Help with the push of a button

Evin Jaff, a first-year student majoring in biomedical engineering, began development of his button device in high school. Below, Jaff's button device. Submitted photos

It's a simple question: How can institutions provide help for people considering suicide?

For Evin Jaff, a first-year student majoring in biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering, the solution arrived the way many things do nowadays: through Amazon.

After losing a friend to suicide in his sophomore year of high school, he wanted to design a solution that could help prevent future deaths. He'd noticed within his own community that teens had a need for proper mental health resources but weren't taking advantage of offered services. Inspired by Amazon's Dash button technology, Jaff developed a product that connects at-risk individuals with the resources they need with the push of a button.

And while his original motivation was suicide prevention, he soon realized that his device could help many more.

"I came in with a very specific idea of suicide prevention, because that's hit closest to me," Jaff said. "But when I thought it through, I realized it's really just about getting help. People need help for a lot of different reasons, and you can have a button that does that all in one."

The device uses an API provided by Twilio, a cloud communications service, to connect callers with a resource hotline. Currently, the button acts as an intermediary; when callers press the button, it uses what Jaff calls "server magic" to call their phone from the hotline, similar to teleconferencing services. Once the two calls are live, the service unites them.

Until recently, connecting callers directly to a hotline in the absence of Wi-Fi was one of Jaff's biggest challenges; but the product has attracted interest from industry leaders and he was encouraged to continue working on the project. He recently started developing a version of his framework on an updated prototype of an AT&T-produced button, which works through more reliable cellular service. He's pushing to have a version of the button with an integrated microphone.

"That's the most exciting development ahead," he said. "Having the microphone would allow the button to be its own cell phone, making access to a crisis hotline extremely convenient."

jaff-button-device.jpgIn November, Jaff and his product were highlighted at the Creator's Gallery, hosted by the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He credits the Skandalaris Center with helping him continue to move forward with the product.

"I think the biggest difference between high school and developing it at WashU is that there's a lot of smart people around here to help me work through some of the harder stuff," Jaff said. Along with his biomedical engineering studies, he's also earning a minor in computer science.

Jaff admits that he'll need that additional help as the project continues to scale up. So far, he's worked with a network of five to 10 buttons; however, he's now focusing on improving the efficiency of the button so the network functions better under the stress of a campus-size network of 5,000 to 5,000 devices.

That hasn't limited Jaff's hopes for the product. He'd love for every person in the country to receive a device. Since starting development on it, Jaff has worked with counselors and mental health experts who specialize in suicide prevention, including the Jed Foundation, to ensure the efficacy and safety of the product.

"Since it's for getting help — with my initial intention being suicide prevention — it's really important that everybody has one," Jaff said. "If you just give it to people who need it the most, then that would single the person out. If everybody has it, it's no big deal for you to carry it around on your keyring."

Jaff's entrepreneurial spirit hasn't slowed since coming to WashU. Even if his button device doesn't continue forward, he's already got new ideas he's ready to develop.

"I'm willing to follow this where it goes," he said. "If it turns out that this isn't going to be a successful product, I still love entrepreneurship. I love product development. I will totally move on to the next great idea and try and figure that out."