The 1993 murder of Louisville resident Mary Byron prompted two local tech entrepreneurs to create a victim notification system, which today is being used by nearly all U.S. state governments. While the technology still forms the basis for Appriss, the company has grown to 650 employees and has diversified to tackle other data-based challenges in fields as varied as retail fraud and opioid addiction.
Michael Davis and Yung Nguyen had been working for a Louisville company in 1993 and for months after work had discussed in local watering holes, restaurants and in the basement of Nguyen’s home to how to create a business model based on their combined expertise on technology, computers and telephony.
Davis said the duo was trying to figure out how to use computer telephony to solve a problem. While widespread use of the Internet and mobile phones was still years away, banks increasingly were installing technology that allowed customers to use their home phones to retrieve account data.
The co-workers watched a newscast one evening that changed their lives and sparked an idea that would bring peace of mind to millions of victims of violence and their families.
On Dec. 6, 1993, Louisville resident Mary Byron left her job at a hair salon in Mall St. Matthews, got in her car and turned the ignition. As Byron waited for the vehicle to get warm, her ex-boyfriend Donovan Harris approached her and, after a brief exchange, raised a 9mm pistol and fired seven bullets into her chest and head, killing her. It was Byron’s 21st birthday.
Harris had been jailed related to an assault on Byron, but was released on bail — though Byron and her family had no way to know.
On that newscast, local law enforcement officials and Byron’s mother, Pat, suggested that if the family had known of Harris’ release, they could have taken steps to prevent the murder.
Davis and Nguyen had their Eureka moment.
Sitting at his office at 10401 Linn Station Road, Davis recently told Insider that at the heart of the problem lay an inability to obtain or provide available information: Authorities had a record of Harris’ release, but no easy way to provide the information to Byron, nor did Byron have an easy way to obtain the information.
Davis and Nguyen thought computers and telephones could solve the problem. Davis approached Jefferson County Judge/Executive Dave Armstrong and learned that the county had established a task force to solve the problem. The entrepreneurs began meeting with the task force to understand the nuances, which were plentiful. People could bond out essentially around the clock, and while the jail had the information, it did not know whom to notify. While the entrepreneurs talked to task force members about automating the flow of information, they thought of what banks were doing: What if they allowed people to call in to retrieve the status of an inmate?
“We didn’t invent the tech,” Nguyen said. “We just found a way to apply that technology to solve a problem.”
Once the idea emerged, county government issued a request for proposal, Davis said and Nguyen made up a company name and put in a bid. They had worked on the challenge for weeks, after work and on weekends.
One day in March 1994, the entrepreneurs had lunch when they heard on the radio that their company had been awarded the contract.
“Whoa, I think that’s us,” Davis recalled his reaction. “We were shocked. It was a crazy day.”
But their work was only just beginning. The county wanted to launch the system on the one-year-anniversary of Byron’s death, which gave the company six months to write the software, and connect it with the jail system, test, iterate and retest.
“It was a very tight schedule,” Davis said.
The last four months of the year, Davis and Nguyen headed to the jail daily after work, and often on weekends.
“We had a lot to learn,” Nguyen said.
Davis said the duo figured that they would need $40,000 of the $60,000 contract for equipment and could bank the rest as seed money for their yet-to-be-determined business. They figured the victim notification system was just a project — not the actual business.
Nguyen said that the entrepreneurs did not realize the extent of the problem. They thought initially that they were just solving a local problem.
When the system launched in December of 1994, the entrepreneurs were sitting in jail and turned their nervous eyes to a computer monitor that displayed calls coming in and going out.
“All 24 (phone) lines lit up, and they never shut down,” Davis recalled. “We were totally unprepared for the reaction.”
The reaction reached beyond the borders of the county — even the state. People all over the country called to ask about the system. Investors called to signal their interest. Davis said he and Nguyen knew, then, that the victim notification system would not fund their business. It WAS their business.
Local venture capital firm Chrysalis provided $350,000 in seed money, which allowed Nguyen to return to his basement to figure out how to integrate the system with jails all over the country. David A. Jones Jr., who founded Chrysalis in 1993, remembered the community response to the tragedy. Most people in Louisville read the story and commented, how awful, and then moved on, he recalled.
“Yung Nguyen and Mike Davis learned about it, and they said: ‘This doesn’t need to happen. Automated voice response technology can provide a defense,’ ” Jones said.
“And so,” he added, “they had the classic entrepreneurs’ reaction, even to a tragedy like that, of saying: ‘Aha. We can solve that problem.’ And you’ve got a refugee from Vietnam and a kid from south Louisville who together saw that and nobody one else saw it. Everyone else said boo-hoo-hoo, and they said, ‘We can solve it.’ ”
At that time, Davis sought more customers, and drove his black Mitsubishi Galant about 70,000 miles that year, including trips to Florida.
