Zenysis raises $13.3M to scale its big data platform for emergencies across Africa, Asia and South America

Zenysis Technologies, a big data startup headquartered in San Francisco and Cape Town, announced today that it has closed $13.3 million in a Series B round. The financing was led by the Steele Foundation for Hope, a nonprofit organization that says it’s focused on finding and funding lasting solutions for some of “humanity’s hardest challenges.”

Jonathan Stambolis launched the company in 2016 to improve how developing countries respond to humanitarian emergencies and help them improve public health. 

Prior to Zenysis, he worked as a diplomat with the United Nations. His roles involved representing Australia in international negotiations on global health and humanitarian affairs and as an advisor to the UN secretary general on global health and pandemic preparedness. 

At the UN, Stambolis’s work gave him insights into the everyday struggles that several countries face in their efforts to achieve ambitious global health targets. In an interview with TechCrunch, Stambolis said the UN’s formula for moving the dial worldwide generally boils down to more money and political will. “What I saw after a while was a missing pillar there, and that was technology innovation,” he said. 

At the same time, Stambolis said it was pretty clear that more developed ecosystems such as Silicon Valley didn’t care much about meeting struggling regions’ local health and development targets. Therefore, Stambolis hoped that by launching Zenysis, he’d take some of the talent and resources in Silicon Valley — and South Africa, where the company has its second headquarters — and direct them to work on problems that matter.

Stambolis’s reaction was triggered by the Ebola crisis in 2014. “Watching the world struggle to respond to the crisis at first made it clear that neither affected countries nor their international partners like the U.S. had the software to respond to that outbreak effectively,” said Stambolis. “And I realized that if we didn’t build the software, to help them do that, nobody else was going to do it.” 

The co-founder and CEO said Zenysis’s mission is to deliver software that governments need to fight disease outbreaks, respond to large-scale emergencies and provide healthcare to their citizens equitably and efficiently.

Zenysis currently provides its software to governments and partners in nine countries across Africa, South America and Asia. For Stambolis, the company’s most challenging and rewarding work has been in Africa.

Take, for instance, its efforts in Mozambique in 2019 when the country was hit by two massive cyclones, Kenneth and Idai. The catastrophic event triggered a fast-spreading cholera outbreak that provoked 400 cholera cases daily, with the potential of infecting citizens by hundreds of thousands. Zenysis engaged the Mozambique government, and they quickly decided to use its software to create a virtual control room for the emergency response effort. 

The emergency control room — powered by Zenysis’s open source offering, Harmony — brought and collated data from fragmented sources such as multiple government agencies, UN agencies and NGOs and integrated them into a single decision support system, giving decision makers a real-time picture of the outbreak and response. 

“This is something that governments generally don’t have in a crisis. Normally in these crises, lots of organizations flood in all using different tools and systems to collect data, and government become overwhelmed by the amount of information collated in these emergencies,” said the chief executive. “So this virtual control room created real-time data for the government which they used to mount a fast, effective and coordinated response to the outbreak.”

By triangulating multiple data sources, Zenysis’s platform assisted the Mozambique government in designing and rolling out a data-driven vaccination campaign to stop the outbreak in its tracks. Less than 1 month later, this campaign reduced the number of cholera infections in the most affected province to zero.

This was no mean feat. When this crisis hit Mozambique, it was battling infrastructural issues from electricity to accessing telecommunications and health centers. But despite that, Zenysis’s data platform and the government’s vaccine campaign provided a positive outcome. The big data company has provided its software to partners and governments in Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia.

These countries seldom embark on intervention projects alone or solely with Zenefits. They receive financial help and support from external partners and organizations like the Global Fund, USAID and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. And more often than not, these organizations are the ones who pay Zenysis for their contractual work.

Stambolis says one exciting development from his company’s work with governments is how flexible it is to tackle other challenges after being invited to address one. “It’s rewarding to see how we are given more responsibility once we have a chance to demonstrate our value proposition,” he said. “Trust grows between us and the countries we work with, so we’ve become their trusted partner. I feel like a lot of Silicon Valley’s ethos for the last 15 years has been defined by the mantra “move fast and break things”; we’ve shown that we are a different type of company. We like to move fast and fix things.”

Aside from the countries and international institutions it works with, Zenysis measures traction in terms of the number of health priorities its software supports. Right now, they include programs around HIV, tuberculosis, childhood vaccination, maternal and child health, family health and COVID. 

The problem of data fragmentation and slow response to crises affects other sectors outside healthcare, such as education, food security and climate change. Thus, as the new financing gives Zenysis firepower to expand its range of health programs, it will also assist the company’s move into adjacent verticals and help governments respond to crises in a multisectoral manner.

