Nature and Biodiversity

As wildfires approach Silicon Valley, tech firms could be a secret weapon

Fire trucks are shown lined up as a hillside burns during a brush fire in the Sepulveda Pass on the western edge of Los Angeles in the early morning of October 23, 2008. One hundred acres burned, threatening homes, but the blaze was extinguished without loss or injury.   REUTERS/Gene Blevins    (UNITED STATES) - GM1E4AO05TK01

Some fire departments have been testing drones and robots to fight the blaze. Image: REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Jane Lanhee Lee
Nathan Frandino
Journalist, Reuters
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  • Tech startups in Silicon Valley are struggling to source sufficient funds to produce wildfire-predicting products.
  • One of the main reasons for this is that potential investors don't see a viable financial return for these products.
  • These innovative products could become crucial in battling the rising risks of fires.

Silicon Valley’s innovation engine has been slow to produce useful new tools to help firefighters like Dave Winnacker extinguish the deadly blazes that each year fill California’s skies with smoke.

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Winnacker, a fire district chief who led a team against the 2017 fires that scorched vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Valley, is interested in tools that can spot fires early and ease evacuations.

But startups aiming to help improve public safety have found it hard to find funding from traditional venture capital investors, who don’t see a lot of money to be made selling to cash-strapped fire departments.

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One piece of tech Winnacker is using? An evacuation platform by startup Zonehaven that links up maps, fire and police departments, dispatch, and residents to communicate and evacuate. It debuted in August when fires started by a lightning storm in California burned in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.

The platform - Winnacker's idea, although he owns no stake - was developed with funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Late last year, data analysis firm Splunk Inc invested in it through a $50 million social impact fund set up for companies that venture capital usually shuns.

Another startup that has received some funding is Buzz Solutions, initially a Stanford University student project. Buzz crunches visual data to set up alerts for power grid maintenance and raised $1.2 million in June from investors including Blackhorn Ventures and Ulu Ventures.

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 wildfire risk zones and how fires might spread. Enview has raised over $20 million from investors including Crosslink Capital.

Mapping California's wildfires.
San Francisco-based Enview creates 3D maps to protect critical infrastructure. Image: Reuters

Meanwhile, One Concern, based in Menlo Park, helps cities use data to create game plans for disaster prevention and management. It struggled to raise funds when its target customers were governments. It has since pivoted to include corporate clients, including insurance companies, and has now raised $74 million.

“We really want to be deployed here,” One Concern founder Ahmad Wani said on a recent day, when wildfires caused the skies of Silicon Valley to turn red. “I’m staring at the smoke and I’m looking at my seven-week old daughter who’s having a tough time.”

Some fire departments are testing drones and robots.

Born at the University of California, Berkeley, Squishy Robotics’ device – 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 wildfires.

She said some venture capitalists have shown interest, but none have invested so far. Public safety agencies can take a long time to commit to buying a new technology. “It’s not what VCs get excited about,” said Dogruer.

Winnacker noted the proximity of the fires to the Valley’s investors and inventors. “I’m really hopeful we can use these calamities to create some good,” he said.

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