May 24, 2023
Culver Girls Academy alumna Sofia Dolan ’22 SG’19 was awarded $10,000 in the McCloskey New Venture Competition for envisioning a self-defense kit for bicyclists.
Dolan, a freshman at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, won the EquiCorp Award for the “Best Undergraduate Venture.” The McCloskey competition is organized by the IDEA Center at the University of Notre Dame.
Dolan, who is majoring in finance and economics, said she came up with the idea of a self-defense kit that could be hidden under a bike seat after riding in the South Bend area. The kit, called Bike Basics, includes red pepper spray, a pocketknife and a flashlight.
“There were times I would be riding my bike at dusk or when it was dark and I felt uneasy and vulnerable,” she said. “There were times I wish I had something.”
Dolan said she was accustomed to full days of activities at Culver, and she found herself with so much more free time in college. She got involved in some activities, then she heard about the McCloskey competition.
“I decided that I wanted to enter it just to have something else to do and to enhance my resume,” she said.
The competition is an opportunity for students, faculty and alumni at Notre Dame, Holy Cross College and Saint Mary’s to test the validity of ideas and innovations. The competition is designed to strengthen startup skills by providing insights from mentors and judges.
There were 141 teams that entered. Dolan said most of the entrants had been working on their innovations for several years and were looking for funding. Teams must include at least one student from the tri-campus community. Some were led by professionals with startup experience.
Dolan began thinking about what product she could make when she read about the competition last October. That’s when she came up with the idea of a self-defense kit.
She said she knew people could buy red pepper spray, a pocketknife and a flashlight on their own. Her innovation was to put them in an inconspicuous spot where they would be easily accessible. The kit also could be adapted for scooters and skateboards.
After making it past the first round, she got some advice from Saint Mary’s professors. The second round continued the development of the idea with more information.
The semifinal round, involving 30 teams, was more demanding. Up until then, the product was held together by Velcro and looked homemade. So Dolan went to the Innovation Lab at the Idea Center at Notre Dame, where she talked to four engineers. They helped her use a 3D printer to make a prototype.
Dolan said many of the judges congratulated her after her presentation and commented on the professionalism she displayed. She credits that to what she learned at Culver.
“Because of the leadership system and the multiple presentations Culver students make and the exposure of presenting in front of people, that really helped me,” she said. “I think a lot of my presentation skills, my confidence, my enthusiasm, and my ability to connect with people are due to Culver. I learned how to speak in front of a group at Culver.”
She also said she learned time-management at Culver, which is why she had time on her hands to create this idea.
“Because I learned an effective way to accomplish all of my homework and studies at Culver, I was able to be part of this and begin thinking outside the box of how I could be involved in the community,” she said.
Dolan said she is still working on a prototype and will be asking college students to try it for free.
"We want feedback to improve Bike Basics before taking it to market,” she said.
She said she might use different combinations of items to include in the kit. Some people have asked her about the pocketknife. She said she doesn’t envision the pocketknife as a potential weapon, but as something that can be used as a tool in an emergency.
She said other people have said they might not want to use pepper spray. She said some kits might include a body alarm instead.
“We’re trying to go a customizable route because different people have different needs,” Dolan said.
She plans to start marketing the kit around South Bend, then expand to the Midwest, and then to colleges and big cities throughout the United States.
“It’s a multi-step process and still in the developmental stages,” she said.
She said she’s already being inundated by requests from people interested in the product.
“It’s crazy how Bike Basics has resonated, and how many people are interested in the utility and practicality of it” she said.