Zenysis — which raised a $2.8 million seed in 2016 and a $5.8 million Series A in 2018 — also plans to triple its geographical footprint over the next 2 years with a significant focus on expanding its presence across Africa. Five of the nine countries in which Zenysis is active exist in Africa — and the 6-year-old company currently has projects with a further ten on the continent.

There are other plans for the Series B investment. Stambolis said Zenysis will invest in strategic partnerships with other innovators in ways that contribute to its technology and talent development.

“We’re also going to be making investments to help the countries understand and respond to the complex relationship between climate change and human health,” he said. “This is still an area that is very much in its infancy. So, we want to be at the forefront of helping countries get on top of that in a data-driven way.”

Joe Exner, the chief executive at the lead investor SFFH, said in a statement that its investment will enable Zenysis to “focus on its core mission of developing the innovative capabilities needed to strengthen health systems and prevent future pandemics.” The firm was launched late last year. Participating investors in this growth round include Peter Thiel and U.S.-based VC firm 500 Startups. 

Stambolis believes SFFH made its first investment in Zenysis because the firm sees it as a platform for driving impact on a global scale. “In addition to that, I think there was very strong spiritual alignment between the two organizations,” the CEO said, adding that SFFH didn’t demand a board seat and completed the investment within 21 days of signing its term sheet. “They want us to triple down on our core mission of improving public health in developing countries and emerging economies.”

Should we care about the lives of our kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’…

We live during a time of live, real-time culture. Telecasts, spontaneous tweetstorms, on-the-scene streams, rapid-response analysis, war rooms, Clubhouses, vlogging. We have to interact with the here and now, feel that frisson of action. It’s a compulsion: we’re enraptured by the dangers that are terrorizing whole segments of the planet.

Just this past month, we saw Hurricane Ida strike New Orleans and the Eastern Seaboard, with some of the fiercest winds in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Katrina. In Kabul, daily videos and streams show up-to-the-minute horrors of a country in the throes of chaos. Dangers are omnipresent. Intersect these pulses to the amygdala with the penchant for live coverage, and the alchemy is our modern media.

Yet, watching live events is not living, and it cannot substitute for introspection of both our own condition and the health of the world around us. The dangers that sprawl across today’s headlines and chyrons are often not the dangers we should be spending our time thinking about. That divergence between real-time risks and real risks has gotten wider over time — and arguably humanity has never been closer to the precipice of true disaster even as we are subsumed by disasters that will barely last a screen scroll on our phones.

Toby Ord, in his prophetic book The Precipice, argues that we aren’t seeing the existential risks that can realistically extinguish human life and flourishing. So he has delivered a rigorous guide and compass to help irrational humans understand what risks truly matter — and which we need to accept and move on.

Ord’s canvas is cosmic, dating from the birth of the universe to tens of billions of years into the future. Humanity is but the smallest blip in the universal timeline, and the extreme wealth and advancement of our civilization dates to only a few decades of contemporary life. Yet, what progress we have made so quickly, and what progress we are on course to continue in the millennia ahead!

All that potential could be destroyed though if certain risks today aren’t considered and ameliorated. The same human progress that has delivered so much beauty and improvement has also democratized tools for immense destruction, including destructiveness that could eliminate humanity or “merely” lead to civilizational collapse. Among Ord’s top concerns are climate change, nuclear winter, designer pandemics, artificial general intelligence and more.

There are plenty of books on existential risks. What makes The Precipice unique is its forging in the ardent rationality of the effective altruism movement, of which Ord is one of its many leaders. This is not a superlative dystopic analysis of everything that can go wrong in the coming centuries, but rather a coldly calculated comparison of risks and where society should invest its finite resources. Asteroids are horrific but at this point, well-studied and deeply unlikely. Generalized AI is much more open to terrifying outcomes, particularly when we extend our analysis into the decades and centuries.

While the book walks through various types of risks from natural to anthropogenic to future hypothetical ones, Ord’s main goal is to get humanity to take a step back and consider how we can incorporate the lives of billions — maybe even trillions — of future beings into our calculations on risk. The decisions we make today don’t just affect ourselves or our children, but potentially thousands of generations of our descendants as well, not to mention the other beings that call Earth home. In short, he’s asking the reader for a bold leap to see the world in geological and astronomical time, rather than in real-time.

It’s a mission that’s stunning, audacious, delirious and enervating at times, and occasionally all at the same time. Ord knows that objections will come from nearly every corner, and half the book’s heft is made up of appendices and footnotes to deflect arrows from critics while further deepening the understanding of the curious reader or specialist. If you allow yourself to be submerged in the philosophy and the rigorous mental architecture required to think through long-termism and existential risks, The Precipice really can lead to an awakening of just how precarious most of our lives are, and just how interwoven to the past and future we are.

