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37 : UTC Startups - Series I

All vertical market segments are affected by digital innovations and by trends seen at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), undoubtedly the greatest hi-tech event in the world, which 3 UTC start-ups chose to attend.

37 : UTC Startups - Series I

‘Design Thinking’ upgrades the fire-fighter’s helmet

When fire-fighters operate in a closed environment, they are often handicapped by lack of visibility because of ambient smoke. Maybe this will soon belong to the past, thanks to Iperio®, a camera attached to the helmet enabling the firemen to see through smoke. This is a technological ‘gem’ developed by Corentin Huard, Chairman & Co-founder of Ektos SAS and Alice Froissac, who graduated 5 years ago from UTC, also co-founder of Ektos.

" I am a serial entrepreneur!" claims Alice Froissac, who graduated from UTC in 2010 and was chosen as laureate for the "promising start" in the annual Engineers Prize organized by the magazine Usine Nouvelle et Industries et Technologies. But on the face of it, her initial HE training did not predestine her for this. "First I did a degree in engineering scene at University of Paris 6 (Pierre & Marie Curie) but I found it was terribly theoretical, "recalls Alice Froissac. "I had always been attracted by industrial design questions and consequently, instead of doing a Master's degree, I started looking for a course that could suit me better and UTC was one of the rare engineering schools that proposed engineering training with an opening to industrial design - I was able with a combined engineering and design profile to adapt to various situations and professions".

After gaining her UTC diploma, Alice went on to follow a one year add-on course at the Paris-Est d.school affiliated to the Ecole des Ponts and became involved in a project to upgrade fire-fighters experience in smoky fire conditions thanks to a technology from Thales Optronics that allows you to "see" through smoke. "In June 2014, did not wish to pursue development internally and so Corentin Huard, who had worked on this project and myself decided to do so and we create a start-up business Ektos".

It is in the framework of this start-up that they continued together to develop the invention, now under the code-name Iperio. An infrared (IR) camera is attached to the firefighter's helmet (it can be detached if need be). The images are projected inside the closed, ventilated helmet either by projection on the Plexiglas visor or via a monocular mini-screen (both approaches are under investigation). These images are also transmitted in real-time to the fire-officers outside so they too can have a vision of what is gaping on at the fire scene. The images could also be recorded, for training and return on experience.

"We spent a lot of time with the firefighters to understand their needs for vision", explains Alice. This forums the base for "design thinking", viz., innovation cantered on user expectations. We observed their operational practice and behaviours in our search for solutions. This runs against the traditional approach in France, where first we tend to develop the technology and then look for possible application areas". To best define the firefighters' needs, Alice and Corentin worked with the Moissy-Cramayel fire-brigade. "Firefighters already use IR cameras but they are hand-held models which slow down their progress.

During the tests, we realized that a huge number of constraints had to be integrated: the camera must not be too heavy, small enough so as not to hamper the firefighter's moves. It must resist high temperatures and physical shocks and also have a reasonable battery life". In order for the firefighters to "see" through smoke, as we said the camera is thermal IR based, enabling a distinction of a person lying on the ground and more intense fire spots. "However, for the following step, we want to explore use of the technique Thales proposed in the beginning, viz., in the near IR which really allows you to "see" through smoke, with varying levels of grey," adds Alice.

But near IR a very expensive form of technology and require even more development work before it can be proven totally efficient in operation. Iperio could be used for forest fire detection on board Canadair aircraft, the pilots being able to localize fire-starts more accurately and carry out more precise water or retardant bombing. After a series of tests conducted in April, Alice and Corentin are engaged in fund-raising to develop the next prototype which is planned to be smaller and more functional.

"We have already benefited from the BPI Frenchtech grant and we were laureates at the UTC-PEPITE-Tremplin Prize for student entrepreneurship achievements", adds Alice. Today we are looking for other forms of finance and partnerships. And, we are already thinking about developing our product for overseas markets - in a sense, fire-fighters round the world could be interested in a product like Iperio". But Alice and Corentin have even further ranging prospects; they would like to set up a second company, for training packages on design thinking and corporate coaching. Ah, yes! That is the life of a serial entrepreneur!