Products: Even the most highly trained and experienced firefighters can become disoriented due to heavy smoke inside a burning building, hampering their efforts to save the lives of people trapped in the building and sometimes endangering the firefighters’ own lives as well. Until recently, the best solution available had been thermal imaging cameras, which can be expensive and cumbersome, and don’t entirely solve the problem, since part of the disorientation stems from firefighters simply being unfamiliar with the layout of a building they’ve never been inside before. Jeff Dykes, a captain in the Eau Claire Fire Department with 20 years of experience, conceived of a better solution: If firefighters could just stay oriented to the directions of the compass, they would better be able to find their way around unfamiliar buildings and to find their way out again. After working with engineers to develop and patent the technology, Dykes worked with a Minnesota electronics manufacturer to develop a prototype for the device he envisioned: a light-up compass that fits inside a firefighter’s face mask. Its name: the Northern Star.
Location: Eau Claire
Employees: 1 (with more hiring anticipated soon)
Leadership: Jeff Dykes, owner and founder
Market: Founded in 2015, the company is currently working on fulfilling its first 100 product orders. Dykes believes there is sufficient demand for the product that orders could number in the tens of thousands before long. Aside from firefighters across the U.S. and abroad, another possible market for the product is SCUBA divers—and Dykes notes that he recently received an inquiry about the technology from NASA.
Business success: The Northern Star—the first directional guidance system that firefighters can wear inside their masks—won the grand prize in the 2017 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. Additional honors include the grand prize in the Eau Claire Economic Development Corporation’s 2014 Idea Challenge and an invitation to represent Wisconsin in a small business gathering at the White House.
Wisconsin business environment benefits: Thus far, the company has benefited from resources in Wisconsin including the Center for Technology Commercialization’s Ideadvance Program, as well as technical assistance and guidance from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the Eau Claire Small Business Development Center. The company was recently certified by WEDC as a Qualified New Business Venture, which will help it raise additional investment. “We could not have gotten to where we are today without all of these entities’ help,” says Dykes.
“In every faction of our society, we have smart, engaged workers that have identified a problem and come up with a solution,” he adds. “Unfortunately, many of these solutions never see the light of day because the inventor never took the first step to explore the validity of their idea. Wisconsin is a great place to start a business because there are so many resources available to help new startup companies.”