Humanity is on The Precipice, but so are individuals. Each of us is on the edge of understanding, but can we make the leap? And should we?

Here the rigor and tenacity of the argument proves a bit more elusive. There isn’t much of a transition available from our live, reality-based daily philosophy to one predicated on seeing existential risks in all the work that we do. You either observe the existential risks and attempt to mitigate them, or you don’t (or worse, you see them and give up on protecting humanity’s fate). As Ord points out, that doesn’t always mean sacrifice — some technologies can lower our existential risk, which means that we should accelerate their development as quickly as possible.

Yet, in a complicated world filled with the daily crises and trauma of people whose pained visages are etched into our smartphone displays, it’s challenging to set aside that emotional input for the deductive and reductive frameworks presented here. In this, the criticism isn’t so much on the book as on the wider field of effective altruism, which attempts to rationalize assistance even as it effaces often the single greatest compulsion for humans to help one another: the emotional connection they feel to another being. The Precipice delivers a logical ethical framework for the already converted, but only offers modest guidance to persuade anyone outside the tribe to join in its momentum.

That’s a shame, because the book’s message is indeed prophetic. Published on March 24, 2020, it discusses pandemics, gain-of-function research, and the risks of modern virology — issues that have migrated from obscure academic journals to the front pages. There really are existential risks, and we really do need to confront them.

As the last year has shown, however, even well-known and dangerous risks like pandemics are difficult for governments to build up capacity to handle. Few humans can spend their entire lives moored to phenomenon that happen once in 100,000 years, and few safety cultures can remain robust to the slow degradation of vigilance that accompanies any defense that never gets used.

The Precipice provides an important and deeply thought-provoking framework for thinking about the risks to our future. Yet, it’s lack of engagement with the social means that it will have little influence on how to slake our obsession for the risks right before us. Long-termism is hard, and TikTok is always a tap away.

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord
Hachette, 2020, 480 pages

See Also

BreezoMeter, which powers air quality in Apple’s Weather app, launches Wildfire Tracker

BreezoMeter has been on a mission to make environmental health hazards accessible to as many people as possible. Through its air quality index (AQI) calculations, the Israel-based company can now identify the quality of air down to a few meters in dozens of countries. A partnership with Apple to include its data into the iOS Weather app along with its own popular apps delivers those metrics to hundreds of millions of users, and an API product allows companies to tap into its dataset for their own purposes.

Right on the heels of a $30 million Series C round a few weeks ago, the company is radially expanding its product from air quality into the real-time detection of wildfire perimeters with its new product, Wildfire Tracker.

The new product will take advantage of the company’s fusion of sensor data, satellite imagery, and local eyewitness reports to be able to identify the edges of wildfires in real-time. “People expect accurate wildfire information just as they expect accurate weather or humidity data,” Ran Korber, CEO and co-founder, said. “It has an immediate effect on their life.” He added further that BreezoMeter wants to “try to connect the dots between climate tech and human health.”

Fire danger zones will be indicated with polygonal boundaries marked in red, and as always, air quality data will be viewable in these zones and in surrounding areas.

BreezoMeter’s air quality maps can show the spread of wildfire pollution easily. Image Credits: BreezoMeter.

Korber emphasized that getting these perimeters accurate across dozens of countries was no easy feat. Sensors can be sparse, particularly in the forests where wildfires ignite. Meanwhile, satellite data that focuses on thermal imaging can be fooled. “We’re looking for abnormalities … many of the times you have these false positives,” Korber said. He gave an example of a large solar panel array which can look very hot with thermal sensors but obviously isn’t a fire.

The identified fire perimeters will be available for free to consumers on BreezoMeter’s air quality map website, and will shortly come to the company’s apps as well. Later this year, these perimeters will be available from the company’s APIs for commercial customers. Korber hopes the API endpoints will give companies like car manufacturers the ability to forewarn drivers that they are approaching a conflagration.

The new feature is just a continuation of BreezoMeter’s long-time expansion of its product. “When we started, it was just air quality … and only forecasting air pollution in Israel,” Korber said. “Almost every year since then, we expanded the product portfolio to new environmental hazards.” He pointed to the addition of pollen in 2018 and the increasingly global nature of the app.

Wildfire detection is an, ahem, hot area these days for VC investors. For example, Cornea is a startup focused on helping firefighters identify and mitigate blazes, while Perimeter wants to help identify boundaries of wildfires and give explicit evacuation instructions complete with maps. As Silicon Valley’s home state of California and much of the world increasingly become a tinderbox for fires, expect more investment and products to enter this area.

