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Beaverton entrepreneur banks on saving lives

Jessica Yu, 14, first thought of Safe With Me Now as a science project while in middle school


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - What sets apart Jessica Yus safety feature on a baby car seat are two sensors that  alert parents that their child is left alone in a vehicle through a key fob.A couple of years ago, Jessica Yu was a Beaverton student in Highland Park Middle School's Summa Program in search of a cool science fair project.

That’s when it struck her that she had seen more than one news story about babies dying, often of heatstroke, after being forgotten in cars.

“You see those headlines every summer,” said the Beaverton resident, now a 14-year-old freshman transfer student at West Linn High School.

One of the tragic incidents that year happened close to home, after an Intel employee forgot to drop his infant daughter at child care and instead left her in the back of his car parked in Hillsboro. The baby girl died.

So Yu, who has a keen interest in technology, set out to solve a problem that was more pressing than most 12-year-old’s science projects — it was a matter of life and death.

Her idea evolved into a three-piece device that uses two sensors in the vehicle — pressure and motion — to alert parents through a key fob when a child is alone in a vehicle.

When her prototype won “Best of Fair” in the Intel Northwest Science Expo, Yu knew she was on to something.That something grew into a product she calls Safe With Me Now, which Yu hopes to start selling this year.

While her own engineering prowess came up with the combination of technologies that makes it work, Yu credits the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) with helping her refine the idea to make it more marketable. She has filed for a patent.

“When I found YEA!, that was the perfect opportunity,” the young CEO said. “I feel like it actually could be a business.”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - What sets apart Jessica Yus safety feature on a baby car seat are two sensors that  alert parents that their child is left alone in a vehicle through a key fob.

“YEA! really pushed her to beyond what her limits were,” especially in the marketing aspects, said her mother, Hongyu Meng.

Steve Morris, executive director of the Oregon Technology Business Center and Yu’s YEA! mentor, said at such a young age, Yu was willing to do the work some older entrepreneurs fail to achieve.

“She certainly showed a lot of initiative in getting done what she got done,” including putting her ideas in front of potential customers, Morris said.

“She was working on a problem that wasn’t a trivial problem,” he added.

The lessons were well-learned. Yu’s business was the top finisher among 11 young entrepreneurs who completed the 2015-16 YEA! program. This spring, she scooped up $2,753 from impressed investors ready to help get her idea to market.

“Her preparation and her work was outstanding,” said Evelyn Orr, who coordinates YEA! for the chamber. “She has a great mind for the product.”

Being the top finisher in Beaverton’s program also earned Yu a trip to YEA! National semifinals in Rochester, N.Y., in early May, where she connected with 100 other young entrepreneurs.

Yu will soon be able to sell her product online and also plans to start marketing by introducing Safe With Me Now through day-care centers in Washington and Clackamas counties before branching out farther. She said her first unit will retail for $149.

There are other devices on the market aimed at signaling parents when they might have left a child behind. Most of those rely on pressure sensors in a child’s seat.

Yu’s invention has that feature as well, but after her research, found that nearly half of all children who die while left in cars weren’t in the child seat, so she added a motion sensor able to detect someone left anywhere inside.

“That’s kind of my piece,” she said.

Yu said she continues to tinker with her idea and may offer other features, such as blue-tooth connectivity to the driver’s smart phone and the potential for incorporating heat sensors, part of one of her earlier concepts. She also said a similar device could be designed and marketed for pet owners.

Though still three years away from college, Yu already is thinking about a double major in business and technology with an eye to a lifetime of solving problems with new inventions.

“I do want to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “It has to always be on your mind.”