A team of fire scientists is adding smarts to the lowly wood stove - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Jun. 12, 2017 12:45 pm

A team of fire scientists is adding smarts to the lowly wood stove

MF Fire, which is based in the Open Works makerspace, recently began shipping its Catalyst stove. Regulatory changes coming in 2020 could have big implications for the startup.

Taylor Myers, Paul LaPorte and Ryan Fisher of MF Fire.

(Photo by Stephen Babcock)

Inside one of the partitioned studio spaces at Open Works, Taylor Myers showed off MF Fire’s wood-burning stove on a recent morning.

The Catalyst appears a little bigger than most models, but most of what sets it apart is what you can’t see.

“We use a controller to automatically regulate the fire and keep burning in the sweet spot, which makes the burn more clean, efficient and it’s significantly easier to use,” said Myers, who invented the stove along with Ryan Fisher. “The thing that we’re most proud of is it’s much, much safer. We’ve put in some automatic features that prevent chimney fires.”

And there’s an app where a user can control temperature and monitor the status of the fire inside. Throughout, it’s collecting data to learn more about the environmental conditions as well as when the user likes to burn.

“The system can improve itself so you get better and better performance,” said Paul LaPorte, the company’s CEO.

The stove’s development began on the National Mall. Myers and Fisher met as grad students at the University of Maryland’s Fire Protection Engineering program in College Park, and they first competed in the national Wood Stove Decathlon in 2013. Among top industry companies represented, their stove was recognized for energy efficiency.

So they continued to develop it, receiving licensing from the university and funding from TEDCO. They met LaPorte through the latter, and he joined as CEO in 2015.

The move to bring on an outside CEO is a tale often heard in Technical.ly circles: Being a top-notch technical founder may ensure a solid product, but business chops are necessarily guaranteed.

“Neither of us had a manufacturing background at the time. Making a consumer product that’s cut bent, welded, painted, shipped across the country was quite the challenge,” Fisher said, noting that they work with a contract manufacturer in Western Maryland.

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The Catalyst stove. (Courtesy photo)

An MF Fire wood stove. (Courtesy photo)

The first stoves started shipping last month. With the new product, they’re entering a market with big players that haven’t seen much change. They’re looking to stand out with energy efficiency and using digital selling and marketing that will help reach customers looking for a new take on an old-fashioned product. (It’s worth noting a startup in Brooklyn that also works to bring 21st-century smarts to the world of fire. BioLite focuses mostly on outdoor wood stoves.)

Once again, however, a call from D.C. could prove most consequential for MF Fire.

While wood burning doesn’t usually get the attention of climate watchers, scientists have been working to understand how soot has been impacting climate change for years. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations approved during President Barack Obama’s term are requiring new wood stoves sold after 2020 to emit less soot, and reduce emissions.

From a marketplace perspective, Myers believes the new regulations will reduce the number of acceptable wood stoves that are available from 248 to 50 — or about 85 percent of the current models. While competitors may have to make changes, Myers said the Catalyst already passes the regulations.

“You have a really interesting business dynamic that’s going to shake things up,” LaPorte said.

While the Catalyst is shipping, new products are in development. With the move to Open Works, MF Fire has access to tools that are helping that process, and the company recently brought on a fourth employee to work on that effort. Being located in Baltimore also means they are close to other space and spots that they can tap into, LaPorte said.

“As we scale, there’s ample resources both people-wise and location-wise,” he said, voicing a desire to “keep the jobs focused right here.”

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