How Accelerators Drive Innovation for Firefighters


This article originally appeared in Forbes here.

Keeping communities safe and getting first responders home at the end of each workday is a goal we all share. Delivering the next generation of technological innovation to the incredibly fragmented public safety marketplace to achieve those goals is a trickier proposition.

Most of the nation’s public safety agencies operate locally and independent of each other. There are about 70,000 police and fire departments in the United States. They are governed by different rules, budgets and priorities. What’s right for Cleveland might not be right for Boise. What works in Milwaukee might not work in Biloxi. But when innovation is good for all – think wearable tech, communication advances, or improved training systems – identifying and then funding those improvements can be a challenge.

Enter the EMERGE Accelerator Program. Now in its second year, EMERGE is helping merge the entrepreneurial and venture worlds with the nation’s first responders through a program coordinated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Entrepreneurs and venture investors – those people who invent and drive innovation forward – are generally hard-wired to solve the problems they see. In the past, the worlds of tech innovation and public safety rarely occupied the same room. That meant important innovations were slow to be developed or funded, leaving our public service agencies – from police and fire to homeland security and natural disaster response – lagging behind in technology that could potentially save lives and property.

In the past, most new developments in the public safety world came from large vendors who delivered “off-the-shelf” products one unit at a time. You need drones? Here you go. You need some new radio equipment? Step right up. Choice was limited, innovation was slow and cost was high.

In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology division joined forces with entrepreneurial and innovation partners TechNexus, Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL). The goal: Put investors and inventors in the room with first responders and watch the sparks of innovation and collaboration fly.

This collaborative process helps ensure the right innovations get to the marketplace by eliminating the layers that exist between those who USE the tech and those who DEVELOP it. By directly connecting these entrepreneurs with this challenging target market early on, the EMERGE founders were able to hear firsthand the pros and cons of their products. Beyond that, they gained insight into real-world applications they hadn’t even considered. This kind of candid input from users helps our startups get the best version of their innovations to market more quickly.

In its first two years, EMERGE is already delivering on its promise. Innovation is happening and new ideas are coming to market.

The focus of EMERGE 2016 was “wearable tech” and the enthusiasm for the venture collaboration has continued to grow. More than 260 startups submitted proposals through more than 200 accelerators, incubators and university partners from 149 cities. Ten startups were eventually selected to be a part of EMERGE 2016. The concepts included innovations in combined voice, video and data capabilities, longer-lasting batteries for body cameras, integrated data for situational awareness, and medical sensors for emergency response and triage. A showcase for those projects was held in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, March 1.

The kinds of innovation we’re seeing – and that we’re confident we’ll continue to see in the future ­– can only come from collaboration across the spectrum of users and builders, investors and inventors.

We’ll know we’ve achieved critical success when we see large industry partners – the Tasers and the DuPonts of the world – at the table with entrepreneurs, venture investors and first responders, paving the path forward with a single goal in mind: to make our communities safe and to help first responders get home at the end of each work day.