San Diego start-up helps college students avoid crowds on campus amid pandemic

As college students return to school amid the coronavirus, a San Diego start-up is helping them stay safe through technology that monitors crowds in real time in libraries, gyms and other high-traffic locations around campus.

Occuspace, founded by UC San Diego graduate Nic Halverson, uses a sensor that plugs into an electrical wall socket to pinpoint Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals from mobile devices, such as laptops and smartphones within a range of about 4,000 square feet.

An algorithm then predicts occupancy at up to 95 percent accuracy. Privacy protections have been built in to make the data anonymous. Occuspace claims it does not gather or store any information that would reveal a person’s identity.

Through a mobile app, students see how many people are at popular gathering places, thus avoiding crowds and the hassle of being turned away when buildings reach density limits under physical distancing guidelines.

The start-up’s technology has been deployed mostly in libraries at about a dozen universities so far, including UC San Diego, Baylor University, UC Santa Barbara and the Oklahoma University.

Nic Halverson, founder and CEO of Occuspace

Nic Halverson, founder and CEO of Occuspace

Since mid-April, customers and sales have surged nearly five-fold, said Halverson.

“We have more in-bound interest than we’ve ever had,” he said. “We raised a bit more money, doubled team size from four to eight people and are still growing faster than we can handle, which is fun.”

Based on current expectations, Halverson is hoping to be in over 30 schools by January. He expects growth to continue as more institutions bring back students.

Occuspace is among several technology tools being rolled out at universities to help students maintain physical distancing. They include a pilot program at UC San Diego and UC San Francisco that uses Bluetooth on cell phones to find people who have come in contact with the coronavirus.

Some college campuses have emerged as hotbeds for new COVID-19 cases this fall. San Diego State University continues to see an upsurge, which forced the university to pause in-person classes. There have been 933 confirmed and probable cases involving university students since the pandemic began, of which 353 have been connected to students living on campus.

Occuspace was slated to come to SDSU’s library, said Halverson, but the installation was paused because the building remains closed.

The University of Rochester in New York plugged in Occuspace at one of its libraries in August ahead of students returning for the fall semester. Students can check for crowds using Occuspace’s free Waitz app, or through the University of Rochester’s mobile app.

“This is part of our approach to helping folks to make responsible choices and empowering them to be safe and conscientious,” said Lauren Di Monte, assistant dean for digital and research strategies.

Di Monte said Occuspace was easy to install and allows the university to identify spaces where staff might need to perform walk-throughs to ensure physical distancing. Since crowds were a sore spot at the library even before COVID, Di Monte expects Occuspace to continue to be offered post pandemic.

Occuspace mobile app for tracking crowds on campus.

The Occuspace mobile app for tracking crowds as gathering places on campus. The data also can be integrated into existing apps of universities and other customers.

Founded in 2017, Occuspace was born from Halverson’s struggles at finding study space at UCSD’s Geisel Library. The start-up has raised $600,000 to date and is in the process of seeking additional investor funding.

In the wake of COVID 19, interest in Occuspace has expanded beyond universities, said Halverson. It is working with ski resorts to deliver lift line wait times, and it has been approached by national fitness clubs, as well as apartment landlords with on-site gyms.

Halverson believes gyms are a natural extension of the technology, which he would like to see eventually integrated into services such as Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yelp.

“The visitor experience to a place is a lot worse when it’s really crowded or you have to wait a long time,” he said. “And COVID helped a lot of people start to see more value in telling people how busy a space is before they come. So we’ve started to break out of universities and get into new verticals as well.”