Times are tough for startups, but that hasn't stopped innovators like Michael Wielgat, who invented the "Hero Pipe" to help firefighters battle high-floor blazes
Innovation requires taking risks, and these are risk-averse times. Company startups are down. So are product introductions, corporate research and development budgets, and high-tech payrolls. Perhaps because of his occupation—he's a Chicago Fire Dept. lieutenant with 22 years on the job—Michael Wielgat doesn't seem to mind taking chances.
Wielgat began designing a new piece of equipment for battling high-rise fires in 2005. Bootstrapping the work himself, he has now spent $100,000, drawn from a second mortgage on his home, to perfect a portable device that can redirect water directly into a flaming structure from the floor below. He calls it the Hero Pipe. He's received one patent for it and has more pending. The U.S. Homeland Security Dept. is interested in the invention. The Hero Pipe is also the winner of a special "visionary" citation in the 2009 Chicago Innovation Awards.
The 10 winners of the traditional Chicago Innovation Awards this year were similarly unfazed by the recession as they pushed forward with their creations. As in the competition's previous seven years, 2009 honorees include a healthy crop of new Web ventures: EveryBlock, Groupon, and Visible Vote. But the winners stretch from a maker of backyard products, Suncast, whose self-winding hose reel is sold in such retail chains as Sears (SHLD) and Target (TGT), to the Art Institute of Chicago, which reinvented itself with its Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing.
In addition, Abbott Laboratories (ABT), which won in 2008 for its Xience coronary stent, claimed the first-ever People's Choice Award, racking up 1,655 votes in online balloting for a "mom-friendly" redesign of its Similac infant-formula packaging. The Chicago Innovation Awards were organized by Kuczmarski & Associates, a Chicago innovation consultancy.
The Archetypal Tinkerer
Wielgat is an archetypal tinkerer. "As young as I can remember, I was always taking things apart and putting them back together," he says. "Bikes, radios, motorcycles, car engines—I can fix almost anything. I'm pretty handy."
Wielgat says he decided to make his Hero Pipe after a fire broke out on the 29th story of the LaSalle Bank building in Chicago's Loop in late 2004 and raged for hours. For years firefighters had been batting around ideas for a device that would assist them in combatting high-floor blazes like that. Because outside equipment can't reach above the 12th floor, crews must fight these fires from the inside. But once flames have burst through windows, interior temperatures can reach 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit, often preventing firefighters from getting close enough to be effective.
His first prototype, constructed by a Philadelphia company he hired, was a series of aluminum pipes that would connect to interior water pipes and hang from a window ledge. But assembly was too complicated and the pipes were too heavy to lift up to the next floor. On top of that, many modern high-rises have smooth glass facades, which meant the apparatus couldn't be secured. His second used a seesaw-like tool to hoist the U-shaped apparatus up. But it also took too long to set up and wouldn't fit through all window sizes.
Wielgat, 44, came up with his third, and final, design in 2007. It uses two adjustable floor-to-ceiling braces to secure the device, each weighing 10 pounds. The supporting metal frame, which clamps to the window frame, weighs 65 pounds and can be collapsed and wheeled in. The aluminum pipes, which telescope to whatever height is needed, weigh 45 pounds. The pieces can fit in an elevator and, based on tests at the Chicago Fire Academy, can be assembled and attached to a fire hose by a two-person team in less than three minutes with no special tools.
The Hero Pipe can handle water pressures of up to 200 pounds per inch—fire hydrants typically gush at 50 to 80 pounds per inch—and the remote-control nozzle can be directed by firefighters from the floor beneath the flames, where conditions are generally safe since heat rises.
The gear is not yet on the market. But Wielgat says he's negotiating with three manufacturers and it could go into production within several weeks. He estimates the price tag at $15,000 to $18,000—more if he adds a video camera or sensors. Fire departments from Florida and Maryland, as well as Canada and Colombia, have inquired about it. So, too, has Homeland Security. The federal department is intrigued by the Hero Pipe's potential to spray decontaminants to neutralize chemicals or biohazards in a multistory building from a safe distance.
Homeland Security has invited Wielgat to apply for a grant to continue development of his invention. He could use the money. He's tried to get funding before from other sources, but has been turned down, he says, because they supported only fire departments or nonprofit organizations. Wielgat is just a full-time fire officer, who doesn't give up.