Cornea eyes in on fighting wildfires using better data


Image Credits: David McNew (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

It’s not yet fire season thankfully, which affords some breathing room for firefighters and emergency responders to begin planning out how to confront the increasingly complex and unwieldy task of preventing and responding to fires in the American West. Wildfires in the region have been particularly acute in recent years in states like California, mostly due to hotter conditions driven by climate change, decaying grid infrastructure that can lead to sparks, and a tinderbox of trees and foliage ripe for conflagration.

After years of bruising firefighting, some startups are exploring how to improve fire response. One of them is Cornea, a sort of spin-up by public sector-focused venture studio Hangar, which raised $15 million last year to build new startups targeting the government.

Hangar raises $15 million for its venture studio for government technology startups

One of Hangar’s first companies was Cornea back a couple of years ago, and it remains one of the most interesting for its potential. The idea is to meld geographical, weather and historical fire data into a machine learning model that can augment frontline firefighters with better guidance on where to push forward and when to retreat in the midst of a blaze.

The startup has two main products it is looking to launch this year. The first is focused around delivering better situational awareness around a subject known among firefighters as the “Suppression Difficulty Index.” These are essentially maps that inform firefighters of the dangers of fighting fire in a very specific geographical location. For instance, a particular location could have wind or water conditions that might accelerate a fire and endanger responders if they are not careful.

The other product is focused on “Potential Control Lines” — locations where a fire break or other action could potentially push back a fire. Using typography, vegetation and a myriad of other data, Cornea can locate positions with a higher likelihood of success in battling a fire.

Cornea’s Chief Fire Officer is Tom Harbour, who formerly served a decade as head of fire response for the U.S. Forest Service. He said that “50 years ago, I was raised in a culture where you never knew ‘why’ — you just obeyed orders” when it came to firefighting decisions out in the field. “Your head was on the proverbial swivel.” With Cornea and the products the company is creating, we are “Getting aligned on the ‘why’ and beginning to have [firefighters] sense the information that they are looking at.”

Harbour noted that the most common tools in the field today remain paper maps and markers, simply because “you know it doesn’t break right at the time when you can’t have things break.” Cornea’s products may help firefighters in the field, but they are far more likely to have an impact in the fire operations centers where strategic decisions get made about where to invest firefighting resources.

Josh Mendelsohn, the founder and managing partner of Hangar, said that the company is straight down the center of the studio’s investment thesis. “Cornea is focused on taking these large datasets, processing them effectively … and then giving [firefighters] as much analytical impact in an output as simple as possible,” he said, noting that “it turns out that in this market the best user experience is a PDF.”

Indeed, one of the major challenges for building in this market is simply the unique dynamic of disaster response compared to, say, enterprise SaaS. “Cornea has had to go through a customer-discovery process,” Mendelsohn said. “It all feels necessary, but what are the right things that require the least amount of behavior change to have impact immediately?” One challenge particularly around firefighting is simply the feedback loop from the field to the team. “Fire is seasonal so we have had to be a bit incremental,” Mendelsohn said.

The team is currently three full-time people plus consultants with Hangar augmenting them with its own studio staff. The company developed its product partially building upon federal research by scientists to deepen our knowledge of firefighting, and this year, hopes to work with the Forest Service and state firefighting agencies to get its models out to the frontlines. “There is a human bandwidth problem,” Mendelsohn said. “How do you take limited resources to help [firefighters] go further by using them effectively?”

Update March 8, 2021: Updated language to remove mention of a direct federal research grant to the company. The company built on top of existing federal research, and was not federally funded to perform that research itself.

Silicon Valley’s myths and realities of existential risk

Early Stage is the premier ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, product market fit, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included for audience questions and discussion.

More TechCrunch

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

22 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

23 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck