By Miriam Valverde Sun Sentinel.
The news about the death of a Florida State University graduate from South Florida struck Lisa Thomas in a way she never imagined.
She didn't know 23-year-old Ryan Uhre, who died a year ago after an apparently accidental fall into an abandoned building in Tallahassee. His body was found more than two weeks after he was last seen.
Thomas' close relationship with her niece and nephews, in their teens and early 20s, made her think. "What if something were to happen to them?"
If something bad was ever to happen to them, "I would want to know earlier rather than later," the Oakland Park resident said.
So Thomas, 49, came up with an app that can help anyone, particularly college students and their parents, keep in touch via automated text messages.
The app, RollCall Safety Text, allows users to create custom messages that will be delivered to one or two contacts at set intervals -- such as every 24 or 48 hours. On iPhones, users get a pop-up notification that they need to approve for the message to be sent. On Android phones, the message is sent at the preset intervals without a notification coming up. But it's only sent if the phone has been used around the time the message is scheduled to be delivered.
If the recipients don't get the planned text messages, that can be a red flag that something may be wrong, Thomas said.
"If someone didn't use their phone within 24 hours, you know there's a problem," Thomas said. "This way you know ahead of time and start looking for them."
It costs $19.99 a year to use the app, which also includes an optional GPS locator feature. If the GPS feature is turned on, it will tag the user's location to the outgoing message.
Thomas says she doesn't have a tech background. She used to work as a teacher's assistant, so she contracted a company in Miami to help her develop the app.
Rob Strandberg, chief executive of Enterprise Development Corp., says it's getting increasingly difficult for entrepreneurs to set themselves apart with new apps, since there are so many out there available to consumers.
"It's very, very difficult to stand out unless you have something that is, in my opinion, just extraordinary, fulfilling a need that has yet to be focused on, a significant problem that no one else has tried to solve," said Strandberg, whose nonprofit provides advisory and support services to entrepreneurs and investors in South Florida.
"If you can focus on almost a niche or specific challenge or problem that as an entrepreneur you are very familiar with, that would give you a leg up," Strandberg said.
While the app came about with college students in mind, Thomas says it can also be useful to people who have family members whom they don't see or hear from daily.
"My mother-in-law lives in Fort Lauderdale, but I don't see her every day," Thomas said. "Every day I get a text from her. If 24 hours go by and I don't get that text, I call her and make sure everything is okay."
"It's peace of mind," she said.