Energized for real-world impact
Tim Barat (B.S.’19, M.S.’20 EECS) will never forget seeing the devastation caused by wildfires in his home state of Victoria, Australia. On Feb. 7, 2009 — a day now known as Black Saturday — 400 bushfires raged across more than 1,700 square miles, killing 173 people and destroying approximately 2,000 homes. Many fires were ignited by collapsed power lines, including the Kilmore East-Kinglake fire, which alone caused 120 deaths.
At the time, Barat was a high school dropout working as an electrical lineman, climbing power poles. When a power outage was reported, crew members would have to locate the faulty line, which sometimes required an 11-hour hike into the backcountry. Often, they would find fully energized lines sparking on the ground, dangerously close to dry vegetation.
The lack of a system to accurately detect power line failures confounded Barat. “We have sensors on our wrists, sensors in our pockets, all these incredible ways to sense the world,” said Barat. “And yet, if you have a power line failure, or you have a power line fall to the ground, often the utility doesn’t know that has happened.”
Barat’s desire to help mitigate the threat of wildfires eventually led him to UC Berkeley, where he co-founded Gridware with classmates Hall Chen (B.S.’19 EECS) and Abdulrahman Bin Omar (M.S.’20 ChemE). Today, Gridware’s product, Gridscope, monitors telltale harmonics from power poles to evaluate electrical grid integrity and the potential hazard risks from power lines.
From Berkeley Engineering to the startup fast lane
Even after Barat moved to the United States in 2013, his experience from Black Saturday stayed with him. He enrolled in community college, where he began studying electrical engineering, and eventually transferred to Berkeley. But throughout his studies, he remained focused on developing his idea: preventing wildfires by using sensors to detect power line failures.
“Around the time of the Camp Fire , I had begun thinking how my previous experience in the field could be combined with the toolkit I learned from Berkeley to finally solve this,” said Barat. “I remembered something that was said during the [A. Richard] Newton Lecture Series: The best solutions come from people that are solving problems that they have experienced themselves.”
To advance his idea, Barat decided to continue at Berkeley as a master’s student. As part of his research, he began speaking with executives at utility companies and regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission to understand their incentive structures, pain points and technological gaps.
“I very quickly realized that we needed more visibility at the distribution level, specifically to detect vegetation contact, lines down and insulation leakage, which are the three leading causes of catastrophic wildfire ignition by power lines,” said Barat. “Seven of the top 20 wildfires in California’s history were ignited by power lines in this way. And we still don’t have a reliable solution to even detect them.”
To move forward, Barat needed funding and guidance on how to start a business. While a grad student, he enrolled in a technology entrepreneurship course at the Berkeley Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, where he connected with Bin Omar, who had studied product development and worked in the energy industry. Then, working with the CITRIS Foundry, they formally incorporated Gridware in 2020, with Barat as CEO, Chen as chief technology officer and Bin Omar as chief operating officer.
According to Bin Omar, the CITRIS Foundry was instrumental in helping them make the leap to startup phase. “Their support, resources and guidance helped us establish our company and win a $150,000 grant from the California Energy Commission,” said Bin Omar. “This in turn gave us the credibility to secure our first round of funding.”
After successfully applying to Y Combinator, Gridware managed to raise $5.3 million in three weeks. They could now focus on developing the technology and testing prototypes. “We were able to insert ourselves into what is essentially the startup fast lane,” said Barat.
A new way to mitigate wildfires
With their newly acquired know-how and influx of financial support, the Gridware team was able to solve some key design and engineering challenges — such as how to power the device using solar energy and make sure it was compact and easy to install — and get their technology off the shelf.
The resultant product — called Gridscope — mounts to a power pole and detects anomalies using highly sensitive sensors, including a vibrometer and microphone. By continuously taking measurements at a rate of 6,000 times per second, it observes the grid’s environment, stress levels and equipment response. Any deviation from the expected behavior could indicate issues such as a branch falling on the line, a strong wind gust blowing a line down or a car striking the post.
“Our technology feels the vibrations in the lines, listening to the very interesting and unique acoustic and vibration signals that are produced when these events occur,” said Barat. “For example, if you have vegetation hit a line, the line is going to be oscillating in a unique way. And those vibrations travel down through the pole, and we detect them.”
Gridscope uses analog and digital signal processing and an advanced analytics engine to then process the sensor data locally and determine what action to take, such as whether to report activity to utility managers.
According to Chen, Gridscope’s ability to provide real-time observations and analysis is key to strengthening the electrical grid. “This level of on-the-ground grid intelligence is unprecedented and will help inform wider efforts to increase grid resilience and modernization,” he said.
Barat credits co-founder Prabal Dutta, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, with being an extraordinary mentor and helping the team optimize their technology.
For Dutta, it has been rewarding to watch these Berkeley engineers use the university’s resources to begin tackling real-world problems. “It’s gratifying to see our students transform into leaders, aided by their Berkeley education and network,” said Dutta.
The CITRIS Foundry’s support also proved critical during product development. Thomas Azwell, who leads Berkeley Engineering’s Disaster Lab, and mentor David Warner helped Barat secure a testing site within UC Berkeley’s 170-acre Richmond Field Station property.
Gridware currently anticipates having to produce 100,000 units by the end of 2023. According to Barat, most utilities on the West Coast that have a wildfire mitigation plan are either on the waitlist for Gridscope or have engaged with the company. And their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Gridscope was recognized by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2022, and Barat, Chen and Bin Omar were recently featured in Forbes’s annual 30 under 30 list of bright young entrepreneurs.
For Barat, realizing his original vision has been both rewarding and a reminder that everyone at Berkeley has the potential to make an impact, even a former high school dropout. “I stepped into EECS with a lot of self-doubt and a major case of imposter syndrome,” he said. “But if I could rewind and show myself just a glimpse of where we are now and what we’ve built, I think that would be incredibly encouraging.”