PhD duo create incredible damage assessment software for earthquakes


Over 22 million people all over the world are dropping, taking cover and holding on today as part of ShakeOut Day, and one Montreal startup is keenly aware of the importance of such action.

ShakeOut Day, or ‘La Grande Secousse‘ in Quebec, is held one day a year where people get together to practise safe earthquake drills. Over 26.5 million people took part in 2014’s ShakeOut. It’s popular in high-risk areas like California, but B.C. and Quebec are also prominent regions that take part in the event.

It’s all part of earthquake awareness, said brothers Farshad and Mehrdad Mirshafiei, the cofounders of Montreal-based Sensequake. Nearly 500,000 earthquakes strike every year, about 100,000 of which can be felt. Most importantly, they can create massive damage almost anywhere.

Sensequake, a new startup born out of McGill’s X1 accelerator (along with at least five years of research and development by the Mirshafiei brothers) is developing a brilliant new software tool to help prevent all of that damage that could happen. And it can happen in places like Quebec (more on that later).

The brothers Mirshafiei

The brothers Mirshafiei

The brothers, who both earned their PhDs in strands of engineering (Farshad from McGill University, Mehrdad from Laval University), say they are making cities safer and smarter. They’ve built what’s likely the world’s first high-tech sensing platform to develop fast and accurate seismic assessments of structures, like buildings and homes.

The technology, called 3D-SAM, is a three-dimensional seismic assessment method that utilizes the latest advancements in sensors and vibrations to save engineers time, effort, and money – all while providing results based on real world data.

Both brothers were born in Iran, and both were bronze medal recipients of Iran’s National Physics Olympiad. It should come as no surprise that the guys come from one of the most seismically active countries in the world, being crossed by several major fault lines that cover at least 90 percent of the country. As a result, earthquakes in Iran occur often and can be devastating.

But where they did much of their most important work as professionals was Montreal, a city that Farshad warns could be in big trouble if precautions aren’t taken.

When Farshad started his PhD at McGill five years ago he had access to critical structures in Montreal provided by the city, as part of a project. “To use the earthquake technology in the practice at the time we had to find all the detailed engineering plans and build theoretical models of the buildings for each individual case,” the cofounder told MTLinTech. “However, most of the time the engineering plans were missing and even when we found them they were of poor quality. The process was very complex, time-consuming, not robust and the accuracy really depended on the engineer performing those kinds of methodologies.”

As a result, the brothers created an algorithm that can perform earthquake assessment based on real ambient vibration data gained from sensors deployed on the structures (floors and roofs). After running the tests through their software, Sensequake can predict how a given structure is going to react to an earthquake, whether its going to be safe or damaged and how much damage it will suffer.

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The technology, which will cost several thousand dollars per client (which the cofounders mentioned is far cheaper than any existing solution), can be used by governments, insurance firms, engineering firms or even real estate buyers. These entities can all perform damage and risk assessments and receive their results in just days with Sensequake. The tests can provide benchmarks of vastly complex structures, almost like a building’s DNA, which can be used to track future changes.

Canadians may want to listen up too, said the cofounders.

Every year there are more than 1,800 earthquakes with a magnitude of more than five on the richter scale. In Canada in the past 300 years there have been at least 24 major earthquakes, mostly in BC and Quebec. A 2013 study predicted that potential major earthquakes in BC and Quebec within the next 50 years could end up costing Quebec $60 billion and BC $70 billion.

Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City all have a risk and they’ve all had minor earthquakes in the past few years,” said Farshad. “That’s why we need modern technologies to prevent such catastrophes. We have to be ready before the next big earthquake, and when we say the next 50 years it could be tomorrow.

Nobody can know, said the brothers. But the way that we can deal with it is to be ready and to have good structures in place that can withstand these quakes. “In areas like Montreal, which are seismic regions, and which have the second-highest seismic risk in Canada, people are not aware of this risk. So its much more dangerous than compared to the other parts. Californians are ready for earthquakes, Japanese are ready but in Quebec nobody cares. There could be a huge earthquake and the structures won’t be good enough, and we don’t have shelters,” said Farshad.

The guys, currently completing the City of Montreal’s InnoCite accelerator program, feel that Internet of Things technology can adapt well to their technology in the future. