Photo: Samuel Hwang (left) and Martin Lee found that it was sometimes hard to connect with friends at school. Their new app lets them know which of their friends are around.

Written by Bianca Quijano

“At times I felt so alone,” says Lee.

His friend and fellow alum Samuel Hwang (BSc, 2012) lived in residence throughout his undergraduate years at UTSC and even then he occasionally felt disconnected.

“After I would contact a few of my friends to see if they are available and find that they are not, I would often just give up and do my own thing,” says Hwang. “Sometimes I would bump into my friends around campus, surprised that they’re actually here. There were so many missed opportunities.”

Reducing the student seclusion that he experienced first-hand was Lee’s main inspiration for Friends on Campus, an app which he developed with Hwang.

The app shows users a list of which of their friends are currently on campus. For privacy and safety purposes, it does not feature a map that pinpoints their contacts’ exact locations. Friends who are highlighted in blue are those available to meet up. Then, users can reach out to their friends using the chat feature.

“My vision is to help students connect on campus in a more efficient way. Texting, calling, tweeting – the system’s broken. It should be a tap away,” says Lee.

The app also has a hangouts feature which allows users to broadcast an “event” to their friends, specifying what they would like to do along with a time and location. Unlike events features on sites like Facebook, this is meant for more spontaneous get-togethers.

“If you have to set up an event page and invite people to it every time you want to go for lunch, that’s tedious and time consuming. This is a more casual feature that’s easier for students to use,” says Hwang.

Users can also create multiple groups where administrators can post updates on group hangouts. Those who may not want to broadcast that they are on campus have the option to remain invisible, at which point they will also not be able to see their friends’ availabilities.

Friends on Campus is free and available for android and IOS. So far, it’s exclusive only to UTSC students, faculty and staff, as a UTORID email is required for verification.

The project received support and infrastructure from IBM’s Global Entrepreneur Program, which gave them free access to $120,000 worth of servers. Lee and Hwang are working with student volunteers from UTSC, York University and the University of Waterloo. The project is also supported by the University. The pair found mentors in Professor Gray Graffam from The Hub, David Newman (director of Student Life at U of T St. George), Janine Robb (director of Health and Wellness at U of T St. George) and former UTSC Vice President Franco Vaccarino.

“UTSC is a place where innovation happens. This is also our way of giving back to the University,” says Lee.

With their backgrounds in psychology and mental health, Lee and Hwang hope that Friends on Campus helps reduce the stress that students go through during their studies. “Sometimes students are at risk of falling through the cracks. When they experience mental health issues it’s hard for them to reach out. If they can actually see who is on campus, it would be easier for them to find someone to talk to and seek help,” says Lee.

Since January, development moved quickly. Lee and Hwang say the most important lesson they learned is determination and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

“I’m not kidding when I say this – Martin actually went out and talked to over 1,000 U of T students. That’s how we figured out that this idea has potential value. That’s why we went full-time on the project,” says Hwang.

Market research is something that they strongly recommend to fellow entrepreneurs who are just starting out. They also advise protecting their ideas through non-disclosure agreements. For student entrepreneurs, they recommend applying for the many incubators available at the University such as The Hub and the Creative Destruction Lab, to connect with more experienced entrepreneurs and professors who can guide them through the business process.

“The best way to create an idea is to understand people. In the end, it’s the user that holds the phone, it’s the user that downloads the app or even pays for it,” says Lee. “You have to create something that people want.”