Growing up and living in New Jersey until he was eight years old, Arul Mathur didn’t think much about wildfires. When he moved to California in 2012 he was shocked to learn that wildfires ravage the West Coast every year.
But it wasn’t until 2019 that wildfires personally affected Mathur.
That year a wildfire was drawing close to his home and threatening to evacuate his family. Faced with this reality, Mathur wondered who would protect their house if they left. The firefighters would be fighting the flames and the home with all their possessions inside would be vulnerable.
Luckily, Mathur’s family did not have to evacuate and their home was safe, but he knew not everyone was as fortunate.
“That was my inspiration for F.A.C.E. (fire activated canister extinguisher) – creating a device which could work even if you aren’t there to protect your property, belongings and everything else you hold close to you,” says Mathur.
Diving Into Research
Mathur was always interested in science and technology but the whole realm of firefighting was a completely new area to explore. In the beginning he was just looking for a solution to protect his family’s home.
After a deep dive into research, Mathur was surprised to find there were few automated fire suppression solutions out there. None of the options were consumer-friendly, efficient, or portable, and were extremely difficult to install.
“I thought, well that’s a serious problem because something like that needs to be available to people,” says Mathur. “So that was the moment I realized that I was going to try to make something.”
Mathur then started his next round of intensive research, digging into the world of fire suppression. Over the next two or three months he learned how fires are fought and fire behavior.
After making an initial prototype he found it was over-engineered and went back to the drawing board. This time talking to dozens of fire professionals to get input on how to improve the design. And after this round of developments, many tests and improvements, Mathur was able to land close to the design he has today.
“For the past two years I’ve been the sole engineer and creator of my device but I couldn’t have done it myself,” says Mathur. “So I’ve consulted fire and industry professionals to make sure I’m on the right track, that everything is safe and going to work.”
How it Works
Awareness of how wildfires work is the first step in understanding how F.A.C.E. works. Mathur broke it down – there’s two main ways wildfires burn down houses.
The first is exposure to the main body of the fire. The second and most common way a home ignites is embers (small pieces of burning material) that are light enough to float, travel ahead of the fire, and land on a house.
F.A.C.E. can be applied to homes in a couple different ways. The main application is a primary line of defense around the perimeter of your home, “placing one every 10 to 12 feet and having that serve as a fire spreading boundary,” says Mathur.
Individual canisters can also be used around the outside home in fire-prone areas so they snuff out embers immediately when they land. Mathur says it is possible to use the devices indoors around areas like the boiler or your stove but that’s not exactly the intended application.
Getting the Devices Out to the Public
After two years of research and developments, Mathur launched a Kickstarter in July 2021. The project was fully funded in less than a day. He is currently filling Kickstarter orders and shipping the product out to backers.
Mathur is also working on developing larger canisters that are up to 100 gallons for community use around fire breaks.
The teen is now communicating with nonprofits, fire prevention companies, and VCs to expand the development of his devices. He plans to use profits to donate devices to individuals in fire-prone areas that can’t afford the fire protection they need.
Innovation comes with its own set of challenges. Mathur believes the biggest hurdle was actually getting the device to work.
“When I was initially making it I had very minimal knowledge of the fire suppression world so I didn’t really know what I was doing–I was just throwing things together and hoping that it would work,” says Mathur.
After two or three dozen tests and tweaking things like the fire retardant or pressure, Mathur finally got to a functioning version.
While engineering the device was the biggest obstacle, there is also the logistical side of founding a company that Mathur never thought he would be doing. Currently he runs an LLC to sell the devices and also has a preliminary patent.
“And I actually set up both of those myself, so it was learning how to create an LLC, file the paperwork, or finding a registered agent,” says Mathur. “I was writing a patent application from scratch and conducting the prior art search. I found myself getting involved in a bunch of things I wouldn’t have even imagined when I was starting out.”
Rewards of the Work
The high school student feels creating and launching a device has been the most rewarding part of the process. Mathur says it feels surreal that his theoretical concept has gotten him to this point. That he has made it this far.
“When I was starting out it was completely theoretical. It was a pipe dream, like oh maybe I’ll throw something together and see what happens, but now I’m running a Kickstarter campaign, shipping out devices and people are actually getting them,” says Mathur. “VCs and media are reaching out to me. I’m having this conversation with you right now.”
Admitting it may sound cliché, Mathur says his best piece of advice is “don’t give up.” There will be obstacles thrown in your path and you may want to take the easy way out, but stay focused on your long-term goal.
“In the end you have to look at the long-term goal and what will be achieved by making a short-term sacrifice. Keeping the long-term goal in mind is what really helped me get over some of the most difficult obstacles I faced,” says Mathur. “When I really wanted to quit I essentially envisioned myself here. And that served as my motivation.”
Being in School While Inventing a Device
With the initial idea for F.A.C.E.happening right at the beginning of the pandemic, Mathur had a lot more free time to focus on creating his device while going to high school virtually. Now that he’s back in in-person classes as a senior it’s more difficult to focus on developing the device, “so I have to manage my time a little more carefully.”
Mathur is currently in the midst of college applications. Depending on how the subsequent developments and launch of the device go, he may take a gap year to focus on F.A.C.E..
What’s Next for F.A.C.E.?
The teen has big plans for F.A.C.E.. He plans to develop the device further and create a range of canister sizes available to the public. He also wants to pursue providing F.A.C.E. to communities in need or selling for commercial use.
Mathur wants to donate profits to fire-prone areas. His goal is to provide fire protection to individuals or communities who can’t afford it.
All images and video provided by Arul.