When times get challenging, good entrepreneurs look for opportunities in the challenges.
That’s exactly what the founders of the Richmond-based startup Regulr are doing with a new mobile app they have created called Distance.
The app is designed to do exactly what the name suggests: It gives people a gentle reminder to maintain 6 feet of social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The staff at Regulr developed the app when the coronavirus pandemic forced them to delay the startup company’s other business plans.
“It gives people a real-time tool to encourage social distancing behavior,” said Stephen Dodge, founder of Regulr. “That is the goal of the app, to help people confidently maintain social distancing. As things open up, that is our best defense, other than PPE and sanitation. Social distancing is something we can keep top of mind.”
People can download the Distance app onto their mobile devices. It uses Bluetooth technology to alert them by vibrating whenever their device gets within 6 feet of another device that also has the app installed.
“As of right now, it is approved in the Google Play Store, if you have an Android device,” Dodge said. “What we are trying to accomplish now is to find an IOS partner for the app.”
To make the app available on IOS devices, Apple Inc. wants the company to find a large, institutional partner to introduce it, such as a government agency, health care provider or a university.
Regulr wants to give away the app for free to an institution that can promote it to large numbers of people, which is the only way it can really work to its best effect.
“Our biggest goal right now is really finding the right partner that will be able to reach and help the most people,” said Luke Rabin, the company’s product lead. “Otherwise, we are only helping a fraction of the people that we could be helping.”
The app also could work well in business or organizational settings where people are working or interacting in close proximity, the startup founders said.
“We hope this can really help in situations like that where companies are scrambling to figure out how to keep their employees safe,” Rabin said.
Rabin and Dodge said the tool is designed to protect privacy — it does not exchange any information between users other than the proximity alert. Unlike contact tracing systems, it does not track where its users go over a period of time.
The Distance app builds off of the startup company’s core technology and business model. Regulr developed a tech tool designed to help brick-and-mortar businesses provide more customized, personalized services for their customers.
Businesses that use the Regulr tool install a Bluetooth beacon on a window or door near the entrance of the store or business. When customers who have the Regulr app enter the business, the app sends a message to tablets or mobile devices used by the store’s employees, letting them know who the customer is and what their shopping preferences are.
Regulr ran a pilot program for its technology last year and was preparing to introduce it to a wider market this spring. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and retailers nationwide shut down their operations.
“We had three conferences we were going to, to exhibit it, and all those got canceled,” Dodge said.
Dodge said he believes a market for Regulr’s core business will return. In the meantime, though, the Regulr team turned its attention to developing the Distance app. In just five weeks, the team reworked its existing Bluetooth technology.
“We approached it from the point of view of what we could do, in the midst of the crisis, by re-purposing some existing tech and scrambling a team to make something as fast as possible,” Rabin said. “It has been a labor of love.”