“I was barely home that year,” he said.
The Simpson effect
The CEO said the company’s origins coincided with a historic domestic violence-related event that dominated national headlines and prompted states all over the country to pass laws requiring victim notification systems: The murder trial of former NFL star O.J. Simpson.
States all over the country were passing laws that required victims of domestic violence to be notified if their attackers were released. Any time a state passed a law, Davis knew where to steer his Galant next.
“It really was perfect timing,” he said.
However, signing new clients proved a difficult and slow process. While states adopted legislation, the implementation phase took months.
The entrepreneurs also realized quickly that they needed to talk to state leaders who could require and adopt one system for the entire state — rather than talking to officials in each county. Governors or attorney generals could sponsor the system and make it available to counties.
Beyond marketing and timing challenges, Nguyen said Appriss also had to overcome significant technological hurdles, including how to scale and develop a system that worked with multiple booking systems.
“That was a challenge that required a lot of work and research,” he said.
Davis said the impact of the system did not become clear to him until he heard a story on the news about a mother who had gotten a phone notification that her daughter’s attacker had been released from jail. The mother jumped into her car and tracked down her daughter at a mall and then called police. When authorities drove to the victim’s home, her attacker was hiding in her bedroom, with a knife.
“It hit me,” Davis said. “Wow, we may well have prevented that death.”
Nguyen said that the feedback from victims and their families gave the entrepreneurs a strong sense of purpose and pushed them to continually improve the system.
“We knew that people’s lives in some cases depended on it,” he said.
The system, called VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday), now covers 90 percent of the nation’s population. More than 20 million people and more than 2,900 state and county government agencies use it. It delivers more than 40 million notifications annually. The company released an enhanced version of the system in spring.
“It’s the most rewarding thing … any career can ever deliver,” Davis said. “It’s been an amazing story.”
Byron’s killer last month was denied parole, in his last chance to shorten his life sentence.
For six years, Appriss focused solely on VINE and bounced in and out of profitability.
Even with a great idea, startup capital and good press coverage, running a startup is tough, Davis said.
“Nothing goes as you planned,” he said. “It always takes longer. It always costs more.”
Appriss had to react and adapt and, eventually, diversify.
The company has identified various other niches in which it compiles and provides access to data to solve problems.
The CEO said that six years into the business, the company had all this data of people going in and coming out of jail, and law enforcement agencies approached the company to help them track and find offenders. Davis said the transition made sense: VINE helped victims. Now Appris would help law enforcement find offenders, too.
About a decade ago, when meth labs peaked, Appriss built a platform to track cold medicine. States had passed laws preventing people from buying more than a certain amount of some medicine that meth cooks were using to produce the drug. If someone tried to purchase more than the allowed amount, the pharmacy would turn him away — but only within the same state. Appriss updated and connected the databases from various states and prevented drug makers from skirting the law by buying drugs across a state border.
The system’s goal, Davis said, was to reduce domestic production of meth, because the explosive compounds posed a danger to neighborhoods and even traffic, as people sometimes made the drug in their vehicles.
Forty-four states use the system, Davis said.
Appriss also is helping hospitals and doctors identify patients with a high risk for opioid addiction. Now, when a patient sees a doctor or goes to a hospital — even far away from her home, doctors know the patient history and how much she has been prescribed.
In its latest venture, Appriss is helping retailers prevent fraud, both from employees and customers. Davis said that employees sometimes abuse their reward cards by scanning the card every time that an item is sold in their checkout lane. Those purchases — from other customers — then provide the employee with free items and other perks. Some people also walk through retailers’ parking lots to pick up discarded receipts. Once they find one, they go into the store, pick up the same item and then try to return it for a refund or in-store credit.
Davis said Appriss studies data to help retailers identify people who are trying to defraud them. The company has retail customers in 35 countries. About 100 Appriss employees work in Europe.
The diversification has helped the company achieve an annual revenue growth of about 15 to 20 percent. Davis said he expects Appriss to diversify further, both in services and geography.
Nguyen left the company in 2001 but the business partners remain friends and both serve on the board of the Mary Byron Project, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping domestic violence.
Nguyen fled from Vietnam at age 16 by walking through the jungles between Cambodia and Thailand, arriving at a refugee camp in 1980. He arrived in Louisville on Thanksgiving day in 1981 to live with family. He initially bused tables in local restaurants until, after a couple of years in school, he found a job working on computers.
Today he is CEO of another company, IVS LLC, which he founded after developing an interest in election systems. Such systems received a lot of scrutiny during the 2000 U.S. president election, Nguyen said, and as the nation discussed hanging chads, he studied voting accessibility and learned that it was difficult for people with visual impairments to vote independently and privately. Once again, he turned to data and telephony to solve the problem.
David A. Jones Jr. is an investor in Insider Louisville.