‘Coalition of the willing’: Extreme weather drives startups to commercialise ﬁre tracking tech.
By Emma Koehn, the Sydney Morning Herald
A growing number of startups designed to track extreme weather events such as bushﬁres are pushing for growth in 2020 but warn commercialising technologies in Australia remains challenging.
“We are dealing with a 21st century existential threat and addressing it with 20th century tools,” says Chris Boden, who runs Peregian Digital Hub in Noosa and is working to develop Australia’s ﬁrst ‘Firetech’ startup incubator program.
The program, to be called FireTech2020, is asking for expressions of interest ahead of a planned launch in September. It brings a group of Australian startups working on “extreme weather technologies” together to prepare their pitches for investors and further commercialise their ideas.
For Boden, whose startup hub came close to burning down last year when ﬁres hit the Noosa region, it’s clear that Australian businesses hold a unique edge when it comes to creating startups for extreme climates.
“They are innovating off the back of their experience locally,” he says.
Queensland’s chief entrepreneur, Leanne Kemp, has thrown support behind more development opportunities for these kinds of businesses, particularly in the northern states.
“My experience with universities is that the commercialisation departments are extremely slow.”
“The extremity of the damage that has been caused and the complexity of the environmental concerns is going to call for a coalition of the willing,” she says.
As Australia burned throughout the end of 2019, global weather tracking startups such as DroneDeploy announced their arrival in Australia.
At the same time, entrepreneurs including Mike Cannon-Brookes committed funding to Startmate’s Climate Cohort for climate-focused businesses to receive backing of $75,000 and travel to San Francisco to meet with investors.
Companies already operating to monitor extreme conditions, such as ﬁre fronts, say many local players already have workable technology, it’s just a matter of further expanding their reach.
Sydney-based Ninox Robotics uses unmanned drones to gather information across a range of sectors including agriculture and emergency services.
It has previously completed pilots with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service to map ﬁre-fronts at night.
Founder Marcus Ehrlich says Australia will need to work out how to grow and utilise the number of tools being developed here to ﬁght natural disasters across the country in future.
“It just has to happen if we’re going to deal with the enormous consequences of a warming world,” he says.
Those working to turn research projects into workable technology say more support for commercialisation is needed.
Australian-based Fireball.International is a collaboration between a range of universities, including the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), and University of California Berkeley, and has originated from research by USQ adjunct professor Carl Pennypacker.
It uses satellite technology to detect ﬁres as they ignite so that emergency services can move as quickly as possible. The company has secured its ﬁrst major contract in California, a $14.4 million deal that saw the startup detect the Kincade wildﬁre which hit the state in October last year, prompting early evacuations of nearby towns.
Co-founder Christopher Tylor says while the opportunity to use the technology is signiﬁcant, the company has so far found the process of spinning these ideas out from universities “extremely difﬁcult”.
“My experience with universities is that the commercialisation departments are extremely slow,” Tylor says.
Tylor hopes more extreme-weather focused accelerators will help generate connections between businesses and secure more investors.
The state-based nature of emergency services mean lots of different tools are used across the sector and it’s important that founders in the space are collaborative rather than competitive, he says.
“We are only a small piece of the puzzle… a collaborative approach is much more productive than if everyone cooks his own soup.”