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June 01, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Techstars | From a Hollywood special effects pro to developing a “hurricane on wheels”

Pyrotechnics was a big part of Steve Wolf's previous work, designing dozens of fire control technologies and methods. Now, his start-up uses jet engines, a mist injection chamber, and an all-terrain vehicle to fight wildfires.

Steve Wolf spent much of his professional life coordinating stunts and special effects for television shows and movies, working with talent including Tom Cruise and James Cameron.

As a Hollywood special effects engineer, pyrotechnics was a big part of his work, designing dozens of fire control technologies and methods. Now, the Boulder, CO resident is taking that knowledge, coupled with his experience starting several businesses, to focus on a growing climate-driven problem – fighting wildfires.

His newest venture, Team Wildfire, is one of the 10 participants in Cohort 2 of the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator,” selected from nearly 4,000 applicants.

His start-up is developing and deploying the world’s most advanced patent-pending technology and tactics for fighting wildfires, combining used jet engines, a mist injection chamber, and an all-terrain vehicle. It is an AI-enabled, jet engine-powered, robotic fire-fighting hurricane on wheels.”

Wolf characterizes the system as “a hurricane on wheels,” explaining that wildland firefighters joked that only a well-placed hurricane could help them with the most destructive fires. They joked because they never imagined it was possible. But Hollywood technology is all about making the impossible possible.

“I realized that my fire engineering knowledge could be applied to wildfires,” he added. Now that he’s determined to make a difference, Wolf is like the dog that caught the car. He’s not going to stop.

The technology drives back fire, scouring fuels from the ground, blowing back burning vegetation, and cooling the area with evaporative cooling and convection, while applying retardant and suppression chemistries at 200 miles per hour. It simultaneously deprives fire of the fuel, oxygen, heat, and chemical reactions that combustion requires. This could be the powerful protection that towns and critical infrastructure need.

“This is my passion,” Wolf says emphatically, “There’s no need for firefighters to die doing jobs machines can do more efficiently and more safely. There’s no need for toddlers to grow up without dads when we have the ability to send in technology. That thought gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me up late at night. Every day that our idea is on the drawing board, and not the fire line, is another day that a kid could lose a parent, a family could lose their home . . .  it haunts me. ”

Thanks to an investment from Tim Draper, the well-known venture capitalist and founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Team Wildfire has built two working prototypes and is raising a $3.5 million round. That will allow Wolf to build out the three variations of the apparatus that firefighters said they need and demonstrate them to fire agencies desperate for new technology. He plans to build and deploy thousands of units.

Wolf quotes firefighters who describe the fire service as “200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress. It’s out of the dark ages. It is a huge problem. Some of the technology is 8,000 years old.”

By working with and listening to firefighters – the all-important customer discovery process, he’s developed a system that incorporates 60 different technologies.

Team Wildfire has filed applications for three patents.

  • One covers the use of jet engines coupled with downstream mist injection.
  • The second is for a backpack-mounted version.
  • Finally, there is an oxygen supplementation system which Wolf describes as “SCUBA for trucks.” Why is that needed? The combustion engines that power fire trucks need oxygen to run. Intense wildfires can diminish the oxygen around them so much that the truck’s engines die, forcing firefighters to abandon $1 million vehicles to be consumed by the fire. The system that he has developed ensures that 20 percent of the air going into the engine is oxygen, and it doesn’t matter what the remaining gases are.

Why did he apply to the Techstars program, funded by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee Valley Authority, and the University of Tennessee?

“Because we’re tackling a worldwide problem, I wanted Team Wildfire to have the benefit of a world-class accelerator,” Wolf said. “Just because you have an idea that could change the world doesn’t mean you know the best way to grow and run that business, and this business’ mission is too important to leave to fate. I wanted Team Wildfire to have the benefit of Techstars’ experience guiding thousands of successful start-ups.”

That comes from a guy with half a dozen business starts to his credit (see his LinkedIn profile here.) His passion for learning, driven by immense curiosity, continuously informs his business model, as he redefines SaaS as “Suppression-as-a-Service.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the 10 companies will be pitching at the “Industries of the Future Summit powered by Techstars” scheduled for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 21 at The Mill & Mine, 227 West Depot Avenue, Knoxville. To register, click here.)

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