The silhouette of a fire fighter appears through the flames at the Lehigh After Dark event on Nov. 17, 2016. Infernoguard is a device that detects and notifies about wildfires. (Sarah Epstein/B&W Staff)

Student-led startup company wins climate change grand prize


The student-led startup company InfernoGuard, co-founded by Zoe Sherman, ‘25, was awarded $100,000 for the Climate Change Grand Prize from Breakthrough Energy Ventures at the Arizona State University Innovation Open this month. 

The Arizona State University Innovation Open is a competition for university student innovators. According to their website, the competition looks for students setting out on difficult tech ventures and provides them with mentorship and funding. 

InfernoGuard, which provides wildfire detection and notification systems to large-scale landowners in fire prone areas, began as a high school science project in 2016. Sherman and her three co-founders began the company at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Sherman said she and the co-founders met in middle school when they were randomly put together for a science competition, and they have been working together ever since. Sherman is the chief technical officer and chief financial officer of the startup, overseeing product development and company finances. 

The three other co-founders attend various universities on the East Coast. Nandita Balaji, the chief operations officer, attends Johns Hopkins University; Kevin Kasapr, the chief executive officer, attends Northwestern University; and Shreyas Bhasin, the product engineer, attends Wake Forest University.

“There were bad wildfires about three hours away from where we lived, and the air quality was so bad, we weren’t allowed to be outside,” Sherman said. “During that experience, the four of us decided to research forest fires and found out that a majority of wildfires aren’t detected until they are already out of control.”

The InfernoGuard detection and notification system uses devices mounted on trees to collect environmental data. This data is sent to a gateway device and then to a database using a communication system called LoRa. If a fire is detected, the landowners and fire department will be notified.

The Arizona State University Innovation Open consists of three rounds completed over six months. The rounds include a written pitch, a recorded pitch and a live pitch to investors.

“It felt very competitive,” Sherman said. “A lot of  the other winning teams were Ph.D. or grad students.”

InfernoGuard is directing the $100,000 they won toward product development. Sherman said the team is currently working on their alpha device and the money will be used to finish developing and testing the product.

“Currently we are working on developing our database and app,” Sherman said. “We are also going to be testing our devices in prescribed burns out west in the coming months.”

InfernoGuard currently employs two data analytics interns from Lehigh. Sherman said the company is currently hiring more interns and was one of the recruiting companies at Lehigh’s recent job fair. 

InfernoGuard intern Matt Schneiderman, ‘25, said he applied to the company after hearing about InfernoGuard in the Lehigh Class of 2025 GroupMe. 

“From backpacking along the coast in Washington to mountain biking around Acadia National Park in Maine, I have been in love with the outdoors,” Schneiderman said. “I saw working for InfernoGuard as a unique experience where I would learn entrepreneurial skills and also have an impact on environmental conservation.”

Schneiderman is currently working on InfernoGuard’s prescribed testing protocol. He said the company hopes to test their devices this spring so they can perfect them before they are implemented in the summer. 

In the fall, Sherman pitched and won at the EUREKA! Venture Program through the Baker Institute. Through this program, Sherman said she was able to  attain a mentorship through the Baker Institute to get advice and feedback for InfernoGuard.

Chris Kauzmann, an innovator in residence at Lehigh’s Baker Institute, is one of the mentors for the student-founders group. He works with students to identify problems, solve them and move their ideas forward. 

Kauzmann said he is excited by InfernoGuard since it tackles a substantial real-world problem impacting millions.

“This entrepreneurial team is taking the initiative to see something in the world that’s outside of what they might see in their day to day lives and do something about it,” Kauzmann said.

Kauzmann said he works with students by focusing on the business aspect of being an entrepreneur and by supporting students in balancing their innovative ventures with school.

Sherman is a part of the student-founders group at the Baker Institute. 

“Meeting with that group has been a great support system,” Sherman said. “Being a student-founder can be isolating, so meeting with that group and finding out that there are other students in the same position is helpful. We are able to discuss issues we are facing and problem solve together.”

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