.
Among the user testimonials on Robocopp’s website, a self-described police officer in Garland, Tex., said his wife and daughter “love” the Grenade: “I feel more comfortable with them having this on their person.”
Catherine Castillo, a real estate agent referred by Robocopp, told The Fix by email that the Grenade is “excellent” because it makes a loud sound that “gets people’s attention around me and is easy to use and [I] can carry it around my wrist.” It also can’t be taken by attackers and used against Castillo, she said.
IMAGES: lilmallugirl/Shutterstock, Robocopp, Amazon screenshot