In her freshman year of high school in North Carolina, Nandita Balaji and her classmates were stuck inside because of smoke from distant forest fires. She was surprised how far the smoke traveled, but more surprised at how few solutions she found when researching wildfire protection. An idea was born. Balaji and three of her friends started InfernoGuard, a wildfire early detection and warning system, as part of a high school science project. They turned that project into a real venture in 2020, while completing a remote first year of college.
Now a junior at Hopkins majoring in neuroscience and computer science, Balaji is COO of InfernoGuard, which aims to provide landowners in remote, fire-prone locations with prompt notification of wildfire risk to minimize damage and protect property. The wildfire assessment software is launching this year, serving businesses like lumber companies and national parks.
“There are a million ways to pick at a step in the problem that is wildfires,” Balaji says. “I really resonate with the mission that this one small step could address fires across the globe.”
A Growing Startup
The startup now has more than 15 employees at four universities. Balaji runs the business side from Johns Hopkins. This includes marketing, writing funding applications, and attending pitch competitions and national disaster conferences. The work has taken her to California, where she met with firefighters including the fire chief of Yosemite National Park. Last year she won a $100,000 grand prize from the Arizona State University Innovation Open, which funded further testing of the software and hardware.
Part of the company’s success is due to support and resources from entrepreneurial offices at these universities, including FastForwardU (FFU) at JHU. Balaji participated in Fuel, a nine-week accelerator program for companies scaling their ventures, and the summer incubator, which gives students a six-week co-working experience with other student entrepreneurs. She’s also been a Commercialization Academy fellow at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, is a researcher at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, and is a member of the JHU Tutorial Project and JHU Ballet Company.
“There’s nothing quite like the process of building a startup,” Balaji says. “Being at a place like Hopkins, where double majoring in neuroscience and computer science is not unheard of… it’s great to be in this environment where everyone wants to learn, and grow, and do some transformative work.”
Yosemite and Beyond
The work is just beginning. Balaji and her partners are continuing to scale their risk analysis platform. Yosemite has been a key testing location. Balaji saw patches of burnt trees every few miles on a recent trip to the park, with smoke in the distance. Her goal is to reinvent wildfire response in the long term, she says, hopefully bringing the United States one step closer to eradicating megafires.