Gary Marshall, a master's student in mechanical engineering and engineering management, is on a mission to give back to those who protect us—firefighters. He founded EmergenTek in 2018 as a mechanical engineering undergrad, where he and his team developed a retrofittable system that automates fire truck ladder operations, reducing human error and increasing the chance to save more lives. Its handheld target acquisition device (called "The Fifth Man") captures the desired orientation, and a system of actuators move the joysticks that operate the ladder. Leading a company consisting of business, engineering and software students and alumni, Marshall and EmergenTek are poised to make fire rescues faster and more efficient. Learn more about the company's startup journey:
Q: What does your startup do?
A: At EmergenTek, we designed and manufactured a system to automate fire truck ladders. Our device increases the precision and efficiency of the aerial apparatus by replacing the human operator with an automated process. The handheld device captures the range and orientation of the target location and transmits the data to a system of actuators that move the ladder’s controllers. It allows firefighters to leave the aerial’s platform and go perform other critical tasks; almost as if there was another member in the team. This is why we called the product: “The Fifth Man.”
Q: How did you come up with your business idea? What inspired you?
A: During a visit to the Boulder Fire Department, the firefighters gave us a tour and let us go on top of the ladder’s bucket. They were moving us to the top of a building, but it was taking a long time. Many times, I have heard “time is essential during a fire.” I was concerned about the lack of efficiency of the process and asked them why it was not a perfect maneuver. They told me that it is a process that takes time and practice to get right and only experienced firefighters know how to operate the ladder with extreme accuracy. However, other firefighters with lesser experience or lack of training could perform slower than needed. So, I thought, why not automate the entire thing? Apparently, nobody has done it. Previous attempts at a similar concept have been successful but never made it to market. My research determined that it was because they were trying to solve the symptom but not the cause of the issue. After talking to many firefighters in different locations, my team and I gathered the ideal requirements to set the right goals and build a device that can help save lives all over the world.
Q: What is your role at your startup?
A: As the main founder, I took upon the role of project manager. I didn’t want to categorize myself as a CEO or president just yet as the project was still in very early stages. I liked the title and responsibilities associated with planning and coordinating, so I stuck with them. Even though the project has a rapidly changing structure and faces complex challenges, I have managed to remain as the glue that keeps the team working together toward the same mission. Having knowledge of both the business and engineering sides, I can decide to take on challenges by myself or recruit people where they are needed most.
Q: What CU Boulder academic courses and entrepreneurial resources did you take advantage of to help you build your business?
A: I decided to take most of the workshops offered in preparation of the New Venture Challenge. However, the majority of the knowledge and help came while learning from my peers and professors in classes such as Engineering Economics (with Michael Readey), Business Plan Preparation (with Hunter Albright), Marketing (with Kyle Judah), and Mechanical Engineering’s Engineering for Social Innovation in Senior Design (with Dan Riffell). I regret not having participated in Catalyze CU after graduation and hope that those reading this article do not miss that opportunity when it is presented.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge in running your startup? What about notable wins or successes?
A: Unlike starting a business in a class, continuing to run it requires people to work for sometimes far less than grades. The promises of wealth or equity are often intangible and therefore unappealing to potential new hires. Unless you have a substantial amount of capital, finding help can be one of the biggest challenges to get your business off the ground. Nobody is willing to work for free and those who are will need plenty of motivation. Consider yourself lucky if it depends on just you but consider yourself blessed if there is a motivated team right there with you.
My team and I faced many issues due to the complexity of our project scope and time constraints. However, we prevailed thanks to teamwork and dedication from all of our members. Our most memorable and embarrassing moment was failing our manufacturing review because our design process ran too far over schedule. After we got over the fact that we had failed, we prepared for our second chance and exceeded expectations. The drive from this win set us on the right course to knock all other deliverables out of the park and finally win us the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Engineering Design Expo.
Q: What do you love about having your own company?
A: While still in college and with so much help from family, friends, and school resources, I can take a shot at entrepreneurship and learn how it feels to run my own company. I love that I am navigating through uncharted territories and that there is a great team that has my back. The best part about starting my own company in college is that I can make mistakes and learn from them without risking too much. The overall best part of having your own company is that it is your "baby." You get to nurture it from birth and see it flourish into something that has a big impact on the world.
Q: What advice would you give to other students who are interested in starting their own businesses?
A: Take entrepreneurship classes that will help you start a business—CU has a ton. Find people in these classes that share your ideals and inspire them with your vision. Out of twenty people that you work with, at least one will be with you till the end.
Q: What do you wish you knew then that you know now?
A: Everything and nothing. There is not a single thing that I would single out as the most important. The technical, the managerial, and the personal things I learned are all important, and I wish I had known it before. But if I had nothing to learn, then where would all the fun be in starting a venture?