VaultRMS uses IoT and AI to Battle Firefighter Cancer Rates

Our blog posts are generally focused on Austin startups, but one of the top runners-up from our recent Smart Cities Startup Challenge caught our eye for its innovative approach to address a public health challenge that specifically supports public servants. We sat down with Chris Memmott, CEO of VaultRMS, to discuss the tracking system they’ve developed to support firefighters, a group more highly susceptible to certain types of cancer, to substantiate complex insurance claims.

SA: How long have you been at this project and how did you pick it?

VaultRMS: We started about four years ago. I was building out a different offering, a training management software and training management tracking capability for law enforcement agencies, when I met Clive Savacool, who was a chief officer for a large fire department in SF Bay area. I interviewed him since I wanted to see if the capability could be employed by fire departments as well.

I got to know him, and learned, over time, that he was getting retired out due to damage to his respiratory tract after two decades in the fire service. When he got retired out, he approached me with an offer to invest in us and then work for additional equity. He wanted the company to focus on exposure tracking instead of training management, since he was obviously passionate about the subject and also understood that a lot of the technical capabilities we had developed could be ported over to solving this different problem.

In general, I had long realized that there was lots of business opportunity in providing data and software solutions to public agencies. Right after college, I was one of the first employees of PublicEngines (since then acquired by Motorola), which aggregated CAD [Computer-Aided Dispatch] and RMS [Record Management Systems] data for overlay on Google Maps and share with the public so that they would know more about crimes that took place in their neighborhood.

But Clive’s interest and passion took my focus within the public services space in a new direction.


SA: So, the problem you’re solving is to help firefighters document complex insurance claims. We seen that you have ambitious plans to automatically integrate environmental data through body-worn sensors but I understand that that hasn’t quite happened yet. Tell us about what you’re doing, and what you hope to do.

VaultRMS: The system essentially aggregates the number of fires someone has been to, and allows firefighters to add additional detail about time of exposure, roles they performed on the call, the gear they wore, and post-event decontamination. It only takes them about five minutes and we’re even able to automate most of the process by integrating with their 911-dispatch. We’ve built a system that can support sensors, from a database and analytics perspective but still are solving the hardware problem: We need to hit the right price point for fire departments but the sensors, themselves, but we also need to be sure that the sensors can stand up in 110 degree-plus heat.


SA: Tell us about your customer traction and what you’re learning about the market.

VaultRMS: We’ve signed up twenty-four departments with about 2,000 total subscribers. The two biggest predictors of high interest and purchase are if a command staff member was a cancer survivor or if the department has lost someone to cancer.

We’ve also found that smaller departments tend to move faster. We noticed that a little while back, after we participated in the Department of Homeland Security’s EMERGE accelerator program: The program brought us about 50-100 contacts that helped really get our business going. There were some really innovative large departments there, but we found that they took a while to get their stakeholders engaged, sometimes a year or so. It can be much, much quicker with smaller organizations.


SA: Tell us a bit more about your team and your investment history.

VaultRMS: There are five of us. One full-time programmer; a part-time marketer; a full-time sales person; plus Clive, who leads business development and is our resident firefighter; and me. We’re all based in San Diego.

We raised $300K in an angel round between 2013 and the middle of 2014. We used about half of that on injury tracking and then moved to exposure tracking. Then, we got a few paying customers, raised some convertible debt, and then had an equity round. That all added up to about $1mm.


SA: What are some of your top current business and/or technical challenges?

VaultRMS: One of our greatest challenges is getting the appropriate focus from IT shops for implementation. New solutions are not always ‘top of stack’ in the workflow. The way we’re dealing with that is through a big focus on doing partnerships with CAD companies and record companies so that any department that uses their system can easily integrate with us. In fact, I just got off a call with a company we are looking to partner with in Colorado. They have hundreds of departments on their system and, once we integrate with them, we can roll out in a new site within an hour.


SA: What’s your business presence like in Texas? More generally, what are your impressions of the Texas and Austin startup scene and ‘smart cities’ scene?

VaultRMS: We’ve closed one small deal in Texas, in Cisco, and are looking for others! The Smart Cities Connect Conference in Austin, which we recently attended, gave us an audience far beyond the usual firefighter command staff members we’re used to meeting at fire conferences. We were able to discuss the next product we’re in the process of building out with several city managers from large metros across the US & Canada. We were also able to connect one of our partner companies with a large US city who is moving forward with a pilot of their new system to help manage frequent flyers on the city’s 911-system. Our team is glad we made it out and have every intention of joining next year.

Turning Waste Streams into Revenue Streams: How a Local Startup is Reducing Waste in Austin

Smarter Sorting is an Austin-based startup that repurposes selected materials from the waste stream through buyer identification and machine-made sorting. They save municipalities, including the City of Austin, money by offering them a lower cost service than the incineration fees they typically incur for removing hazardous waste products.  SmartAustin loves the combination of business model innovation, public-private partnership, and environmental benefit that Smarter Sorting’s approach represents. We are delighted to be partnering with Austin’s technology marketing consultancy, JDI, to develop an upcoming case study about Smarter Sorting. In the meantime, we worked with CEO Chris Ripley ("CR") to produce the sneak peak interview, below:



SA: How did you end up in Austin?

CR: Honestly? I threw a dart at the map and decided to move here. I had a number of other options.  But it seemed like the coolest place that I hadn’t lived. At the time, I was working on manufacturing chemicals and adhesives. We had revenue and employees, and we moved here to create a central base for the business.

SA: But that was before you started Smarter Sorting, which is in the resource recovery space. What’s the connection, and how did you make the change?

