NU Declassified: Sparking innovation: InfernoGuard is The Garage’s hot new startup

Jamie Gall and Lucia Barnum



A look into the Northwestern student startup InfernoGuard, a wildfire assessment product, and how the business has grown with the help of resources at The Garage.

KEVIN KASPAR: There’s no better time to start a business than in college.

JAMIE GALL: That’s advice from Kevin Kaspar, the CEO and one of four co-founders of InfernoGuard.

LUCIA BARNUM: Kevin makes it sound easy. But there’s a lot more that goes into juggling student life and running your own startup than you might think.

JAMIE GALL: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Jamie Gall.

LUCIA BARNUM: And I’m Lucia Barnum. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. In this episode, we’re looking at how a college student can grow a business.

JAMIE GALL: Kevin Kaspar is a sophomore from Charlotte, N.C. studying manufacturing and design engineering in McCormick. He first came up with the idea for InfernoGuard after entering a STEM competition during his freshman year of high school. The competition was focused on solving a problem in his community.

LUCIA BARNUM: At the time, there were major wildfires in the Appalachian Mountains, about 100 miles away from Charlotte —

KEVIN KASPAR: — the smoke from the wildfires actually came onto our campus —

JAMIE GALL: — which inspired the original team to take action with InfernoGuard.

LUCIA BARNUM: But, what exactly is InfernoGuard?

JAMIE GALL: InfernoGuard uses a network of devices attached to trees, which can quickly detect wildfires and alert large-scale landowners, especially timber organizations.

KEVIN KASPAR: It’s basically, in simple terms, an assessment that analyzes high-risk areas on a landowner’s property. And we provide that in the form of a physical map of their property that is color coded from green to red, identifying low risk and high risk areas.

LUCIA BARNUM: Kevin said InfernoGuard has grown a lot over the past five years. But now that he’s in college, it’s difficult to manage his academic workload on top of running a business.

JAMIE GALL: Kevin works between 20 and 30 hours a week on InfernoGuard. Right now, he’s working with a product development firm to turn the early version of the product into a prototype. Then, they can begin testing with customers. They’re also currently working to set up testing opportunities with Yosemite National Park and the Department of Agriculture.

LUCIA BARNUM: InfernoGuard started with a team of four co-founders who now attend different colleges. But beyond the original team, InfernoGuard has developed a team of students, including several at NU, to help manage parts of the business like sales, marketing strategy and public relations.

JAMIE GALL: Kevin said working with The Garage, a student startup space on campus, as well as the student team at NU has been crucial to ensuring that InfernoGuard could grow once he was in college.

KEVIN KASPAR: I think I’ve honestly leveraged The Garage resources specifically, just being able to go over there and collaborate with people in that space, leverage the advice and constant support that they provide in order to not only move my startup forward, but also, you know, come up with techniques for balancing the workload.

LUCIA BARNUM: Jamie and I were curious about the inner workings of The Garage, so we met with Ben Gardner, the lead sales representative of InfernoGuard and a Medill sophomore, to give us a tour.

BEN GARDNER: Alright, so we’re walking in past the Protein Bar and we’re heading up the stairs. So what you’re in right now is actually a stairwell that was originally in the parking garage.

JAMIE GALL: As you enter the space, there’s a big, communal area with conference rooms and soundproof booths, open to all students. But behind the door — which only Garage residents have access to — there are tables for each company or business that’s starting up at The Garage.

LUCIA BARNUM: Walking through the workspace, we recognized NU startups for Naan Nights and Litterbox, along with 32 other resident teams. Some are just getting started, Ben said, while others have already raised millions in funding.

BEN GARDNER: So it’s a very diverse environment where you can build off each other and really learn from each other’s experiences and innovations.

JAMIE GALL: Ben grew up in Seattle. He doesn’t remember experiencing wildfires and smoke all the time when he was growing up. Now, wildfires in the Pacific Northwest are becoming more and more common.

BEN GARDNER: Every summer, we get like bombarded for months with just terrible air quality.

JAMIE GALL: According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, climate change has doubled the number of large fires in the western United States between 1984 and 2015.

BEN GARDNER: It’s just really tragic to see that happen. I just think about my hometown, I think about my state and how the future of forest fires isn’t being really dealt with by anyone else besides our company, it feels like, sometimes? I know that’s definitely not true, because people are innovating everyday as this is a very big issue, but it feels like InfernoGuard is just doing the best we can to make sure that we can take definitive action to stop this.

LUCIA BARNUM: As the head of sales and marketing, Ben has been pitching the risk assessment and product to Pacific Northwest timber organizations and vineyards. He joined the InfernoGuard team at the beginning of Fall Quarter.

JAMIE GALL: He had never participated in The Garage before InfernoGuard. But when he saw the space and all the opportunities it provided, he said he knew he had to join.

LUCIA BARNUM: Resident teams are selected on a quarterly basis and have to apply directly to a program at The Garage. Aside from a table, residents get access to a makerspace that has facilities like 3D printers, a virtual reality lab and a greenscreen.

JAMIE GALL: Residents also get to hear from guest speakers who work as entrepreneurs full-time. Kellogg School of Business students working toward a master’s of business administration also come to The Garage and work with undergraduate students on projects.

LUCIA BARNUM: But beyond just a workspace, The Garage is a supportive community for entrepreneurs at NU.

BEN GARDENER: ​​We also have these things called family dinners once a week where it’s just a big meeting with The Garage and all the teams are normally required to go — not everyone has to show up, but normally everyone does.

JAMIE GALL: The Garage also has mentors to help residents. Both Kevin and Ben said Melissa Kaufman, The Garage’s executive director, and Mike Raab, its associate director, have given them crucial advice about what it takes to run InfernoGuard.

LUCIA BARNUM: Ben said Melissa is a very helpful person to go to for advice. She doesn’t sugarcoat things and always gives great constructive criticism. He knows nothing they do at InfernoGuard is perfect, so Melissa and the other mentors at The Garage are always ready to help teams improve.

JAMIE GALL: But most of all, Kevin said fellow student entrepreneurs have helped him work through the day-to-day challenges their team faces.

KEVIN KASPAR: The most value that I actually get out of The Garage is just being in the space and letting ideas kind of bounce off of one another, and learning from the physical founders that are in the space all the time. I think that I learned the most through those different conversations, because even though they’re working in a completely separate space, they kind of understand what we’re going through and can always provide advice.

LUCIA BARNUM: In the coming months, the InfernoGuard team plans to continue developing their prototype and hopefully travel to controlled burn sites to test their product. Ben said they’re also continuing to build their network of clients across the West. They’re always working to gain more funding for InfernoGuard through pitch competitions.

JAMIE GALL: Kevin and Ben hope more college students will be inspired to start their own businesses and take advantage of all The Garage has to offer. Ben says that ideas —

BEN GARDENER: — just develop into this full-fledged, actual business, which is so cool to see because it really starts from a dream. That’s really all it is. So you can really do anything you set your mind to.

LUCIA BARNUM: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lucia Barnum.

JAMIE GALL: And I’m Jamie Gall. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified.

LUCIA BARNUM: This episode was reported and produced by me and Jamie Gall. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Will Clark, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @jamiegall11

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @luciabarnum_

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