Welcome to our blog series, “UW Researcher Spotlight.” These posts highlight University of Washington researchers who, as principal investigator—or “PI”—lead their teams on the path from idea to impact with the support of CoMotion. The resulting innovations have been licensed to industry, spun out as a startup, or licensed direct to the user from within the UW.
Stay tuned for profiles about UW researchers from computer science & engineering, life sciences, emerging tech, social sciences and more.
Where: UW-Tacoma, School of Engineering & Technology
Alex Boyle, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Jeff Lytle, Graduate Research Assistant
Emily Saito, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Hao Le, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Zihan Cao, Mary Gates Innovation Scholar, EE Undergraduate (Seattle)
Brooke Stevenson, CE Undergraduate
Tim Olchondra, CE Undergraduate
Bruce Baker, CE Undergraduate
Matt Skipworth, CE Undergraduate
When did you file your first ROI with CoMotion?
Tell us about your innovation – what technologies have you licensed or spun out?
The key technologies we’ve licensed out are novel techniques for rapidly deploying indoor positioning systems within structures to track occupant locations in real time. Indoor positioning systems have been around for a long time, but most rely on costly installation of equipment within the building. Using our approach, we enable such systems to be deployed on-demand. In addition, we’ve built our system so that no existing building infrastructure is necessary. This enables first responders arriving at a scene to simply turn on their devices and the Incident Commander managing the event can immediately see the locations of fire and rescue teams as well as monitor the environmental conditions within as they evolve.
What problem does your innovation solve?
Building fires are dangerous. When firefighters enter buildings, they typically face a dark, unfamiliar environment that they are trained to navigate by feeling the walls along their path and counting doorways – essentially building a mental model of the floorplan. Firefighters that become lost, disoriented, injured, or run out of breathable air may need to be rescued by their fellow firefighters, after calling a “Mayday.” Mayday calls can be deadly if the victim can’t be located quickly. Such events lead to firefighter deaths and thousands of injuries every year.
Our technology, encapsulated in the FIREFLY platform, improves operational visibility and augments Incident Commander decision making during emergency events such as buildings fires and hazardous material responses. We provide a visualization interface that shows firefighter locations as well as the environmental conditions within and around buildings. We also have customized analytics that enable Incident Commanders and Safety Officers to quickly characterize rapidly evolving conditions. Finally, our system enables the full playback of the event after the fact for later event response analysis and training.
What impact are you having?
We are just getting going, but we’re hopeful that the deployment of our technology within two engine companies within the Tacoma Fire Department that will soon demonstrate the value of the system we’ve built.
What funding have you received?
This project began using initial startup funds when I transitioned from Intel Corporation to full time faculty. It was bolstered with a two-year grant from NSF. We also received an NSF I-Corps grant via CoMotion that enabled additional market validation of the proposed system. We have recently been awarded a DoD STTR Phase I grant, for which UW is the Research Institute partner. We have not yet taken any other external funding yet.
What’s the latest?
In October of 2019, we won a 2019 Defense Innovation Award at TechConnect, a DoD-focused conference in Washington, D.C. Last month we were featured in an article in The News Tribune and were interviewed by King 5 News. We are heading to Graham, Washington next week to attend a live house fire with the Graham Fire Department during which we will demonstrate our technology in action by fire crews. We are gearing up to start the work for the DoD STTR Phase I award with the US Army.
There are so many things. Focus on customers, understanding their pain points, and what value your product/service brings. Get customer traction early. In many cases, it can be difficult to win that first customer. Ensure you understand the market you’re looking to enter and you know the right way to talk about customer needs and products within that market. For example, several years ago I used to talk about mounting edge servers on fire trucks and having firefighters mount devices on their jackets. Now I know that I’m actually mounting edge servers on engines or ladders and that firefighters attach devices to their turnout gear. Knowing your customer is critical.
What CoMotion services and resources have you used and how did they help?
I’ve leveraged quite a few CoMotion services. I’ve attended a number of the workshops held at CoMotion, both in person and those that were broadcast. I took advantage of the NSF Site I-Corps grants, which then led to participation in the Zap Training sessions as well as other training sessions. Even though I had spent most of my career working within industry before coming to UW full time, I’ve consistently walked away from every CoMotion training session with new insights on approaches I hadn’t thought of previously.
What do you like most about working with CoMotion?
CoMotion is amazingly helpful and supportive. The people that make up CoMotion are the best. I’ve worked most closely with Laura Dorsey, who is a gem. She has consistently helped me understand how I should think about getting new innovations through the commercialization pipeline at UW. She has also connected me every time I’ve needed help with someone that has the insight necessary for a given challenge. And she has alerted me to many opportunities that I didn’t know existed such as DubPitch Day, the CoMotion Mary Gates Innovation Scholar program, and I-Corps. Jeanette Ennis has been really helpful in terms of understanding how to approach STTR and SBIR grants. Ken Myer is always incredibly helpful and encouraging as well as a great sounding board. Magali Eaton was consistently helpful while traversing the I-Corps training sequence. Finally, Patrick Chinkiwsky was really helpful and patient in helping me get the initial patents filed for the technologies we developed in my research lab.
On the lighter side…
Last year, we were testing integration of our autonomous drone flight planning while flying through smoke plumes from a live fire from a building at the Tacoma Fire Department’s Training Facility located on the Tacoma Tide Flats. The flight plan was uploaded the drone was dispatched to fly around the building that was on fire. Our goal was to ensure our flight plan worked well and that we were able to visualize the airborne contaminants in real-time as it flew through the smoke. Well, the configuration for the flight plan was shifted 90 degrees and the drone took off heading off towards I-5. The Fire Chiefs and firefighters were all watching as it took off and then started looking at us. A student and I started after it. The student was running with his MacBook to make it land manually, but not onto anything dangerous. Fortunately, we forced it to land before it got too far over a large parking lot full of new cars that had recently arrived from overseas at the Port of Tacoma and we walked it back to the Training Facility. Everything was fine, but it added some excitement to the day of testing.
Background and Bio:
Prior to joining UW-Tacoma, I spent 15 years at Intel Corporation in various engineering roles that spanned both hardware design (specifically power management and memory system design) as well as software design (ranging from BIOS/firmware distributed computing) for high-end server systems. When I joined the faculty, I leveraged that background to focus on systems and techniques that could be used to address old challenges in new ways, such as improving first responder safety during emergency response operations.
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About UW CoMotion: CoMotion at the UW is the collaborative innovation hub dedicated to expanding the economic and societal impact of the UW community. By developing and connecting to local and global innovation ecosystems, CoMotion helps innovators achieve the greatest impact from their ideas and discoveries.