Imagine sending your 16-year-old child off on the road for the first time, alone. How do you feel? Nervous? Scared? Worried for their safety?
When Christian Johnson’s son obtained his license, she felt anxious, especially while thinking about statistics regarding distracted driving, drunk driving, and police pullovers.
“I wanted a way to get alerted if something happened on the road. I never wanted to be the last person to know if something happened,” she said.
Johnson, a single mother, domestic violence survivor, motivational speaker, and self-described “serial entrepreneur," enjoys finding ways to solve problems. She decided to combine the skills she learned as owner of a debt management company since 2008, and in promotion – she brought Kevin Hart to the University at Buffalo before his career exploded – to find a way to cope with her son’s new life adventure.
A few months after her son began driving, her mother, a police officer and diabetic, had a stroke while driving.
Johnson brainstormed and ultimately came up with the idea to create a smart driving safety device with dual HD 175-degree panoramic cameras, allowing users to see inside and outside their vehicles in real time through a secure mobile application.
She had her loved ones in mind, but her son was less than enthusiastic. “He was like, ‘You want to do what?’” she laughed. “Nobody wants to watch their child all day long. That’s not what it is for. He wasn’t happy, but he understood it was for his safety. I wanted a product that would do everything I wanted it to do, which would bring me some piece of mind, so I began to develop it.”
She began by doing market research, including visiting DMVs across the region to talk to parents who were bringing their kids in for permit tests. She also partnered with some parenting blogs and created an online focus group to see if other parents thought her idea would be useful and, if so, what features they were looking for and how much they would pay for the device. Based on the overwhelmingly positive response she received, the Buffalo native began assembling a team to help develop a business plan, put in a provisional patent, and find companies and organizations in the region to collaborate with to make her product, Driver Watchdog, come to fruition.
“A lot of organizations here have been really helpful,” Johnson said. The University at Buffalo has been a strong supporter of Driver Watchdog, allowing her to use its facilities, work with students on product development, and interact with professors for input. She was also thankful to receive grants from the Buffalo Urban League (Women of Minorities & Technology Grant) and National Grid (Research and Development).
“We started finding capital and support in places I never would have thought of, but it has been a great experience,” Johnson shared. “Even if it has not been (with) money, different organizations, (such as) the City of Buffalo, the Innovation Center, have all been in some way supportive of what we have been trying to do. I want to bring jobs here because I’m from here.”
Gaining capital, however, has been far from an easy feat. “The main struggle is being a black woman in technology,” she said. “You have to be that much better than your counterpart to even get noticed. The only reason I haven’t lacked funding is because I have been grinding and going around the country pitching at competitions.”
Her dedicated team has been a strong asset during development. “It is a struggle to get together a team that believes in a product that is not getting paid and is in it for the long haul. I knew I couldn’t do everything and had to find people that were smarter than me, who knew what I didn’t know. I was lucky and blessed to find them.”
The team has enjoyed success, and has developed its third Driver Watchdog prototype. The device has been presented at South by Southwest and featured in countless publications, as well as on the investment reality show “Rooster and Butch” on A&E. In 2016, Johnson was one of 100 entrepreneurs invited to the White House by Barack and Michelle Obama for South by South Lawn.
“That recognition was great. That will probably be my best memory ever,” she said cheerfully. “We celebrate every milestone. One thing leads to another.”
Driver Watchdog is scheduled to be available for purchase in October, and will offer features such as a remote panic button, the ability to view your car as you approach it to ensure the area is safe, G-Force sensor technology, a fatigue sensor to prevent drivers from falling asleep at the wheel, and biometric alerts to inform emergency contacts if the driver’s blood pressure is above or below a certain point. It also can enable you to easily access Wi-Fi and download recordings for future use; for example, providing a video of an accident to your insurance company.
The overall goal of the product is to keep drivers safe and to alert loved ones as soon as something unplanned occurs. Johnson hopes her product will someday be used in aircrafts and public transportation, in addition to cars.
“This is just the beginning,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned so much through this and look forward to applying it to more innovative and creative ways to solve problems in the world. We want to make driving safer.”