CR: So, I had 15 years of experience in paints, adhesives, sealants. But also in programming. I’ve done a bunch of different things! I had recently moved to Austin, and it was the wee hours of 2010. I was at Walmart and I ran into an official from Austin Resource Recovery (“ARR”). She was wearing a shirt that said, “I MAKE PAINT,” and so I made a beeline up to her. I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her about it. She explained that Austin Resource Recovery re-blends paint that has been thrown out and re-sells it.  We actually went straight from the Walmart to the ARR site to check it out!

They had developed a process for recycling paint without any knowledge of how paint is actually made. They had jerry-rigged a whole system together: They had attached paddles to drills to mix the paint and didn’t understand that there was industrial equipment that could do this, and in a higher quality, faster way. They had come up with ideas on their own, in a vacuum.  That was super-cool, but I really wanted to help them out. I did this first project pro bono.

One day, I was at ARR, and I noticed two $80/gallon containers of solvent, just sitting around. We had been working there all day and the containers looked abandoned, so I went to grab them. They went crazy! They said, “That’s hazardous waste!” So they were confounded because I was touching this hazardous waste and I was confounded because they considered this standard solvent to be hazardous waste!

After we worked through that, they said, “We actually already have a contract with someone for that.” That made more sense. I asked, “How much did they pay you?” They looked at me like I was crazy: “We have to pay $3-$4 to have that processed.” “What do you mean, ‘processed?’” I asked. “They are going to burn it,” they said.

That’s when I lifted my eyes and saw the forest. There were tons of resources that were all going to be lit on fire.  We like saying nicer words: ‘incinerated’, ‘turned into energy.’

I spent a few months looking into it and figured out that the best use of this specialty solvent was to clean printing presses. I found a buyer and took the material off of ARR’s hands for less than they were paying the incinerator folks.

SA: So, you were clearly leveraging some industry expertise that you already had. What were some of the growth areas you had to contend with as you stood up your new business?

CR: Well, I didn’t understand the intersection of politics and bureaucracy and law. I had to learn that. Each one of those took me quite some time to grasp.

We had to develop a bunch of new technical capabilities, too. We now have the first identification and canonicalization engine for consumer chemicals. Identification is about telling what something is. Canonicalization is about sorting the data into appropriate categories and then, ultimately, associating it with the relevant marketing ‘catalog data’ that helps commercial entities locate stuff that they need.  At ARR, about 120 million different materials could pass through our sensor system. No data base has all of these elements and their data sorting options are very limited. Our system of sensors finds data facets about an item and first associates with Material Safety Data Sheets, which are PDFs, and then makes those machine-readable. After all of the data we need is associated, we overlay Texas rules for distribution and sales and so on.

Most of this information is publicly available, just in several different places.  So blending all of that was the other major growth area for us.

SA: OK, now’s the time where you tell us how the solution works, technically, and how you actually get these resources to market.

CR: So, the software sits on AWS.  A piece of hardware sits at ARR. The hardware is, by the way, designed and built in Austin. We use machine vision, through a 2.5 megapixel German camera, plus a scale, plus a bar code reader, to collect the data facets. We use machine learning and natural language processing to inform our parsing of the unstructured data in the various text documents we need to associate the resources to. There’s a touchscreen attached to the hardware, which allows for manual inputs from the operator. That’s the current state.

For sales, we’ve developed an ecosystem of purchasers and we actually don’t take items out of the stream until we have the buyer locked in. A lot of this is really low hanging fruit, though.  Bleach is an easy one, for instance. There’s a bunch of it, and a lot of buyers who are happy with ‘good-enough’ bleach. We actually believe that we can address 30% of the waste that Austin does not yet recycle.

SA: This is all very creative and technical. I’m still putting together how you were able to come out of paints, a more traditional field, and see this unusual opportunity.

CR: I’ve been doing software since college. The actual manufacturing of paints was wholly non-software related. But it provided lots of margin. And I used my software background to develop very detailed marketing analytics programs that led to that company’s success.

My basic commitment is that I bring software to places that don’t have it. To, maybe, industries that don’t even have computers yet, but are sorely in need of it. That’s how I developed the first vertically-integrated painting company in existence. We manufactured paint, sold warranties, sold the paint, and then applied it. We used a Google Adwords competitor at the dawn of click marketing. And we did over $75 million in revenue. Software helped knit together our whole operation.

SA: How have you found working with the City of Austin?

CR: I found a way to work with them because I have a relationship that will give them some real value.  And they are reaping the reward of our investor risk capital. Of course, their risk tolerance is low. ARR is really helpful but they don’t have the data on hand that, say, a New York City has. It’s very hard, still, to find out basic info. “How much is Austin receiving for the batteries it recycles?” Really hard to figure out. Well, we did a lot of work to analyze that question, and it turns out that they get about 20 cents on the dollar for batteries, but in a highly variable way. They didn’t even know.

There’s such a huge opportunity to make this information clearer and to create markets that support resource recovery. The awesome thing about Austin is that they clearly get this idea, and are open to new ideas. But experiments do cost money. And, when you go to a department that has budget constraints, you are asking them to spend money that they don’t have. They want a proven process that has been shown to work everywhere if they are going to spend. So, they are structurally and systematically excluded from taking risk.

SA: Tell us a bit about your growth trajectory.

CR: Austin is our first customer. Our next big opportunity is in graded fertilizer, and is outside of Austin. We’ve also closed a deal with the largest publicly traded companies in our space. We’ve received seed funding from a fund with a venture fund attached, and they’re pretty excited about what we’re doing. I’ve just returned from a crazy trip: Austin to Grand Junction, Colorado to Salt Lake to Portland to San Francisco to Denver to Chicago. Then, New York, Toronto, New York (again), Connecticut, and Toronto, again.  It was equal parts sales and fundraising. But all parts trash!