BOISE — Corbin Hennen grew up hearing about a police officer’s killing.
The officer who died was his uncle’s police partner. He was stabbed while serving a warrant, Hennen said. The man who killed him hid behind a wall, and caught officers by surprise.
Hennen never knew the officer, and the killing happened before he was born. But he knew the officer’s widow growing up, and as he got older, he wanted to find a way to keep police officers safe in similar situations.
He believes he solved the problem.
Hennen, along with Megan Lacy and Rob Kleffner, founded Lumineye in 2017. It’s a technology company offering a handheld device that uses radar to penetrate walls and help first responders find people they would otherwise couldn’t see. Four agencies are using the device in pilot programs, and the company has had conversations with other entities as well. Lumineye officials called the Idaho Press earlier this month from Anchorage, Alaska, because they were meeting with U.S. Air Force officials in the area.
The company’s list of accolades would seem to belong to a firm founded by experienced entrepreneurs. It won the 2018 Entrepreneur Challenge, secured a $120,000 grant from the U.S. Army in March, and was the subject of a story on the technology news website, TechCrunch. It’s also been accepted to Y Combinator, one of the most exclusive business accelerators in the world, according to Boise State University’s website. Y Combinator has worked with firms such as Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit.
Lumineye’s three millennial founders — Lacy is 25, Hennen and Kleffner are 26 years old — met in a BSU classroom, after finishing their respective bachelor degrees at different colleges.
HACKING FOR DEFENSE
In the fall of 2016, both Lacy and Hennen enrolled in a program at Boise State called Hacking for Defense. It’s offered through the school’s Venture College, a resource designed to help all students and even some faculty realize their goals of entrepreneurship. The Venture College was founded in 2013 as part of the College of Innovation and Design; it’s led to the creation of more than 100 student businesses so far, according to Nic Miller, the Venture College’s executive director.
The college is available for anyone on campus with a business idea, Miller said. The Hacking for Defense program was a bit different — it was the result of a partnership between the school, Stanford University, and the U.S. Department of Defense. In this case, the department specifically wanted to find technology offering the ability to see through walls.
Miller liked the program because it posited a problem to students, and asked them to find a solution. It’s a different way of thinking about entrepreneurship, he said.
“Most students are intimidated by the idea of entrepreneurship because they think, ‘I’m not Mark Zuckerberg, that’s not me,’” Miller said. “I like the idea of someone else posing a problem and that being the catalyst for a solution.”
For Hennen, it was a chance to prevent officer deaths like the one he grew up hearing about.
That solution required each member of Lumineye’s team to use the skills they’d honed during their undergraduate careers. Lacy’s degree, for instance, is in product design and marketing. Hennen had studied math and physics, and had experience studying NASA images and working with lasers. He introduced her to Kleffner, who had been his roommate at the University of Idaho, and who holds a graduate degree in computer science. Even with all that experience between the three of them, Lacey said they were still trying something new.
“It wasn’t the most unnatural step, but it wasn’t the most natural step,” she said. “None of us were, like, radar engineers or anything.”
Perhaps they weren’t radar engineers, but they did have experience with complex projects. As an undergraduate, Hennen helped create images of one of Saturn’s moons and developed software to study the seasonal haze shift in the moon’s atmosphere. Kleffner had written his masters thesis on a topic related to coding languages, and helped design a computer application for biochemists to use in modeling protein structures. Lacy had spent the summer of 2016 as a product management intern at Mercedes-Benz, and helped develop a prototype the company debuted later that year in Germany. Her move to Boise came with her recruitment to the university’s track and field and cross country teams; she captained the 2017 women’s cross county team.
The three laid the foundations for the product in a flurry of activity that semester. The actual product, however, was far from finished. That wouldn’t come until later. They left the school to develop it.
“After the class we started working on the company full time,” Lacy said.
Technology does exist to allow first responders to detect objects through walls. The problem is it’s not viable for use in the emergency settings they encounter. Smaller devices can’t distinguish between humans and other moving objects. Larger devices are too bulky and heavy to be useful.
So Lacy, Hennan and Kleffner wanted to offer the best of both worlds. Their solution was a handheld device called the Lux. Lacy estimated it’s about the size of “an oversized phone case.” The team is continuing to work on decreasing the device’s size, she said.
The Lux uses radar technology to detect humans up to 50 feet away, much the same way bats or dolphins use echolocation. It’s one dimensional, so it can’t determine if a person is standing to the left or the right, but it does say how far away they are.
“Eight feet or 10 feet … it’s just kind of giving you that awareness that, ‘Hey, there’s someone over there,’” Lacy said.
That can be helpful in a variety of situations. People who die in structure fires, for instance, are often mere feet from a window or a door. The problem is neither they nor firefighters know how close they are to a point of entry. The Lux would allow firefighters to find those people, then pinpoint the nearest, safest point of entry to help them get out.
That’s just one example though — the technology can be used for an array of tasks, everything from helping police detect hollow walls to tracking down people trapped in rubble after a natural disaster, according to the company’s website.
The four agencies currently testing the product are still finding new uses for it, Lacy said.
“They’ll test it in ways we hadn’t even tested it before,” she said.
Despite the breakneck speed at which business is moving for Lumineye, its founders plan to keep perfecting the Lux.
“We’re always like a work in progress,” Lacy said. “Even though we have a product that works, we don’t want to just stop asking for feedback.”
Lacy said she can’t disclose which agencies are using the product for pilot programs. She’s hoping for more opportunities to try the Lux in the field and find new uses for it. In October, she’s planning to be part of a panel at Techstars Startup Week Boise 2019, where multiple entrepreneurs will discuss starting small businesses. That same month, the Lumineye team plans to travel to Alabama for the final round in the U.S. Army competition, in which they already netted $120,000, according to BSU’s website. If they win the final round, they will receive $250,000.
In the meantime, Lacy and her fellow entrepreneurs are staying busy — a process Hennan referred to as a “humbling experience.”
Running a business startup, Lacy said, sometimes feels like simply putting out small fire after small fire. It helps to take a step back and realize what they have accomplished since 2017, she said, even as she feels they are on the cusp of something more.
“There’s still a lot more we can do with this product,” she said.