A DHS-funded pilot program enlists tech accelerators to help startups develop commercially viable wearable products and adopt them for first responder use.
(Tribune News Service) — Dallas startup accelerator Tech Wildcatters is launching a program focused on wearable technology for police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.
The unique public-private experiment will be announced Wednesday.
The pilot program is funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s research and development arm, and Tech Wildcatters is one of two U.S. accelerators tapped to run it. The program is being managed by the Center for Innovative Technology, a Virginia-based nonprofit.
This is the first time Homeland Security’s research division has experimented with accelerators. The federal agency is interested in wearable technology such as advanced sensors, smart voice and data communication chips embedded in gear, and health-related monitors.
Helping startups develop commercially viable wearable products and adopt them for first-responder use is an exciting challenge for Tech Wildcatters, co-founder Gabriella Draney Zielke said.
Accelerators such as Tech Wildcatters provide seed capital in exchange for equity, and they offer mentors and resources such as access to investors and potential customers.
“A firefighter, you can’t put an ounce more on them. They already have so much they’re carrying,” Draney Zielke said. “There’s battery life. Is it waterproof?”
Besides Tech Wildcatters, the Center for Innovative Technology chose Chicago-based TechNexus to run the program, called Emerge: Accelerating Wearable Tech for First Responders. The federal agency is footing the initial $750,000 investment for the pilot, which will begin in the summer. Tech Wildcatters and TechNexus will each select six U.S. startups.
The Emerge accelerator is one component of Homeland Security’s quest to find ways of getting technology into the hands of first responders more quickly. The agency’s research division is using prize competitions and public discussions to attract entrepreneurs and ideas.
The department’s undersecretary for science and technology, Reginald Brothers, will lead a panel on doing business with the agency and discuss the Emerge program at South by Southwest Interactive on Friday.
“We know there is good wearable technology out there to help first responders,” said D’Arcy Morgan, the Homeland Security program manager overseeing the accelerator partnership.
While the department has tried to tap individuals for their ideas, there are challenges for entrepreneurs, such as navigating the federal funding process and adapting the technology for first responders, Morgan said.
The accelerator can bridge the gap by providing early market validation, attracting private investment and commercializing the technology, Morgan said. The government is not taking any equity stake in the startups that participate.
“We see the accelerators as a great conduit to bring individuals and small companies with angel investors, venture capitalists and the [technology] integrators into the responder market,” he said.
Center for Innovative Technology program manager David Ihrie said it’s important for private investment to be part of the equation. Tech Wildcatters, for instance, expects its investment partners to contribute capital to the wearable technology program.
“We want these companies to be attractive to private investors interested in the commercial market, and to the extent that the products are also interesting to government users, that will sweeten the pot from a commercial point of view,” Ihrie said.
Tech Wildcatters’ Draney Zielke said the wearable technology program helps diversify the Dallas accelerator’s business and mission. Founded in 2010, Tech Wildcatters focuses on supporting technology startups that do business with other companies. Draney Zielke also helped start Health Wildcatters, a technology accelerator focused on health care startups.
Draney Zielke sees similarities between Tech Wildcatters’ dealing with large companies and with the government.
“We like the idea of working with government to solve large-scale problems,” she said.
Tech Wildcatters will begin accepting applications this week, with a deadline of May 10. The 12-week program will begin June 8 and culminate with pitch day hosted by partner Wearable World in San Francisco.
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