Paladin publicly launches Knighthawk, a first response drone for cities

Emergency response is a time-sensitive business. When fires burn or a driver crashes their car, seconds can mean the difference between saving lives and watching a situation spiral rapidly out of control. For fire and police departments, getting teams on site can be challenging, what with the vagaries of traffic and bad routing.

Houston-headquartered Paladin is a startup building a custom drone hardware and software solution for cities to be able to respond to emergencies faster and with better data. After years of development, the company is publicly unveiling its Knighthawk and Watchtower products.

The Knighthawk is a custom-made drone designed for the specific needs of emergency response personnel. It comes complete with two cameras — one 10x zoom optical and one thermal — to provide the best video feeds on a developing situation at both day and night with only a half second latency. Importantly, the drone has a time range of 55 minutes and can travel multiple miles away to reach a site, according to the company. Launch time can be as short as a few seconds from when a 911 call comes in.

Paladin Drones’ Knighthawk operating during the day. Image Credits: Paladin Drones

To manage the drones and watch the video feeds, operators use the company’s Watchtower software (available as an app) to place a pin on a map to direct the drone to the likely site of an emergency. Once there, uploaded video feeds will display in the app as well as in a 911 center’s existing computer-aided dispatch systems, a topic we covered quite a bit in our RapidSOS EC-1 from a few weeks ago.

Paladin Drones’ Watchtower allows operators to direct, manage and watch video from Knighthawk drones. Image Credits: Paladin Drones.

The public launch is a huge step forward for the company, which TechCrunch last profiled in 2019 as it was emerging from Y Combinator with a $1.3 million seed from the likes of Khosla, Correlation Ventures, and Paul Buchheit. Back then, the focus was on building software to integrate with an off-the-shelf DJI drone. Paladin was experimenting with a beta Android app where an operator could place a pin on a map and direct the drone to a site.

Yet, that model proved insufficient for the task. CEO and co-founder Divy Shrivastava said that as the company developed its product, it learned it needed to own the hardware stack as well. “The drones that we were using weren’t purpose-built for automation,” he said. “We ended up coming up with our own communication technology for our drones … so that we won’t lose connection.”

CEO and co-founder Divy Shrivastava. Image Credits: Paladin Drones.

Since the company’s founding in 2018, it has responded to about 1,600 emergencies, according to its own internal data. The company has spent prodigious hours with departments in two locations — Memorial Villages in Houston and Orange Township in Ohio — responding to a handful of calls per day at specific hours.

That restriction hints at what has been one of the toughest challenges for the drone startup: regulations. The FAA has put in place strict rules around visual line of sight for operators of drones. In order to realize its vision of a completely seamless and easily deployed system, Paladin has had to collect extensive data and present it to the FAA to get operating waivers, which the agency offers through a “First Responder Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight” exception. So far, it has secured these types of waivers for the two cities it works with, and Shrivastava is confident that the company has developed a repeatable process for any new cities that want to purchase its products.

Installation is relatively simple, according to Shrivastava. The drones themselves can be placed anywhere, even “a parking lot,” and are often stationed at a police department or firehouse. No special hardware or sensors or guidelines need to be installed in the city for the drones to process the terrain or understand their surroundings. Some software integration is required to connect drones into the computer-aided dispatch system used by 911 call takers.

With the public launch and more proof points on the board, the company is focusing on ramping up sales and “our long-term goal is to have every single fire, police and first response agency use us,” Shrivastava said. The team has expanded to about eight, although the company’s other co-founder, Trevor Pennypacker, departed in late 2019, and now works at Tesla.

FloodMapp wants to predict where water goes before it washes away your home

Floods are devastating. They rip asunder communities, wipe out neighborhoods, force the evacuation of thousands of people every year, and recovering them can take years — assuming recovery is possible at all. The U.S. government estimates that floods in recent decades (exclusive of hurricanes and tropical storms) have caused an estimated $160 billion in damage and killed hundreds of people.

One would think that we should have a real-time model for where water is and where it is going around the world, what with all of those sensors on the ground and satellites in orbit. But we mostly don’t, instead relying on antiquated models that fail to take into account the possibilities of big data and big compute.

FloodMapp, a Brisbane, Australia-based startup, is aiming to wash out the old approaches to hydrology and predictive analytics and put in place a much more modern approach to help emergency managers and citizens know when the floods are coming — and what to do.

CEO and co-founder Juliette Murphy has spent a lifetime in the water resources engineering field, and saw first hand the heavy destruction that water can cause. In 2011, she watched as her friend’s home was submerged in the midst of terrible flooding. The “water went right over the peak of her house,” she said. Two years later in Calgary, she saw the same situation again: floods and fear as friends tried to determine whether and how to evacuate.

Those memories and her own professional career led her to think more about how to build better tools for disaster managers. She ultimately synced up with CTO and co-founder Ryan Prosser to build FloodMapp in 2018, raising $1.3 million AUD along with a matching grant.

The company’s premise is simple: we have the tools to build real-time flooding models today, but we just have chosen not to take advantage of them. Water follows gravity, which means that if you know the topology of a place, you can predict where the water will flow to. The challenge has been that calculating second-order differential equations at high resolution remains computationally expensive.

Murphy and Prosser decided to eschew the traditional physics-based approach that has been popular in hydrology for decades for a completely data-based approach that takes advantage of widely available techniques in machine learning to make those calculations much more palatable. “We do top down what used to be bottoms up,” Murphy said. “We have really sort of broken the speed barrier.” That work led to the creation of DASH, the startup’s real-time flood model.

FloodMapp’s modeling of the river flooding in Brisbane. Image Credits: FloodMapp

Unlike typical tech startups though, FloodMapp isn’t looking to be its own independent platform. Instead, it interoperates with existing geographic information systems (GIS) like ESRI’s ArcGIS by offering a data layer that can be combined with other data streams to provide situational awareness to emergency response and recovery personnel. Customers pay a subscription fee for access to FloodMapp’s data layer, and so far, the company is working with the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services in Australia as well as the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach in Virginia.

But it’s not just emergency services the startup is ultimately hoping to attract. Any company with physical assets, from telcos and power companies to banks and retail chains with physical stores could potentially be a customer of the product. In fact, FloodMapp is betting that the SEC will mandate further climate change financial disclosures, which could lead to a … flood of new business (I get one flood pun, okay, I get one).

FloodMapp’s team has expanded from its original two founders to a whole crop of engineering and sales personnel. Image Credits: FloodMapp

Murphy notes that “we are still in our early stages” and that the company is likely to raise further financing early next year as it gets through this year’s flood season and onboards several new customers. She hopes that ultimately, FloodMapp will “not only help people, but help our country change and adapt in the face of a changing climate.”

Following the IPCC’s report, we need more technology to respond to more disasters

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its major sixth assessment report on the physical science of climate change. The details are grim, if getting more precise as better and more comprehensive data becomes available. As my colleague Mike Butcher summarized yesterday, it’s “stern and blunt in its conclusions.”

While many of the themes of the report will be familiar to any person not living under (an ever increasingly hot) rock, one part jumped out at me as I was perusing through the documents. The working group assessed that regardless of mitigation and adaptation strategies, many of the negative changes happening to Earth will continue unabated in all future scenarios. From the summary report:

Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level. […] Mountain and polar glaciers are committed to continue melting for decades or centuries (very high confidence). Loss of permafrost carbon following permafrost thaw is irreversible at centennial timescales (high confidence) …

In short, there is already momentum toward a warmer and more chaotic world, and we have limited tools to stop many of these trends.

There has been a rush of initiatives, investments, and startups bubbling around the theme of climate tech, with projects focused on everything from improving the yields and decreasing the emissions of agriculture and food production, to improving the power grid, and to reducing the emissions from air conditioning in buildings. Those initiatives are fine and important, but they don’t get at one of the toughest challenges facing us this century: that disasters are here, they are coming, and they are going to continue to get more intense as the century rolls on.

Just this past week, we have seen the second largest fire in California’s state history with the Dixie Fire, currently blazing across hundreds of thousands of acres in the northern reaches of the state. Meanwhile in Greece, hundreds of wildfires are causing an unprecedented crisis in that country. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons and more are intensifying and ravaging ever more billions of people across every continent.

One response to solving this problem is improving resilience — building up cities and structures as well as food and water systems that are fortified against these natural calamities. Many of those projects though are costly and also time-consuming, measured over the course of decades rather than months.

Instead, we need a more immediate push to develop better disaster response technology today. I’ve covered a wide segment of these companies over the past few months. There’s RapidSOS, which is adding more data into emergency calls to make responses faster and more efficient. There’s Qwake, which raised $5.5 million to build hardware and cloud services to allow firefighters to visualize their environments in smoky conditions. Meanwhile, YC-backed Gridware has also raised more than $5 million to create sensors to identify failures in the power grid faster.

In short, there are a growing crop of disaster tech startups — but more are going to be needed to fight the panoply of disasters that will strike in the years ahead.

There’s so much to do: better mental health resources for victims and first responders, easier access to recovery funds to heal lives, higher-quality sensors and data analyses to identify disasters earlier, faster logistics to evacuate people out of harm’s way. In fact, there are quite literally dozens of fields that need more investment and founder attention.

It’s not an easy market, as I pointed out in an analysis of sales cycles. Budgets are tight, disasters are random, and technology is often an afterthought. In some ways though, that friction is a font of creativity — how to build these next-generation of services and how to sell them is the risk that leads to the potential high return.

As the IPCC’s report made clear this week, the chaotic weather and intense disasters we’ve seen the past few decades aren’t going to abate any time soon. But with ingenuity, we can respond better to the disasters that are already on their way, and save lives and treasure in the process.

RapidSOS learned that the best product design is sometimes no product design

Sometimes, the best missions are the hardest to fund.

For the founders of RapidSOS, improving the quality of emergency response by adding useful data, like location, to 911 calls was an inspiring objective, and one that garnered widespread support. There was just one problem: How would they create a viable business?

The roughly 5,700 public safety answering points (PSAPs) in America weren’t great contenders. Cash-strapped and highly decentralized, 911 centers already spent their meager budgets on staffing and maintaining decades-old equipment, and they had few resources to improve their systems. Plus, appropriations bills in Congress to modernize centers have languished for more than a decade, a topic we’ll explore more in part four of this EC-1.

Who would pay? Who was annoyed enough with America’s antiquated 911 system to be willing to shell out dollars to fix it?

People obviously desire better emergency services — after all, they are the ones who will dial 911 and demand help someday. Yet, they never think about emergencies until they actually happen, as RapidSOS learned from the poor adoption of its Haven app we discussed in part one. People weren’t ready to pay a monthly subscription for these services in advance.

So, who would pay? Who was annoyed enough with America’s antiquated 911 system to be willing to shell out dollars to fix it?

Ultimately, the company iterated itself into essentially an API layer between the thousands of PSAPs on one side and developers of apps and consumer devices on the other. These developers wanted to include safety features in their products, but didn’t want to engineer hundreds of software integrations across thousands of disparate agencies. RapidSOS’ business model thus became offering free software to 911 call centers while charging tech companies to connect through its platform.

It was a tough road and a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Without call center integrations, tech companies wouldn’t use the API — it was essentially useless in that case. Call centers, for their part, didn’t want to use software that didn’t offer any immediate value, even if it was being given away for free.

This is the story of how RapidSOS just plowed ahead against those headwinds from 2017 onward, ultimately netting itself hundreds of millions in venture funding, thousands of call agency clients, dozens of revenue deals with the likes of Apple, Google and Uber, and partnerships with more software integrators than any startup has any right to secure. Smart product decisions, a carefully calibrated business model and tenacity would eventually lend the company the escape velocity to not just expand across America, but increasingly across the world as well.

In this second part of the EC-1, I’ll analyze RapidSOS’ current product offerings and business strategy, explore the company’s pivot from consumer app to embedded technology and take a look at its nascent but growing international expansion efforts. It offers key lessons on the importance of iterating, how to secure the right customer feedback and determining the best product strategy.

The 411 on a 911 API

It became clear from the earliest stages of RapidSOS’ journey that getting data into the 911 center would be its first key challenge. The entire 911 system — even today in most states — is built for voice and not data.

Karin Marquez, senior director of public safety at RapidSOS, who we met in the introduction, worked for decades at a PSAP near Denver, working her way up from call taker to a senior supervisor. “When I started, it was a one-man dispatch center. So, I was working alone, I was answering 911 calls, non-emergency calls, dispatching police, fire and EMS,” she said.

RapidSOS senior director of public safety Karin Marquez. Image Credits: RapidSOS

As a 911 call taker, her very first requirement for every call was figuring out where an emergency is taking place — even before characterizing what is happening. “Everything starts with location,” she said. “If I don’t know where you are, I can’t send you help. Everything else we can kind of start to build our house on. Every additional data [point] will help to give us a better understanding of what that emergency is, who may be involved, what kind of vehicle they’re involved in — but if I don’t have an address, I can’t send you help.”

SF’s Off the Grid food truck festival refocuses on emergency response and services

Off the Grid is a mainstay of the San Francisco culinary scene. The event company, founded by Matt Cohen in 2010, created neighborhood pop-up festivals centered around entrepreneurial food trucks. It was part of the vanguard in the food truck movement, designed to open a path to restaurants for a new generation of ambitious and diverse chefs with inventive ideas around food and the people who enjoy it.

