Northern Star Fire’s E-compass Wins Governor’s Business Plan Contest

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 1,002 firefighters died while on duty between 2006 and 2015. Jeff Dykes, a fire captain and entrepreneur, believes some of those fatalities could have been avoided if the firefighters had been able to determine what direction they were facing while inside of burning buildings.

Dykes is the founder of Eau Claire, WI-based Northern Star Fire, which has developed an electronic compass designed to guide firefighters when their vision is obstructed by flames and smoke.

Some firefighters, after having a close call, join “near-miss” networks, where they recount harrowing experiences with others in the profession, Dykes said. “You read those reports, and they’re littered with two words: ‘lost’ and ‘disorientation,’” he said.

Dykes’ comments were part of a pitch he gave to investors and other members of the state’s startup community on Tuesday as part of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. On Wednesday, Northern Star Fire was announced as the overall winner of the contest. The contest awards cash and in-kind services to winners.

Dykes, who has more than 20 years of experience in fire service, launched Northern Star Fire in 2014. He is the company’s sole proprietor, but said he’s planning to hire three other full-time employees “in the immediate future.”

Dykes said he has bootstrapped the company up to this point, but now he’s seeking $500,000 to ramp up sales across the U.S. and in other countries.

The company’s flagship product, Northern Star, is the size of a couple quarters stacked vertically. It’s designed to be attached to the face mask on a firefighter’s helmet. When activated—a user turns the compass on by tapping her mask twice—the letter corresponding to the direction a firefighter is facing lights up. It’s an eight-directional compass, so someone who is facing southwest would see both the “S” and “W” illuminated.

Northern Star is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery. The patent-pending compass is waterproof, and is equipped with a gyroscope to ensure that it gives accurate readings. There’s also an accelerometer inside so that when a firefighter sets her mask down, the gadget automatically switches off.

During his pitch, Dykes said that he has contracted with the electronics manufacturer KeytronicEMS, which will help with production of the compasses. KeytronicEMS is based in Washington state but has a manufacturing facility near the Twin Cities. (Eau Claire is near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border.)

Dykes said he is able to pay a lower per-unit price by placing larger orders with KeytronicEMS. If he placed an order for 1,000 units of Northern Star, which is currently listed for $130 on the company’s website, KeytronicEMS would charge him about $41 per compass. They’d cost Dykes about $35 apiece if he were to order 3,000 units.

The company has already received 100 pre-orders for compasses, but is eyeing much larger sales figures in the future, he said.

“I have a [customer] order on the table for 10,000 units,” Dykes said. “We’re negotiating with them right now.”

Many fire departments purchase new equipment with the help of grant funding, he said, adding that his company is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make sure the Northern Star is grant-eligible.

It’s possible to pre-order Northern Star from the company’s website right now but Dykes said his plan is to eventually sell through dealerships. Many of them have already established relationships with fire chiefs and other leaders in the field, he said.

Dykes said that for firefighters, trying to see through smoke is hard enough before considering that the environment they’re navigating is almost always unfamiliar.

“I’ve never been in your house before,” he said, making an appeal to the audience. “I don’t know what the floor plan is. This little compass is going to … allow me to do my job more efficiently. Then I can save the lives of those who I’m sworn to protect: you.”

Past winners of the business plan contest’s top prize include Hyde Sportswear last year, BluDiagnostics in 2015, and Elucent Medical in 2014.

Northern Star Fire, along with three other startups that took first place in their categories, were selected from more than 170 entries. Here are descriptions of the three category winners from the Wisconsin Technology Council, which helps organize the contest:

Compost Crusader (business services): the Milwaukee-based startup picks up organic material from municipalities and other organizations that do not want it to end up in a landfill.

DotCom Therapy (information technology): the Madison-based company has developed software designed to connect certified speech-language pathologists with students and patients who require their services.

Nano Red (life sciences): the Milwaukee-based startup is developing technology aimed at delivering immune system-boosting therapeutics to tumors while also keeping chemotherapeutic material at the tumor site from leaking out into healthy tissues.

Jeff Buchanan is the editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email: Follow @_jeffbuchanan

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