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Qwake: Designing Technology to Save Lives

A discussion with Schwabe client Qwake’s CEO and co-founder, Sam Cossman


Qwake is designing technology with one very important purpose in mind: saving lives.

Qwake Technologies (“Qwake”), for all intents and purposes, is a software company. However, unlike other companies that are designing apps for social media or e-commerce, or creating suites of programs to help the business world go round, Qwake is designing technology with one very important purpose in mind: saving lives.

Firefighting has long depended on the knowledge necessary to make quick judgment calls combined with the physical abilities of the people who risk their lives. The gear, though helpful, is clunky and hasn’t seen much of an update in the past 40 years or so. And the technology in use—including infrared imaging and walkie-talkies—is primitive and often counterintuitive.

At a time when technological breakthroughs are increasing by leaps and bounds, the fire safety industry is primed to fully utilize the enhanced potential of augmented reality paired with artificial intelligence. In the vein of how many great innovation stories happen, Qwake’s CEO and co-founder Sam Cossman realized he was on to something not while out fighting fires, but while searching the internet to solve a different problem.

When we first started interviewing companies for our Innovating for Good series (and really, what is more “good,” than saving lives?), we sat down with Sam to learn more about Qwake and how he and his team are reaching across disciplines—and time zones—to lead the way into a new era of fire safety gear.

For all our readers who are unfamiliar with Qwake, can you share your backstory?

I definitely have a less conventional story as far as Silicon Valley founders are concerned. A lot of my past work for the last five or 10 years was guiding scientific expeditions into really remote places, and I spent a lot of time inside and around active volcanoes where it’s often very difficult to see and navigate. I was leading a scientific expedition a number of years ago and when we were out there, I discovered that we needed a better way to navigate through the smoke-filled crater that we were operating in.

I went online and I found an incredible helmet concept design that had been created by a designer named Omer Haciomeroglu, and it was so realistic looking that I thought it was something I could just buy off the shelf. But it turns out, it wasn’t yet real. There was a contact form and I approached that individual to talk about joining forces and potentially bringing the helmet to life.

And that’s how it started? Please tell us how you built your team. 

I found our Technical Co-founder Dr. John Long, and then Engineering Co-founder, a rocket-scientist-turned-career-firefighter, Mike Ralston, and one by one we started to build our A-team. And then we started to tinker, if you will. We were very much a kind of scrappy group, pulling together pieces that we could find from various suppliers and using what we had in our garages.

It all starts with understanding what the problem is, and when you understand what the problem is, you can start to think about various disciplines that might be able to identify smaller problems within the larger problem, and experiment.

Everybody on our team has very consciously opted into a life of purpose and drifting towards opportunities that make a positive impact in the world—and that’s a very self-selecting process. Finding people who want to make a positive impact and have the skills in the appropriate backgrounds that are relevant to the problem that we’re solving—that’s how we’ve built the team.

Can you tell us more about creating the prototypes?

We came up with what we thought was a pretty slick prototype by putting a set of technologies used by self-driving cars onto a helmet with a little micro display that’s in front of the eye, and we built this by essentially collaborating across time zones in different parts of the world—New York, San Francisco, Turkey. It’s amazing what you can do in this day and age.

It’s funny. To start, you recognize the problem. You start thinking about ways of solving that problem. You realize that you’re completely wrong a hundred times over. But, in one way that you were wrong, there’s something that’s right. Through a lot of experimentation, a lot of cross-pollination of different technologies, different paradigms, different ideas, eventually our work started to coalesce into something we thought was really cool. 

Our inventions came to life across all those barriers and we landed on something that we thought was good enough to share. So we shared it, and the reaction was really overwhelming from the first responder community.

How did you know when you were on to something?

It wasn’t until we started hearing from first responders around the world that we knew we were really on to something. After we created the prototype, we made a very distinct intention to not do what a lot of start-ups are known for doing—and that we ourselves have made the mistake of doing in the past—which is to build, to get really excited about the engineering (or something) and end up building a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

At the core of our philosophy is understanding the problem, and that means talking to the customer, talking to the person that would benefit from this technology, really trying to understand and know what it is that they need. And developing an iterative process from there.

Speaking of how it works, can you explain what problem your product is solving?

Communication. We started with the idea of providing someone with an extension of their own senses, their sense of situational awareness and vision, and ability to communicate more effortlessly through their eyes rather than through other means.

The way that the firefighters and fire service-related members are currently coordinating amongst themselves when they get to an incident is this:

Show up to a scene. One of the firefighters or an officer will pull out his whiteboard, his radio, and he or she literally will start drawing on a whiteboard much the same way that a coach does at a football game. They are managing, very manually, the resources that they are sending into the fire, and then they use their radio to communicate back and forth between themselves and the parties in the fire.

And that is how it’s done today—all over audio communication. If you are fighting a fire, it is really loud and, at the same time, you have specialized PPE that makes it so you feel kind of like you’re underwater. Your vision is impaired because of the smoke. You have special PPE on, and today we’re relying upon folks using radios to scream into a handheld radio. It comes out the other side in a garbled message that the commander or officer has to interpret. Sometimes, the person screaming back is yelling through their mouthpiece and it’s harder to hear. Often, many of the responders don’t even have radios, so they’re relying on hearing that message as it’s being yelled, like that game telephone where the phrase keeps going to the next person over, and the hope is that the person at the end of the line has heard it correctly. So, there’s just a tremendous amount of inefficiency in how communication occurs.

