Northern Star Fire

Jeff Dykes, founder of Northern Star Fire, is the grand prize winner of the 2017 Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest, with an electronic compass that fits inside a firefighter's face mask to help find the way out of a burning building.

Northern Star Fire, an Eau Claire startup with a device to help firefighters find their way out of a burning building, is the grand prize winner in the 2017 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

Jeff Dykes, a captain in the Eau Claire Fire Department and a firefighter for 20 years, has developed an electronic, eight-direction compass that fits inside a firefighter’s face mask and lights up, showing the direction.

“It allows firefighters to maintain their orientation in zero-visibility conditions,” Dykes said.

He said in order to use the device, when firefighters arrive at a fire, they take a moment to establish directions before entering a smoke-filled structure. “So when I go inside your house and I become disoriented because I don’t know how your floor plan is and I can’t see my hand in front of my face, I know your front door faces north ... I just simply head north, using the Northern Star.”

Dykes said his prototype should be ready for production in about 12 weeks; the company already has 100 orders.

Some fire departments have purchased thermal imaging cameras to see through smoke. Dykes said, though, the cameras don’t provide a sense of direction.

Northern Star Fire was a last-minute entry in the Business Plan Contest.

“I was reading a book to my kids when Tom Still called and said, ‘You should really enter this contest. And the deadline is — now.’” Dykes said.

Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council which coordinates the contest, said he heard about the young company from Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Northern Star Fire also won first place in the advanced manufacturing category.

Winners — chosen from among 172 entries — were announced Wednesday at the conclusion of the two-day Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference at Union South. About 600 people attended the conference.

The keynote speaker at Wednesday’s luncheon was Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, which was sold for about $350 million in 2000. Webber, a St. Louis native who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said entrepreneurship is not just a way to do business but also “a way to make a difference, a way to have a positive impact on the world around you.”

Webber said there are “very vibrant” connections between Wisconsin and New Mexico, but Wisconsin is ahead in its networking and funding of startups.

“What I saw (at the conference) was very impressive — the quality of the participants, the energy in the room,” he said. Webber said the University of Wisconsin, the state’s larger population, and success stories like Epic Systems Corp., the Verona electronic health records giant, have pushed Wisconsin ahead.

Webber, author of the book “Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self,” ran unsuccessfully for governor of New Mexico in 2014 then founded the nonprofit One New Mexico to advance entrepreneurship there.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.