Jorge Ríos is the CEO and a co-founder of Bridgefy — a software company that builds mesh-networking technology for mobile devices, so that people can communicate without internet access — based in Monterrey, Mexico.

Next stop, a startup

Say you and I are more than 100 meters away from each other, and we don’t have an internet connection, but I want to send you a message. Through Bridgefy, if there are people between us, when I send you a message, it will hop from phone to phone, through bluetooth or Wi-Fi antennas, until it gets to you. That’s what we call a mesh network. Not only can you reach individuals hundreds of meters away from you, but if you’re an organization like the Red Cross or Coachella, you can reach everybody around you at once. 

Back in 2014, I was selected to participate in a hackathon called StartupBus. Teams across the United States, Canada, and Mexico spent three days traveling to a specific point on a bus with designers, developers, and “hustlers,” or business-minded people. I was a hustler.

While I was waiting for the bus in Mexico City, I started brainstorming ideas with a few people. We realized that we were not going to have internet on the way to the next city. In fact, the Mexican teams were the only ones in the competition that wouldn’t have access to the internet. 

We started thinking of ways to solve that specific issue. That’s when one of us thought, Why don’t we make an app that we can use on the road that doesn’t depend on the internet?

Factbox
Company Name:Bridgefy
HQ:United States
Founders:Jorge Ríos, Julián de la Orta
Monthly Active Users:1,650,000
Investment stage:Seed
Investors:Biz Stone, Alchemist Accelerator, Darling Ventures, The Ark Fund

The initial product was only a short-proximity texting app, connecting two devices with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi antennas, rather than Wi-Fi networks. We ended up placing second out of 40 teams. 

From disasters to protests

The biggest challenge was developing this technology for mobile devices. Mesh networks are not a new concept, but they usually try to find the shortest path, using fixed devices, such as cell towers. What happens, though, when you have a crowd of 50,000 people, and everybody is using different versions of Bluetooth, different operating systems, and different phones? Communicating between iOS and Android was the most difficult — solving that problem took a team of five engineers and a lot of trial and error. We had to find the right people who could manage bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and data connections and knew how to code in the front-end and back-end of apps. Ultimately, we were able to create an algorithm that could work on any mobile device. 

We saw our first major usage spike in 2017, because there were two hurricanes — Irma and Harvey — and then, one of the biggest earthquakes in Mexican history. We got 160,000 downloads in just two days. 

Last year, though, is when we really blew up. There were earthquakes in Istanbul and Mexico City as well as the internet shutdown in Kashmir. And during the Hong Kong protests, we started getting hundreds of thousands of downloads in just a few days. We went from a couple hundred thousand users to almost 1.7 million. The app hit the top 100 in several countries, and we were so busy, we didn’t notice until people started congratulating us. We got really excited and started helping people through social media to use the app. Working on a startup, you really have to be able to do a lot of things at once.

I had the idea to reach out to Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, to see if he could amplify our work. I knew that he was interested in technology that helps people. He retweeted us, which drove thousands of downloads. I sent him a thank-you message, and he asked me if there was any other way he could help. I replied, “Can we come show you Bridgefy?” He ended up joining as an investor. 

The people decide what you are

We did not expect to be the protest app last year, but we’re constantly discovering new applications for the technology. 

During protests, people download Bridgefy simply because they want to stay protected. In the past few months, for example, we saw a big uptick in usage during the Black Lives Matter protests. We wanted to be an app for education and for messaging. Last year, we became the protest app. 

I do not consider myself to be a political person. Last summer, I went out to the Angel of Independence in Mexico City during protests, but for research purposes — I wanted to see Bridgefy in action. I’m not interested in taking sides. I’m interested in building products that help as many people as possible. 

You do not decide what your product is, how people are going to use it, or what value you’re going to bring. Your users do.