In late 2021, just after moving to Northern Virginia from Dallas, Texas, to attend George Mason University, Arastalis B. Choudhury’s car was stolen. The difficulties he encountered as a result of that crime gave him an idea.
He called the police and reported it, got a case number, and the process began. But Choudhury, a communication major, figured there had to be a better way.
“The system is, respectfully, ‘old school,’ and things just weren't really up to date with how technology is today,” he said.
He wrote down all his thoughts on how the system could be better and shared them with his friend and fellow Mason student Fariha Askar, who is majoring in computational and data sciences. She then took his ideas and constructed a flow chart of how the system could work.
That’s when the real work began. They started their research with attorney to have a patentability search done. “After around three or four days, the lawyer got back to us, and it was great news,” said Choudhury. “He told us that our idea was novel, that there was nothing like it out there.”
But they were at a loss for what to do next, so they turned to their resources at Mason, reaching out to professors in computer science and data sciences for informational interviews. “We got a lot of responses from the professors, and we started sitting down with them,” said Askar.
It was James Baldo, director of the graduate Data Analytics Engineering Program in the College of Engineering and Computing, who connected them to the Mason Innovation Exchange (MIX) and its incubator program. The MIX is also where they met computer science major Rediet Tadesse, who loved their idea and wanted to work them.
And that’s how their company NECX, which stands for Non-Emergency Communication Exchange, was born.
“The reason we have non-emergency our name is to clarify that we're not here to replace 911 at all,” said Choudhury.
Tadesse immediately began working on a prototype while Choudhury and Askar continued their research, which include interviewing members of the Mason and Fairfax County police departments about day-to-day operations and taking a deep dive into victim services.
“We knew the problem isn't that [the police] don't do anything—it’s more the flood of information,” said Askar.
Their solution is a multi-platform service, which includes a free mobile app for the victims of crime and a computer web app, which is accessible by a computer for the police and detectives to do all their work. There is also a platform dedicated to victim services.
They also took their idea to the national pitch competition TiE, coming in eighth out of 68 teams from around the country.
As a part of the MIX’s incubator, the team was able to take part in the mini Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP), which is an abbreviated version of the program offered to entrepreneurs through Virginia’s Small Business Development Centers, and were mentored by Senior Business Counselor David Powell.
Askar found the ICAP “homework,” documents that asked in-depth questions about their business, really valuable. And both found being with other entrepreneurs—and their critiques—very helpful.
“There were a few teams that were a bit ahead of us,” said Askar. “It provided a lot of insight because we could learn from their problems and also see problems to come.”
One of their biggest takeaways from the training is what they learned about customer segmentation.
“We had a very hard time figuring out who our customer was,” said Choudhury. “We knew how it could help this problem that was out in the world, but we didn't know who exactly would pay for it. ICAP really helped us with that.”