Annie Zhang develops jewelry that alerts police and records audio to prevent attacks and help prosecute attackers

Annie Zhang works on developing "smart jewelry" in the College Avenue Makerspace located within the Honors College at Rutgers–New Brunswick.
Photo: Courtesy of Nick Romanenko

"We want to create a community in which men and women feel safe and can pursue their goals to reach their full potential,” – Annie Zhang

A desire to make a difference in preventing sexual assault and saving lives became the inspiration for a "smart jewelry" project Annie Zhang spearheaded during her time at Rutgers.  

Zhang, a senior in Rutgers–New Brunswick’s  Honors College and Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, dedicated many hours as a co-creator of Merakhi, a company developing electronic bracelets that can be worn by anyone concerned about the risk of sexual assault – such as students who have to walk home late at night.

As Zhang prepares for graduation and reflects on her experiences at Rutgers, she believes this project that she worked on with her fellow Honors College students was the most important. The inspiration came as a result of the documentary film India’s Daughter, which details a sexual assault case and surrounding rape culture in India that she watched with a four-member team of women at the Honors College.

“As we did more research, we began to understand how common sexual assault is, how infrequently it is reported, and oftentimes, how victims lack evidence in court. We have also had many of our peers personally affected by sexual assault. We want to create a community in which men and women feel safe and can pursue their goals to reach their full potential,” Zhang said.

When the wearer double-clicks a hidden button, the smart bracelet can send an alert along with GPS coordinates to a pre-designated emergency contact. A triple-click can send an alert to police. The exact number of clicks can be modified depending on the user’s preferences. Unlike similar devices that also alert police, Zhang’s bracelet will record audio that can help in the prosecution of attackers.

“Most sexual assault cases aren’t reported because victims are traumatized and not ready to talk. Many of those who do report have little if any evidence,” said Zhang, who will graduate this spring with a bachelor of science in health administration from the Bloustein School. “Having the audio recorded immediately can help prove their story and will hopefully help victims have the confidence to speak up if they want to.”

Unlike similar devices on the market, the smart bracelet doesn’t rely on Bluetooth technology for a short-distance connection to the user’s cell phone. “That’s because we don’t want our device to be rendered useless if the user leaves their cell phone in the car or at home while walking to class or work,” Zhang said.

Zhang’s Merakhi teammates, fellow Honors College seniors Priyanka Patel, Sara Ali, and Rachel Winner, developed their ideas in the Honors College Forum, a mission course focused on tackling global issues through social innovation while teaching students how to transform their ideas into action. They developed their idea further in the Honors College Innovation Lab under the mentorship of Honors College Director of Innovation Mukesh Patel. The team had access to computer assisted design technology and 3D printers to create prototypes at the College Avenue Makerspace located within the Honors College. 

While the bracelets started as a class project in spring 2016, they officially began working on the project as a start-up in fall 2016. Merakhi recently filed a provisional utility patent and is collaborating with a product design and hardware development company. In March, they shared a prize in the Rutgers Business School’s annual business plan competition – the only group of undergraduates to do so.

Zhang, who recently accepted a position with a medical technology company, is part of the Honors College’s first graduating class since its creation in fall 2015 and also helped establish and serves as co-chair for the Honors College Alumni Society, to ensure graduates continue to network and support each other. 

With graduation approaching for all the team members, the future of the project remains uncertain. Zhang is hopeful they will come back together to continue their work.

“The global philanthropic work and perspective I gained while at Rutgers is something I plan to take with me throughout my career,” Zhang said. “I can’t thank Rutgers and the Honors College enough for their support.”