Sarah Spann heard the steps behind her and quickened her pace. The man pursuing her on the University of Florida's campus sped up too. She ducked into an apartment-complex parking lot, but he lurked across the street.
Spann quickly tapped an emergency icon on her iPhone, which signaled her location to campus police. Minutes later, officers arrived and caught the suspect as he fled. It was the first time the UF junior had used TapShield, a mobile security app built by an Orlando company.
"Ever since that happened, believe me, a lot of my friends have now downloaded it," she said. "It's a great safety net for us, and you can't imagine how much that means to people these days."
Among all the mobile apps dotting the digital landscape — from gaming to couponing — Orlando startup TapShield LLC has focused on one designed to save lives on college campuses. TapShield's system is the newest entry in an increasingly competitive field of campus-security apps. The free app draws on cloud-based computing, GPS and social media to give users a high-speed link to campus security, company officials say.
Its first customer, UF, has given TapShield a showcase that has caught the eye of other universities and potential corporate clients. About 10,000 UF students have downloaded the Android or iPhone app since its launch in February, according to the company.
TapShield's app also has captured the attention of investors, who have put about $800,000 into the company so far.
"TapShield is definitely a state-of-the-art way to deal with all the security issues we see on college campuses these days," said Orlando lawyer Fred Leonhardt, an early investor who is chairman of TapShield's board. "I did some checking around, and there's nothing out there as impressive as this app."
Leonhardt said he also was drawn to it because he has known TapShield's founder, Jordan Johnson, basically "from the time he was born." Johnson, a native of Celebration, is the son of Leonhardt's longtime friend Randy Johnson, a former GOP state legislator and former president of the Central Florida Sports Commission.
Jordan Johnson said he got the idea for TapShield while he was president of the UF student body in 2009, when the school had a rash of attacks and robberies by suspected gang members. He focused on mobile communications as a potential solution that would go beyond the blue-light emergency phones on campus that are linked directly to campus police.
Nobody was too impressed with his idea then, he said. Johnson recalled a meeting he attended with police and other campus-safety officials.
"At that time, I showed them a BlackBerry and told them that one day, everybody would have these. It would be like a mobile blue-light phone people could use to alert security wherever they were," he said. "Everybody kind of laughed. They thought I was crazy."
Four years later, UF police have embraced TapShield. After a competitive bid, the school awarded the company a $70,000 contract to install the software as part of its dispatch system.
Based on UF's experience, Valencia College is also considering TapShield, said Paul Rooney, assistant vice president for security and a former Orlando police chief.
"We're definitely interested, and it is something I'm reviewing even as we speak," he said. "Like any technology, of course, we want to find out as much as we can and weigh all our options."
The University of Central Florida, however, was more reserved about using a mobile-app system like TapShield. Traditional 911 systems are "the most reliable" emergency system for a college campus, the college said.
"We are interested in how systems have been working at other universities," spokesman Chad Binette said in an email. "We also want to be certain that any new technology we adopt would be reliable and effective across our many campuses located throughout Central Florida."
Johnson moved TapShield from Gainesville to Orlando last year to be near his accountants, investors and legal team. Leonhardt's firm, GrayRobinson, is TapShield's patent and intellectual-property counsel.
A relative newcomer, TapShield is taking on more than a dozen larger, established players such as Massachusetts-based Rave Mobile Safety, as well as many other startups in the campus-security-technology sector.
It will take time for TapShield to gain traction, said David L. Perry, president-elect of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and Florida State University's police chief.
"There are so many of these companies out there now, it can be overwhelming," said Perry, who is evaluating TapShield for FSU. "You really have to do your homework and research to make sure any of these products are a good fit and really meet the need on campus."
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