(Reuters) – The Silicon Valley innovation engine has been slow to produce useful new tools to help firefighters like Dave Winnacker put out the deadly flames that fill the California sky with smoke every year.
Mr. Winnacker, a fire district chief who led a team against the 2017 fires that burned wineries in Napa and the Sonoma Valley, is interested in tools that can detect fires early and facilitate evacuation.
However, start-ups aiming to improve public safety have found it difficult to find funding from traditional venture capitalists, who do not see much money to sell to cash-strapped firefighters.
A technique that Mr. Winnacker uses? An evacuation platform by startup Zonehaven that links maps, fire and police departments, dispatch and residents to communicate and evacuate. It debuted in August when fires started by a California thunderstorm burned in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.
San Francisco-based Enview uses data to create high-resolution 3D maps that energy companies can use to protect critical infrastructure and prevent disasters. The maps can also help predict wildlife risk zones and how fires can spread. Enview has raised over $ 20 million from investors including Crosslink Capital.
Meanwhile, One Concern, based in Menlo Park, is helping cities use data to create disaster prevention and management game plans. It struggled to raise money when the target customers were governments. Since then, it has chosen to include corporate clients, including insurance companies, and has now raised $ 74 million.
"We really want to be deployed here," said one of the founders, Ahmad Wani, on a new day, when fires caused the Silicon Valley sky to turn red. "I stare at the smoke and I look at my seven-week-old daughter who is having a hard time."
Some fire brigades test drones and robots.
Born at the University of California, Berkeley, Squishy Robotics Unit – a ball that can be dropped into a fire to detect gases and use cameras to show firefighters what is happening on the ground – was designed for industrial fires. But Squishy Chief Operating Officer Deniz Dogruer said the company wants to adapt it for use with fires.
She said that some venture capitalists have shown interest, but no one has invested so far. Public security agencies can take a long time to buy a new technology. "That's not what the VCs are happy about," she said.
Mr. Winnacker noted the proximity of the fires to the valley's investors and inventors. "I really hope we can use these disasters to create good," he said.