Jim Boyte spent years in the ‘90s developing products, and eventually a company, Daytona Beach, Fla.-based Installer Institute, a school for car audio installation. After he sold Installer Institute, he left it all behind to return home to Carthage, North Carolina, a town with two stop lights.
He became a pastor and found it rewarding to build relationships and help his community.
But then his son was born with a serious heart condition and, without insurance, the medical bills racked up. So he put his developer hat back on, kept working on apps, and took a full-time job at the U.S. Department of Defense, at Fort Bragg, as a software engineer.
As the headlines about mass shootings kept washing over the country, he thought he might be able to develop a solution that could help. He sought out teachers to ask them questions, like what would you do if eight of the kids in your class were so terrified and froze in place as a shooter entered the room? Questions that seem to have no right answers.
Eventually, that ad hoc effort grew into an app that recently won a $50,000 grant from NC IDEA SEED, is in use in 51 schools and centers and could save lives. The app fills a gap between when people on the scene are aware of what’s happening, and when first responders arrive.
“Every time there were multiple deaths, additional people suffered major harm, most of the time dying, because some of them just went the wrong way,” Boyte said. “Some of the people could have avoided, in most of the cases, death, in all of the cases, some major injury, if they had just known the right way to go,” said the passionate 57-year-old with a buzz cut and a southern twang.
There were 113 gun incidents at k-12 schools in 2020 alone. Only one was an active shooter, with the others being times a gun is brandished, shots were fired, or a bullet hit the school. That number has been on an incline over the last decade.
In many mass shootings in buildings like schools, the question of where the incident is happening — or where the shooter is moving — becomes paramount. Emergency protocols are in place, but teachers often feel helpless as they and their students are left vulnerable without any real way of knowing what’s going on. Though many companies have come up with solutions, including direct video feeds and drone systems, Boyte’s makes use of the people on the ground, teachers and others, with a simple technology: an app that creates a network of communication between the people on the scene.
Once this clicked, the solution was right in front of him. He got to work developing the app, which has grown from a barebones prototype into one with many features.
“We want to make sure every staff member and every student knows what the problem is and where it is relative to them because only when you know what the problem is relative to where you are, can you know the right way to go while you’re waiting those three to 10 minutes that are so critical for first responders to arrive,” Boyte said.
There are plenty of companies that have similar goals of creating alerts during emergencies. Take Newark, Calif.-based ShotSpotter, which has developed technology that notifies police of gun violence. It’s raised nearly $68 million, according to Crunchbase and is employed in police stations across the country. But ShotSpotter doesn’t sell to schools– its CEO, Ralph Clark, says shootings are so rare there that it doesn’t feel right to sell to them.
A handful are marketing emergency solutions — which stretch beyond shootings– directly to schools. One is Raptor, a Houston-based company that has been offering a school safety system to allow administrators to keep track of drills since 2002.
Active Defender’s geo-referencing map and many communication features sets it apart, Boyte said.
Already, it’s helped in a live situation in Moore County, North Carolina, when a student had a medical emergency on its baseball field during a school fun day. Its principal, Dyan Hope, shared in an Active Defender video testimony that the app streamlined the process and the student was safe.
Boyte is only getting started. He has big plans to expand the app’s features and campuses — in the next few months, he aims to triple its customers.
An App Built For Its Users
Active Defender displays a map of the campus — the school and its surrounding property, for instance. Teachers can note their location, but the app does not use GPS tracking, which helps to comply with HIPAA regulations and also allows the app to distinguish between floors in a building, Boyte said. Users can report incidents and mark their location, which is then alerted in a notification on others’ phones. The app prompts the reporter to answer simple questions that are easy to digest when flustered during an emergency: Is the person conscious? Are they breathing?
Once an incident is reported, users can chat within the app, making it even easier to communicate. A premium version also includes a toggle to notify others when you’ve made it to safety, which can help administrators better understand the state of their schools during emergencies. “It’s one thing if you’re doing a drill, and you can walk around and kind of check all the doors and see if everybody’s okay,” Boyte said. “But if it’s a real emergency, if it’s real smoke, or if it’s real bullets, you can’t do that.”
One feature a teacher requested was an instant way to call 911 and the school nurse when a student is having a serious medical emergency, such as a seizure. The app has a feature where you can hold down the app on the home screen and notify both in one click, saving seconds that could save the student’s life.
For student accounts, there’s even more features that help them notify others of their safety. For instance, a student can hold their thumb on the screen and if they don’t enter a pin 20 seconds after releasing it, the app will notify others that they need help.
Recently, it’s been updated to allow users to report safety hazards around their buildings, such as expired fire hydrants or a fire ant hill on the playground, with a picture and precise location. It gives them one place to report and for the administration to react. It’s also been helpful for Active Defender during COVID-19, as many schools halted in-person sessions.
Active Defender’s is priced on a sliding scale, depending on the number of users. Without the toggle displaying users’ safety, the cost is $29 dollars a month, or $300 a year, for 250 users or less, $59 a month, or $600 a year, for between 250 and 500 users, and $99 a month, or $900 a year for larger centers. For very large campuses, such as universities, Boyte plans to charge $200 a year for under 20,000 students and double that for higher numbers.
With the function that shows users’ status as green or red, it’s an additional $48 per user, Boyte said. “It’s not necessary,” he said. “It just is an incredible convenience and adds a lot of comfort.”
Currently, Boyte only has one other full time employee. But he often relies on part time help to train schools and map out new campuses. Recently, he’s been posting to university job boards to get maps developed, offering $100 an hour if the taker can turn the job around by the next day. He then stays in touch with those who respond for future projects.
He’s already beginning to meet with administrators on college and university campuses, with the goal to get the technology there. He’s met with a handful of community colleges, with two almost committed to signing on. He learned the app can help community colleges report incidents in compliance with the Clery Act, which requires schools to make note of any outside incident that occurs on their campus. Failure to comply is at minimum a $59,000 fine, and the app’s location reporting makes the process straightforward.
Boyte has big dreams that Active Defender will be across the country, not only in primary schools but on college and university campuses as well.
Another program the company is planning to launch later this year is for runners. Boyte is working with students on campuses who know the popular running routes to track where they are. Turn the function on, and the app will notify contacts of your choice if you veer 10 yards off the center of the trail or sidewalk. What’s more, it will send a recording every seven seconds to those contacts.
Boyte bootstrapped the company, and the recent grant from NC IDEA SEED is its first funding outside of friends and family. He plans to launch a pre-seed round soon.
Boyte is passionate about the impact. A friend asked him once if he’d rather have the whole grape or a chunk of a watermelon. He’s happy with the chunk.
“I just know we got technology that changes the world, it’s a paradigm shift,” Boyte said. “And I want to be a part, I don’t want to get in the way. And probably somebody else is gonna have to be the CEO later. You know what I mean, as we continue to grow.
“I just want to be a part of the team that changes the world.”