Off the Grid’s food festival in Fort Mason, San Francisco. Image Credits: Off the Grid

Over the years, the festivals grew to extreme popularity (I remember more than once trying to go and realizing that others have way more patience to wait in line than I do), and Off the Grid itself increasingly expanded into catering for events. “[I] built my career on the idea that food is a source of comfort at all different times,” Cohen said.

Well, we do live in different times, don’t we?

The first inklings of a change for the company started back in 2017, when wildfires like those in Sonoma and Napa swept across California. Frontline firefighters, operating at times in remote areas of the state, were often forced to eat what the military dubs MREs or Meals Ready-to-Eat.

Cohen and his team saw an opportunity. “For a long time in emergency response, people thought about food as calories, not necessarily about allowing local food businesses to sustain themselves,” he said. He noted that MREs are almost universally bland, and that the meals are typically ordered in bulk from outside the state. Could Off the Grid connect the dots by having local restauranteurs cook meals while Off the Grid supplied the logistics to get them to the frontlines?

Those 2017 fires were the first time the company forayed into helping first responders and victims, and Off the Grid along with its restauranteurs supplied an estimated 20,000 people with meals that year. “[We] got an understanding of the market landscape in emergency response,” he said.

Those first trials were accelerated dramatically in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across California and the rest of the world. Suddenly, delivered meals were the only means for restaurants to connect to their communities, and the frontlines were no longer in the foothills where the fires were, but everywhere all the time.

Off the Grid worked with its restaurant partners to scale up food delivery to frontline workers and victims during the pandemic and wildfire season last year. Image Credits: Off the Grid

Off the Grid doubled down on its pivot, seeing an opportunity to provide solace to people at a time of terrible tragedy. “People don’t think of food being delivered during emergencies as delicious, [since] the reality is that people are happy to just have anything to eat,” Cohen said. “But then, delicious food can be a real comfort when the rest of their lives are disrupted.” Over the course of the pandemic, Off the Grid facilitated the delivery of 1.3 million meals with a “rotating list of options, so people can constantly be delighted,” targeting customers ranging from temporary shelters to immunocompromised consumers residing at home.

In addition to giving customers delectable options, the model also helped sustain the local food scene that Off the Grid had spent years growing through its programs. Cohen said the company sees these links as a key tool for building resilient communities, particularly as climate change continues to ravage California and much of the rest of the world.

Last year’s punctuated growth forced the startup to scale up quickly. Food safety and health regulations vary from county to county, which meant that as it delivered meals throughout the greater Bay Area and the rest of California, Off the Grid had to develop scalable processes to handle the paperwork and logistics. That technology is now forming the basis for the next phase of its business as Off the Grid enters its second decade in operation.

“[There are a lot of] unique aspects of food service in particular, licensing, and permitting, and insurance, and the less sexy things that allows us to operate,” Cohen said. With those logistics increasingly systematized, 2021 is going to be an even more ambitious year for the company.

Off the Grid CEO and founder Matt Cohen. Image Credits: Off the Grid

“We actually have been working with the state and the Red Cross to identify 39 counties in the state of California that are at relatively high risk for fire danger, and on-board 200 restaurants … so that in the event there is a fire, we can access them and activate them,” he said. Today, roughly half the company is focused on its emergency response programs.

That doesn’t mean its food festivals will go away. It has reopened its smaller venues in places like Levi’s Plaza near SF’s Coit Tower in North Beach, and it intends to restart its larger festivals as safety guidelines allow. But emergency response is a new, enduring mission for this mission-oriented company. “We’re definitely going to continue to do this as long as there is a need,” Cohen said.

You can see fires, but now Qwake wants firefighters to see through them

When it comes to tough environments to build new technology, firefighting has to be among the most difficult. Smoke and heat can quickly damage hardware, and interference from fires will disrupt most forms of wireless communications, rendering software all but useless. From a technology perspective, not all that much has really changed today when it comes to how people respond to blazes.

Qwake Technologies, a startup based in San Francisco, is looking to upgrade the firefighting game with a hardware augmented reality headset named C-THRU. Worn by responders, the device scans surrounding and uploads key environmental data to the cloud, allowing all responders and incident commanders to have one common operating picture of their situation. The goal is to improve situational awareness and increase the effectiveness of firefighters, all while minimizing potential injuries and casualties.

The company, which was founded in 2015, just raised about $5.5 million in financing this week. The company’s CEO, Sam Cossman, declined to name the lead investor, citing a confidentiality clause in the term sheet. He characterized the strategic investor as a publicly-traded company, and Qwake is the first startup investment this company has made.

(Normally, I’d ignore fundings without these sorts of details, but given that I am obsessed with DisasterTech these days, why the hell not).

