Peoria entrepreneur develops mobile app for emergencies, peace of mind

Oct 7, 2015

The winner of a pitch competition for tech startups in Peoria is one step closer to making his mobile app a reality. The program “Virtual Halo” would be an alert system on smartphones that contacts people in the case of an emergency. Kind of like a personal SOS signal.

Josh Swank works for a mining company. After visiting a worksite outside Barranquilla, Colombia, he and his crew hopped into their truck and headed back toward town. Then they hit an unexpected checkpoint.

“There were walls of sandbags on either sides of the road, some of the members of the military there, and they stopped our truck,” Swank said.

Josh Swank (right) with his colleague in Colombia.
Credit Josh Swank

Panic washed over him. Swank doesn’t speak Spanish. He saw the soldiers’ guns and thought of violent drug cartels depicted on the TV series “Narcos.”

“And they pulled my colleague and I out, and we were brought to the back of the truck,” Swank said. “I was concerned, I thought, what’s going to happen? Am I going to get shot or kidnapped or what?”

The officers turned out to be police. They wanted a payoff, 20 bucks, which Swank gladly paid. But in the months following that incident, he thought, “why isn’t there a panic button?”

That’s the concept behind his app, Virtual Halo. Swank says users program their personal contacts. And should an emergency arise, users can deploy an alert, like a personal SOS signal, to their contacts.

The app also has an upgrade option for emergency contacts to send scheduled “check ins” -- to make sure a relative or employee is okay.

“If they say yes, the app goes back to sleep and the person continues on their day,” Swank said. “If they say ‘no’ then it sends a notification out to their emergency contacts that says ‘John Smith indicated they are not okay. This is their current information and their contact information, they need assistance.’”

And he says Virtual Halo is not just for travelers in remote parts of the world. It also has potential application for seniors living independently or parents with young adults gaining more independence.  

In fact, another local tech startup is interested in using the app for its workers. Dog Jog works like Uber. It employs independent contractors who take clients’ dogs jogging while they’re away. Dog Jog says the emergency alert would be good layer of assurance for employees who may be jogging at night.  

Swank plans to launch Virtual Halo in the app store for smartphones and the Apple watch this December. He says he plans to start in the U.S., and expand to Spanish-speaking countries.