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Tuesday, October 18, 2011 - Supporting New Business: Software developer turns to SBA for distracted driving market research

There is no doubt in Mouhamad Naboulsi’s mind that the technology he developed to prevent distracted driving has the potential to save lives.


But it took the assistance of Oakland University’s SBA to help the founder and president of West Bloomfield-based iQ-Telematics to gather concrete evidence to confirm there is a market for his solution.


Thanks to expert market research oversight by Professor Ravi Parameswaran, SBA’s management and marketing department chair, and survey work conducted by three recent SBA graduates, Naboulsi is now armed with detailed data to use in presentations to prospective investors.


“Without OU's SBA, I would still be looking for an objective confirmation of research I have done by myself,” Naboulsi says. “Such research costs about $50,000. A small company like mine barely makes that kind of money in a year. 


“Having a market research study of this caliber completed by dedicated, talented business students and managed by very enthusiastic faculty gives the research solid credibility and strengthens my confidence in my invention.”


Growth of a product


Naboulsi’s invention, which began with the seed of an idea he used decades earlier in a college project, evolved into a suite of solutions designed to allow drivers to utilize communications devices while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.


The iQ-Gateway uses steering sensors and operates in concert with the vehicle network to read what’s happening with the car and determine the busyness and potential stress of the driver. It then issues commands to equipment, services and devices – placed in the system’s smart cradle -- to activate or suspend them, as needed. The system is able to decrease possible distractions or address the driver’s need for help. It also allows safer connectivity and interaction with the e-mail, web and texting applications by providing audio summaries.


The product is geared toward the most effected groups in the distracted driving market -- government and commercial fleets, busy professionals and parents with new drivers.


Augmenting the data


Through the research he conducted and national data he collected, Naboulsi believed there was a market for his invention. iQ-Gateway is the product of nearly 10 years of research and development by Naboulsi. By fall of 2002, he had a prototype that was receiving positive responses at technology conferences.


It was at one such conference where Naboulsi connected with SBA Dean Mohan Tanniru. Recognizing the value and reputation of OU's SBA, he asked Tanniru for the SBA's support in developing and launching his product. After seeing the product demonstration, Tanniru agreed a project would benefit everyone. Tanniru then connected Naboulsi and Parameswaran.


From the SBA perspective, partnering on business projects supports the school's goals in several ways -- providing real-world learning for students and supporting new business growth in the region, Tanniru says.


"In addition to his prototype, individual research and national data, it was apparent Mr. Naboulsi would need an objective look at perspectives on distracted driving,” Parameswaran says.


Team effort, team rewards

With a goal of determining market readiness/acceptance of the products, three SBA alumni worked with under the guidance of Parameswaran and Ram Mohan Pisharodi, associate professor, marketing.


Anjana Nayak, MBA '08; Domenic Calagna, Marketing ’10; and Clairese Hagemann, General Management ‘10, worked four months on the painstaking process of developing a survey to meet Naboulsi's objectives, identifying a service to conduct the survey, and organizing and presenting the results.


Calagna was familiar with the Naboulsi’s work before they met at the university, Naboulsi says.

Each of the participants was supportive of his goals and invested in helping him succeed.


"The process was demanding but tremendously valuable," Hagemann says.


The experience gave all the participants a chance to put what they learned in the classroom to use in the real world.


“The advantage here was the students could take on a project beyond their curriculum,” Parameswaran says


“It definitely helped me grow professionally,” Hagemann adds. “I took a leadership role with the project, and it provided an opportunity to work with a client and focus on producing what he needed. I got real-world market research experience on an engaging subject."


In fact, each team member found professional marketing positions while working on the project.


“To a certain extent, this project contributed to their getting the jobs,” Parameswaran notes. “Their experience cemented the process.”


Real world impact


Immersing themselves in the survey subject matter was a thought-provoking experience for the SBA team members, Parameswaran says. “The students were extremely engaged because this is something that impacts all of us. It’s a very timely issue.”


Distracted driving also is a widespread issue. Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed 20 percent of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving, defined as any activity that has the potential to remove the driver’s attention from the primary task of driving, from grooming and eating to using a PDA or navigation system. In 2009, 5,474 people were killed on U.S. roadways, and an estimated additional 448,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes that were reported to have involved distracted driving.


Since that study, the potential for more technology competing for drivers’ attention has been increasing rapidly -- from updated smartphone applications to car manufacturers integrating technology into the vehicle. In fact, a June 2010 survey of 1,000 adults by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. found that about 25 percent of cell phone users, and 37 percent of users under the age of 35, download mobile applications to their phones. Of those people who download apps, more than one in four admitted to using those apps while driving. These practices are considered especially dangerous because they require drivers to take their eyes and attention off the road.              


Serious about safety


The SBA survey results combined with national data make a compelling case for the iQ-Gateway.


The SBA research -- which polled individuals in states where laws mandate hands-free use of phones and telematics devices -- showed:

  • More than half of the respondents indicated they were very concerned about driver distractions
  • Another 31 percent said they were somewhat concerned
  • More than half of the respondents feel safer using hand-free devices and feel guilty for using hand-held phones


When presented with iQ-Gateway’s individual distraction prevention features:

  • More than half indicated the feature is desirable
  • 80 percent or more praised many of the features
  • 87 percent agreed that the smart hands-free system should be mandatory
  • 61 percent of the participants expressed interest in purchasing a device for their use


Promising future


Naboulsi says he is bringing this data to prospective investors and is encouraged by the positive feedback his solution has received from representatives from the auto industry, though no one has committed to large-scale implementation yet.


“All major companies already proved our system and constructed test vehicles using our intellectual property,” he notes in the Q&A segment of his Web site. “The industry requires long lead time to implement new technology. Regulation will help make the implementation possible. DOT (Department of Transportation) Secretary (Ray) LaHood has made the issue a top administration priority.”


Lawmakers who have heard about the solution have responded favorably as well, Naboulsi says. “And we are still working on promotion and education.”    


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By Flori Meeks CAS '88