One of the problems that we’re trying to solve is how do we get information from the commander to the firefighter, or from one firefighter to other firefighters, without having to scream and rely upon garbled communication that is dependent upon accents, intonation, and all these things? Is there a better way of doing that? We believe there is.

A lot of the research my co-founding partner John has done comes from neuroscience. Existing research suggests that information is most rapidly processed by the brain through the visual cortex. Using new technology to shift the paradigm of communication from audio to visual is very much the core of our work.

What we’re doing is creating a visual communication platform and new paradigm that changes the game as to how fire service members can coordinate more efficiently on the fireground and get better situational awareness to make fast decisions and save lives.

What can you tell us about the technologies currently employed in firefighting, and how you’re innovating on those?

When we first started building, we looked at the technologies that have been used in fire service for a long time—thermal cameras and thermal imaging technologies have been around forever. While it is an amazing technology because it does see through darkness and smoke, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of understanding what is going on in that picture. When you look at the picture, what you see is very counterintuitive. It looks like you’re viewing a film negative (if you’ve ever seen one of those old 35-millimeter film negatives), which makes it very difficult to try to figure out what’s going on in that image.

Using the technology we’ve developed, the first thing we’re able to do is extract just the lines of all the objects in the room. On our website, you can see what Robert Downey Jr. was talking about with the Iron Man concept outline: using shapes and contours to be able to quickly assess the door, or “this looks like human,” “this looks like victim,” “this is my colleague,” etc., so a responder can react and make faster decisions.

We tested this first element and found it was highly effective, so we thought, “This is great; what else can we do?” And we started realizing that was just the tip of the iceberg.

When you use that small sensor, from which you are able to extract information that you wouldn’t have been able to see with your own eyes, and then you connect it out to the cloud where you can then have multiple people feeding into this larger operating picture, and be able to extract insights and deliver them to individuals on the ground—that’s where it gets really exciting.

One of the things that we’ve asked first responders was, “What is the thing that would truly change everything in fire service?” And they tell us the same thing: “Tell me where I am in the structure.” They want indoor location tracking.

Isn’t that GPS tracking?

We all have some version of that right now with our iPhones, but believe it or not, it’s almost impossible to use it inside emergency scenarios. Often, GPS doesn’t work well in certain structures or denied environments, or indoors. If you’re in a fire, it’s likely there isn’t Wi-Fi, so how else can you figure out where you are inside that structure?

One of the things that we’re working on for the next iteration of our products is a tracking and mapping system to do just that. It would really be a pretty revolutionary shift. It’s one thing to flip the lights on and, with your own eyes, see “that’s a door, that’s my target, there’s the fire, there’s a hazard, I can see what’s around me.” It’s another [thing] entirely to know where you are relative to everything else, and that concept of indoor location tracking is what we’re working towards. And that is all made possible by a lot of the technologies that are starting to be merged.

Why has innovation been slow to arrive in public safety?

It’s long been thought of as a smaller market. It’s a critical market, but not a huge one, so it’s been seen that way for a long time.

While the culture of firefighting has always been one of innovating in the most unimaginable circumstances, it’s also one with very little margin for error. First responders are accustomed to using things that are tried and true because their lives are on the line. As a result of this requirement, adoption of new technology has been historically a little bit slower.

Additionally, in the way it’s hard to prevent your phone from breaking when you drop it, you need durable tech so when you’re going into a structure that’s a thousand degrees and there are staircases falling in, and smoke, and water and all these extreme conditions, your gear needs to function.

And, cost is another consideration. As of late, advancements in new foundational technologies/new telecommunication platforms, new sensor capabilities, new chips in graphical processing units that have been miniaturized and made much more affordable by other industries have driven the costs down.

Who have you worked with to help integrate technology into the gear, and what has it taken to get people on board?

It’s taken a combination of getting a lot of big partners to see the opportunity that exists, and reiterating that we are solving a very important problem. But this also includes showing them that there are great new economic opportunities as well.

Our first attempt actually testing the prototype was with a partner here in Silicon Valley—Menlo Park Fire Protection District. They are the fire department that oversees the Facebook area and they are known for being early adopters of technology, so we thought they would be a great partner for us.

We really wanted a very objective perspective of our technology-connected platform to help a firefighter whose senses are impaired by the extreme environments they are subjected to, without the ability to even see their hand in front of them.

We wanted to see how it would help and our first study found game-changing performance improvements, such as mission-critical tasks that could be done minutes faster in a time where seconds count.

We’re now working with Verizon, the Department of Homeland Security, and several of the country’s largest and most progressive fire departments to bring this life-critical platform to market so that it can empower firefighters to do the noble work they do best—save lives. That’s taken a big focus and effort, and been an awakening. The small market that’s been slow to adopt new technology is ripe for disruption, and now is the time for folks to come together to solve problems and challenges in new ways. There is a lot of opportunities not only on the impact side, but also on the economic side. That’s very important for us to communicate because big change happens when interests are aligned, and that’s no exception here.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I’m motivated to enable a whole community of iron men and women with capabilities that will save lives. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning, and that’s what keeps my team fighting the good fight.

To help us overcome the challenges in the start-up space, we have the knowledge that one day, and hopefully not that far from now, a life is going to be saved by the device that we are creating. And knowing that idea was born out of all these crazy people coming together to think about this old problem in this new way. That’s the beauty and magic of innovation.

Want to hear more stories of creativity and ingenuity? Discover how Schwabe’s clients are Innovating for Good.