Qwake has had success in recent months with netting large government contracts as it approaches a wider release of its product in late-2021. It secured a $1.4 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security last year, and also secured a partnership with the U.S. Air Force along with RSA in April. In addition, it raised a bit of angel funding and participated in Verizon’s 5G First Responder Lab as part of its inaugural cohort (reminder that TechCrunch is still owned by Verizon).

Cossman, who founded Qwake along with John Long, Mike Ralston, and Omer Haciomeroglu, has long been interested in fires, and specifically, volcanos. For years, he has been an expeditionary videographer and innovator who climbed calderas and attempted to bridge the gap between audiences, humanitarian response, and science.

“A lot of the work that I have done up until this point was focused on earth science and volcanoes,” he said. “A lot of projects were focused on predicting volcanic eruptions and looking at using sensor networks and different things of that nature to make people who live in those regions that are exposed to volcanic threats safer.”

During one project in Nicaragua, his team suddenly found itself lost amidst the smoke of an active volcano. There were “thick, dense superheated volcanic gases that prevented us from navigating correctly,” Cossman said. He wanted to find technology that might help them navigate in those conditions in the future, so he explored the products available to firefighters. “We figured, ‘Surely these men and women have figured out how do you see in austere environments, how do you make quick decisions, etc.’”

He was left disappointed, but also with a new vision: to build such technology himself. And thus, Qwake was born. “I was pissed off that the men and women who arguably need this stuff more than anybody — certainly more than a consumer — didn’t have anywhere to get it, and yet it was entirely possible,” he said. “But it was only being talked about in science fiction, so I’ve dedicated the last six years or so to make this thing real.”

Building such a product required a diverse set of talent, including hardware engineering, neuroscience, firefighting, product design and more. “We started tinkering and building this prototype. And it very interestingly got the attention of the firefighting community,” Cossman said.

Qwake offers a helmet-based IoT product that firefighters wear to collect data from environments. Image Credits: Qwake Technologies

Qwake at the time didn’t know any firefighters, and as the founders did customer calls, they learned that sensors and cameras weren’t really what responders needed. Instead, they wanted more operational clarity: not just more data inputs, but systems that can take all that noise, synthesize it, and relay critical information to them about exactly what’s going on in an environment and what the next steps should be.

Ultimately, Qwake built a full solution, including both an IoT device that attaches to a firefighter’s helmet and also a tablet-based application that processes the sensor data coming in and attempts to synchronize information from all teams simultaneously. The cloud ties it all together.

So far, the company has design customers with the fire departments of Menlo Park, California and Boston. With the new funding, the team is looking to advance the state of its prototype and get it ready for wider distribution by readying it for scalable manufacturing as it approaches a more public launch later this year.

Verizon demos THOR, it’s new vehicle for frontline rapid humanitarian response

The increasingly intense heats bearing down feverishly across the globe are accelerating the number, scale, and complexity of disasters worldwide. Just in the past few weeks, we have seen record heat in the United States Pacific Northwest that has led to hundreds of deaths — with more heat on the way.

Heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, typhoons and many other types of weather-related disasters create huge challenges for infrastructure providers like energy utilities and telecoms, who have to keep uptime as close to 100% as possible for their customers even in the midst of some of the most challenging environments humans have ever witnessed.

To that end, Verizon (which, as a reminder, is the ultimate parent company for TechCrunch for a few more weeks) announced today the first demo unit of what it dubs its THOR vehicle, for Tactical Humanitarian Operations Response. Designed on top of a Ford F650 pickup truck chassis, THOR is designed to provide highly-mobile and resilient connectivity to frontline responders and citizens through wireless technologies like 5G Ultra Wideband and satellite uplinks.

Verizon’s THOR vehicle can deploy wireless technologies like 5G and satellite uplinks to rapidly deploy connectivity to frontline responders. Image Credits: Verizon

The company developed the prototype in partnership with the Department of Defense’s NavalX and the SoCal Tech Bridge, and unveiled the prototype last week at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, just north of San Diego.

In addition to wireless connectivity, THOR can also potentially deploy a variety of drone capabilities. For instance, a vehicle could deploy a drone for search and rescue operations, or to help augment firefighters with intelligence on how a wildfire is developing over time.

As I discussed a few weeks ago in “When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working,” telcos like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are increasing spending on a variety of resiliency initiatives, ranging from the rapid staging of mobile wireless equipment to novel solutions like AT&T’s FirstNet One, a dirigible capable of flying near a disaster zone to offer wireless services.

DisasterTech as I have been dubbing it has been gaining more attention of late from investors and companies both big and small as governments, the private sector, insurers, and individuals have to confront and respond to the intensifying nature of storms globally.