In this mHUB Member Spotlight, we sat down with Paul Couston, Co-founder and CEO of mHUB Portfolio company Ascent Integrated Tech, to learn about their journey revolutionizing crisis response technology for first responders and warfighters.
How did two engineers with no prior firefighting experience find themselves decked out in full bunker gear, running into a burning building? It started with a simple goal: Find a problem that will be interesting to solve.
That’s how Co-founders Paul Couston and Alex Gorsuch founded their startup Ascent Integrated Tech, a hardware-enabled SaaS company improving the safety and efficiency of first responders and war fighters through a comprehensive hardtech solution.
Couston launched his first startup company while in college and even scored his first defense contract before he was old enough to drink. After moving on from that venture, he met co-founder Alex Gorsuch, who also had experience working with federal agencies and securing non-dilutive funding. Around this time, the world entered a global pandemic, and there was increased interest and federal funding towards improving and innovating personal protective equipment (PPE).
As Couston and Gorsuch ventured down this path, they started talking to first responders at fire departments in southern Illinois to learn how they could better equip them for responding to crises in real time. They eventually found themselves at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, conducting more research by dressing in firefighter gear and participating in training exercises.
“During these practice runs, the fire chief utilized a whiteboard where they would be listening to the radio and marking things with dry erase markers,” explained Couston. “We were like, ‘That’s just for training, right? That’s not how an actual scene would evolve.’ And ultimately, it was.”
After learning that most fire chiefs tracked incidents as they unfolded with nothing more than handheld radios and a whiteboard, Couston and Gorsuch had discovered the problem they were going to solve.
From their early conversations with fire chiefs and firefighters, the Ascent team knew that asking first responders to change their process for responding to a crisis would create friction. Instead of replacing the whiteboard, they decided to augment it with vital information about a firefighter's location, well-being, and surroundings; empowering fire chiefs to monitor their teams and make life-saving decisions. Ascent’s innovative hardtech uses helmet mounted sensors, off-the-shelf wearables, and a single dashboard that gives Incident Commanders real-time insights into the location, environment, and health of operators.
“There’s only a handful of companies building hardware that goes onto the firefighter as they enter a burning building, which is obviously a challenge,” said Couston. “But what’s most important is how that hardware performs and provides insights.”
Less than a year after founding Ascent, Couston and Gorsuch joined the mHUB Accelerator program in 2021 focused on connected devices and smart manufacturing. They spent a significant amount of time in mHUB’s prototyping and fabrication labs, building prototypes and working with other hardtech developers to refine their product’s design. This gave them additional credibility in the eyes of their customers and investors, who were eager to see such a great idea become a tangible, operational product.
"When you're at mHUB, you're surrounded by other hardware founders and engineers who are all building things,” said Couston. “There was intrinsically a lot more value for a hardware startup to go through the [mHUB Accelerator] program, because all the resources, all the network, and all the community members are involved in building hardware.”
Now, Ascent has grown into a 23-person company and set up shop in the same Opportunity Zone where mHUB relocated at the end of 2023. “There are huge advantages to being in opportunity zones, specifically when it comes to winning grants and hiring. The State of Illinois gives you a tax advantage, and it gives you 'a leg up' when you’re trying to win contracts,” said Couston. “You also have the positive community impact as well.”
In October 2023, Ascent won an international prize after an 18-month long competition for its ability to localize inside a GPS-denied environment. In the past year, Ascent has received three Air Force contracts and numerous commitments to launch products within civilian fire departments in cities such as Washington, D.C. and Jacksonville, FL. They raised a seed round in 2023 and launched their hardtech solution with 250 firefighters at the start of 2024.
If you are a budding entrepreneur looking for a vast community of innovators, take a tour at mHUB to learn more about the hardtech ecosystem and how you can get involved.