This determined EdTech founder is engineering hardware solutions, releasing new product lines quickly, and setting his sights on the enterprise market.
Derek Peterson is the rise-at-4 a.m. type. The marathon runner and Ironman triathlete type. The two-sport college athlete and two-time founder type. He’s hardly the type you’d think was bullied as a kid. But he was — and that led him to develop some seriously sophisticated tech to combat bullying. In less than two years, Peterson has appeared on Good Morning America, grown his Long Island-based company to 15 employees, and sold his products to more than 400 schools worldwide.
Soter Technologies delivers “environmental and social intelligence” to detect and prevent bullying, cyberbullying, vaping, and smoking. The company’s four education products lines are: Fly- Sense (a vaping and elevated sound incident smart alert system), GlueBoard (an anonymous mobile reporting app and incident management system), FlySights (a cloud-based social media monitoring solution for cyberbullying and threat detection), and Redact for Edu (a video redaction platform to protect student privacy across digital content).
In 2017, Soter announced it would give the first 10 school districts in all 50 states that sign up for its GlueBoard app a license-free first year. The mobile reporting/incident management software is more than a nicety — it helps districts comply with government mandates and win funding from state grants. Winning business in the education space has taken more than just a slick app and sound engineering; it has also meant tackling hardware.
THE PERILS OF HARDWARE MANUFACTURING
The sensors involved in Soter’s flagship FlySense product line add an extra layer of cost, and therefore risk, for the startup. “With just software, you can compile and rerelease to the internet quickly and inexpensively,” says Peterson. “Every spin of hardware you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars.” Even the Apples of the world with seemingly unlimited resources and expertise set hardware release dates and miss, so the complexity is multiplied immensely for a small startup.
Fortunately, Peterson has a background in hardware, having led an engineering team for barcode scanning manufacturer Symbol Technologies (now Zebra). His rolodex is still filled with contacts from his hardware and electrical engineering days, which is useful when you’re designing equipment from scratch. He did raise a small angel round to foot the bill for the upfront hardware costs, but since then Soter has been entirely self-funded.
“Getting into hardware is like asking a carpenter to come to your house,” Peterson says. “They don’t know what to expect. They might find termites or mold, and the bill gets higher and higher.” Overcoming the challenges that come with hardware is paying off. Once FlySense hit the market, it instantly garnered national media attention, and as of early fall 2018 there was a three- to four-week order backlog (and Peterson is adamantly working to shorten that production cycle).
UP NEXT: ENTERPRISE SOLUTIONS
Peterson frames the education opportunity as: “The market is made up of 98,000 public schools. We’re content there. We can stay in that market and be very happy. But if we want to be the next billion-dollar company, we need enterprise dollars, too.” Those dollars will come from businesses looking to prevent smoking and harassment.
His startup focused on the education space while looking ahead at enterprise opportunities. The product is just as agile — Soter’s first enterprise product, SoundBoard HR, has the same core engineering as the GlueBoard education product.
Peterson says the company is on track to release two new product lines soon. “My director of program management has to make sure I don’t get too crazy. When our engineering team tells me an idea defies the laws of physics, I remind them people can run a five-minute mile.” To be clear, Peterson runs a six-minute mile. He’s encouraging his team to take new products to market just as fast.
Employees: 15 Headquarters: Hauppauge, NY Year Founded: 2017