Startups to watch: Ottawa’s APX lays out the blueprint for a smarter, safer city

APX founder and CEO Paul Martin (centre) guides emergency personnel through a training exercise at the University of Ottawa. Photo by Alex Craib.

A local startup’s software is not only giving Ottawa firefighters valuable insights before arriving at a frenzied scene, but could also lay the foundations for a smarter and safer nation’s capital.

Advance Property eXposure, or APX, develops a SaaS solution for municipal fire departments and other emergency services to enter dangerous situations with a full view of the building. At the touch of a button, the firm’s mobile app summons layouts, labels flagging particular hazards and photos of key rooms or shut-off valves.

As APX founder Paul Martin puts it, the instant access to relevant data helps to not only save time, but lives as well.

“The idea is that by the time (first responders) arrive on scene, whether the building is full of smoke, whether people are running out of the building and it's chaos ... they had collected information in advance that allowed them to make good decisions,” Martin says.

Officially founded in 2013, APX has been pushing its software to market in the United States and Canada for the past two years. Its SaaS solution is now active in 65 cities across 15 states and four provinces, including Vancouver and here at home in Ottawa.

The 15-person firm has taken in funding from Ottawa’s Capital Angel Network and FedDev Ontario in recent years, and Martin says the company is now looking to start scaling up with sales and marketing hires in the coming month.

Advance Property eXposure (APX)

Key players: CEO, founder Paul Martin

Solution: Data collection and presentation for first responders

Funding: Angel investment, grant from FedDev Ontario

Demand for digital records

The APX software addresses a regulatory need for fire departments across North America. Under the standards of the National Fire Protection Association – a U.S.-based organization that nonetheless covers Canada as well – every municipal fire service must document the layouts and hazards of its district’s public and commercial buildings. That’s more than 100,000 buildings in Ottawa’s case, Martin says, with Vancouver and Toronto doubling and tripling that count, respectively.

Before APX, which prides itself on a low-tech approach to both collecting and displaying its information on mobile devices, many fire departments would scrawl blueprints and notes on reams of paper that were then logged into filing cabinets. As a result, when the bell rings out at a fire station relying on physical record-keeping, relevant data is often not readily available.

"Our biggest competitor is pen and paper."

“Our biggest competitor is pen and paper,” Martin says.

The need for relevant and accessible emergency services data has become increasingly poignant in recent years with disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London. Fire response and regulations in the United Kingdom came under heavy criticism in the aftermath of the incident, which saw 72 people killed and dozens more injured.

Beyond safety, Martin says it’s in municipalities’ best interests to invest in digital services. Insurance underwriters often base rates on how well regulations are followed, and when incidents do occur, gaps in safety protocol can open cities up to costly litigation.

Foundations of a smart city

APX has attracted the attention of heavy hitters in the public safety sector. Nokia, for one, has plugged the Ottawa firm’s software into its Advanced Command Center product, which allows public safety agencies to integrate a variety of Internet of Things and surveillance services.

Though Martin says APX should be considered a smart city application, the utopian vision of the connected city is not a prominent part of his pitch.

Martin recalls a meeting he had with Steve Kanellakos, the city manager of Ottawa, and a representative from Nokia. He says Kanellakos started off by telling the partners he didn’t want to be sold smart city technology – he wanted a practical solution to his city’s problems.

The efficiency APX brings to Ottawa Fire Services makes for a decent sales pitch on its own, but Martin says the potential in having a digital footprint of 100,000 public and commercial buildings is where the smart city dream can begin.

With a digital record of Ottawa’s buildings as a foundation, the city could begin to offer a variety of services. The APX data can act as a base for 3D representations of the city or any artificial intelligence service that would benefit from a holistic view of the capital.

“We are now giving them the tools to digitize and be prepared for other layers of technology that the city can benefit from,” Martin says.

In the meantime, however, the startup’s founder has his eyes firmly set on the public safety sector. Opportunity aside, he says APX’s team feels privileged to work in a field where a few lines of well-placed code at the right time can make all the difference in a potentially fatal situation.

“We're making a difference in communities across North America with the tools that we're developing. And I think that that's what drives our team.”