Phone is My Copilot: Startup Zoetic Uses Smartphones to Make Drivers Smarter

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Driver fatigue accounts for tens of thousands of crashes a year, and millions of drivers admit to dozing being the wheel on a regular basis. Still others are simply oblivious of their bad driving habits. They brake too hard, coast through stop signs and hang out in the passing lane.

Those behaviors could soon fly by the wayside with the help of NOD, a smart sensor mobile application being developed by former Air Force engineer Joe Adelmann and Army helicopter pilot Jim Jablonski.

Under most circumstance, smartphones are a distraction to drivers, but Adelmann and Jablonski have figured out how to turn a nuisance into a digital copilot. Drivers download the app, which is still under development, then mount their mobile device on their dashboard or place it in a cup holder while they drive. The program then uses features already built into most smartphones – accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS and video camera – to alert drivers if they appear to be dozing off and give them feedback on their driving.

Their startup, Zoetic, was recently awarded the grand prize at the second annual GE/OMD Incubator in New York. Adelmann and Jablonski were among 16 digital entrepreneurs invited to spend the summer working on their projects at OMD’s Manhattan offices. The 10-week “incubatorship” culminated with presentations to a panel of OMD and GE executives. “We judged the companies on four criteria, including how much the business evolved while they were here,” says OMD CEO Alan Cohen, who was one of about half a dozen judges and instrumental in bringing the incubator to the media company.

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While there were many impressive projects, Zoetic ultimately took home the $10,000 prize because “they were light years ahead in their vision,” says Cohen.

Though Adelmann and Jablonski did most of the leg work on Zoetic this summer, their company was  decades in the making. Friends since kindergarten, they spent their childhood in New Jersey taking apart lawn mowers, selling candy on the school bus and dreaming about one day going into business together – though college and military duty presented some detours along the way.

Jablonski, 30, majored in physics at West Point and, as an Army Captain, flew helicopters in Iraq and mentored the Afghan National Army. He’s now in graduate school at the Air Force Institute of Technology. Adelmann, also 30, got his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech and MBA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and spent about seven years in the Air Force –including a stint in Afghanistan – before heading to Harvard Kennedy School, where he’s working on a master in public administration in international development.

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Through it all, they remained fast friends and continued to brainstorm ideas. They started talking about building a company around mobile technology and smart sensors a few years ago. “I got the idea after reading an article about how to detect whether someone was about to fall asleep,” says Jablonski. “But at the time smartphones weren’t quite where they needed to be.”

Last spring, while browsing internships advertised at Harvard, Adelmann stumbled on the GE/OMD Incubator and realized that this was just the opportunity the friends needed to turn their idea into an actual product. Over the course of the summer, they worked on developing NOD while investigating other applications for smart sensor technology, such as using eye commands to control wheelchairs or turn the pages of ebooks.

Now that the incubator is over, they’re looking for a new base for their company – they’ve applied for the Harvard Innovation Lab – and are beginning to court investors. Given the track record of last year’s participants, that shouldn’t be a problem. “Most of them went on to receive additional funding,” says Cohen.

They initially plan to pilot the product via trucking companies, but their business model ultimately depends on rolling it out among consumers, ideally within the year. Though drivers will remain anonymous, insurers can use Zoetic data on individual driving habits to offer safe drivers their best rates, says Adelmann. Zoetic will earn a fee on successful leads. There’s also the potential for location-based offers for food, hotels, gas and other services. “But whatever we do, we want it to be unobtrusive,” says Adelmann.

After all, the whole point is to make better drivers, not distract them.

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