How a Government Group You’ve Never Heard of Helped a Startup Iterate Faster

NIST Boulder CO
Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Labs are housed within NIST in Boulder, Co. Photo credit: FirstNet

In the United States, the national average for emergency response is around 15 minutes. In certain emergency situations like cardiac arrest, every minute that goes by without intervention decreases the chances of survival by 10%.

Despite these figures, first responders, dispatchers, and call takers working within the current 911 infrastructure have to tirelessly navigate these life-threatening breakdowns in communication. This solution to emergency response has largely remained unchanged for decades.

Industry experts said sharing actionable information between local governments, Fortune 500s, and military security forces in real-time was impossible. There are simply too many barriers, political, technical, and otherwise. But then, emergency information sharing startup, SimpleSense, did the impossible: in May of 2019, they integrated and automated critical information sharing between county 911 and a Fortune 500 security team.

So how does a three-year-old startup shake up a half-century-old, risk-averse industry? While a robust tech startup background helped, it boiled down to something much simpler: empathy.

Finding An Unsolved Problem

In 2017, co-founders Eric Kanagy and Alex Brickner founded SimpleSense with a mission to find the biggest problem they could use their 15+ years of startup expertise to solve.

Within months, the SimpleSense team was “…pulled into the government sphere of influence by winning a rapid prototyping military contract,” stated Brickner. Through the connections and relationships the co-founders gained in government, SimpleSense was able to progress in the public safety sector, and the team “…got the sense that there were a lot of opportunities to solve government problems.”

With a new-found use case and focus, Brickner and Kanagy took the lean startup process they had honed in previous ventures—essentially a discovery process driven by user interviews—and applied it to longstanding public safety challenges.


“Being complete novices in the space, we learned as much as we could as fast as we could,” Brickner explained. The co-founders started by interviewing over 100 first responders and public safety leaders to deeply understand their challenges. Through this user-focused process, the team discovered that many processes employed by public safety practitioners were “…incredibly manual, yet had a common set of requirements for things they wanted to do.”

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The same data points kept popping up over and over again. “First responders want to know where people are in a building; they want floor plans, to know about hazards and about anyone with special needs. But, they were using binders of paper with data that was years old to respond to incidents.” Brickner and Kanagy saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between digital data and the first responders reacting in real-time to emergencies. Their idea was to create cloud-based middleware, software that can share critical information between trusted sources and send it to first responders who need it most.

The “Public Safety Nerds”

To continue making connections in the public safety sphere and further advance their proposed solution, Brickner attended the International Wireless Communication Expo (IWCE) in Florida one year to connect with a group of known public safety innovators. Brickner explained, “They were really interested in seeing new applications of technology—and they recommended NIST’s Public Safety Research Communications division (PSCR) as this place to find public safety evangelists—or ‘the public safety nerds’ as I jokingly call them. They told us that PSCR is the group of people that are interested in the intersection of public safety and technology, and are pushing the bounds of that industry”.

PSCR, is a federal laboratory focusing on the research, development, and testing of public safety communications technologies. PSCR is seen as the nexus between government, industry, and public safety and known for driving innovation in the public safety sector.

“(PSCR) is the group of people that are interested in the intersection of public safety and technology, and are pushing the bounds of that industry.” 
-Alex Brickner, Co-founder

The co-founders attended PSCR’s 2019 Stakeholder Meeting in Chicago, an annual congregation of public safety practitioners, government stakeholders, researchers, and innovators in the field. Brickner explains, “It’s not often that you have a gathering of public safety leaders interested in deploying new technology.” The co-founders were surprised by “…the lack of new startups in emergency communications.” Brickner and Kanagy were motivated by the opportunity to change the industry by bringing their unique skill sets from the private sector.

-Alex Brickner, Co-founder
As SimpleSense progressed with its new technology, Brickner and Kanagy continued to keep in contact with PSCR. This relationship gave them “…access to a network of academics, entrepreneurs, and public safety practitioners” as well as an “ …understanding of the latest trends, tests, and grant opportunities in the resiliency community.” SimpleSense’s connection with PSCR allowed the company to test its iterations and receive invaluable feedback from public safety users on real-world implementations.
“My advice to startups is, just because it’s the government, doesn’t mean you can’t find innovators who are pushing the boundaries of the industry you’re in. Finding the right person is a Google search or conference session away, reach out and you’ll be surprised how open to conversation and helpful the right people may be.” -Alex Brickner, Co-founder

What’s Next

SimpleSense completed a pilot in Erie, Pennsylvania, in collaboration with the Erie Innovation District, a Fortune 500 company, and the Erie Fire Department. “We gave the fire department an iPad that had critical information on it,” Kanagy explained. Part of that critical information is dispatch data — what units are out, where they are, and what time they were dispatched, but the tablet also displays nearby hydrant capacity and available building information.

simple sense tests with erie fire department
Early success in Erie led the company to becoming a 2019 Finalist in MassChallenge, one of the top accelerators in the world. While in the program, SimpleSense won two Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the U.S. Air Force, which led to a much larger Phase II award at the end of 2019. Advice and insight the team gained from groups like PSCR proved invaluable in creating practical solutions to big public safety problems.
“Part of this is doing the impossible, and it has been impossible for several decades. What’s enabling the change now is the people who are helping us along the way and clearing the path to solve this very massive problem at scale.” -Eric Kanagy, Co-founder

SimpleSense’s Favorite Safety & Security Acronyms

NIST publishes a helpful guide to public safety acronyms each year. Here are a few of our favorites, including defense and physical security:

  • NIST PSCR: National Institute of Standards and Technology Public Safety Communications Research
  • NPSTC: National Public Safety Telecommunications Council
  • IWCE: International Wireless Communications Expo
  • DEF: Defense Entrepreneurs’ Forum
  • ASIS: American Society for Industrial Security
  • DHS S&T: Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate
  • AFWERX: Not an acronym! Air Force innovation group
  • IPSA: International Public Safety Association

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