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Lehigh students earn finals for $1M tech prize

A development team from Lehigh University in Bethlehem is in the running to win $1 million as part of an international technology contest aimed at increasing women’s safety.

The $1 million Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE challenges competitors around the world to leverage technology to create accessible and affordable safety solutions that help tackle violence and harassment against women. The winning technology should cost no more than $40 to the consumer.

Team Soterra, a group of Lehigh University students, is one of 21 finalists for the top prize.

Led by Lena McDonnell, Soterra uses global positioning services, cellular data and Bluetooth to build a versatile, reliable and affordable network to connect women to emergency support systems with or without internet access.

The team is “absolutely thrilled” to have been named finalists, said Morgan Schurr, a member of Soterra’s business team. She said it was quite an honor to be selected.

A senior at Lehigh, McDonnell said part of the excitement is that Soterra is the only college-based team to make the finals.

“That means we’re the only team starting from scratch,” she said. “The rest are existing companies, some that have had a product in development already.”

The semifinalists were chosen by an independent judging panel from a field of 85 teams following XPRIZE’s initial launch.

Anu and Naveen Jain, philanthropists and women’s safety advocates based in Seattle, developed the Women’s Safety XPRIZE as a response against the mounting frequency of harassment and assault women face across developed and emerging countries.

The competition challenges teams to develop an affordable, practical device that gives women the ability to quickly respond to threats.

The solution should autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert and transmit information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds.

Team Soterra is trying to raise money to get to the team summit – the finals – in April in Mumbai, India. There, judges will be testing a deployment-ready device.

The winner of the competition will be announced in June.

McDonnell said even if Team Soterra doesn’t win the top prize, competing has been an excellent experience in technology development.

“We’re building out of a need something that is actually valuable. This is not just some silly gadget,” she said. “It feels really good to work on this.”

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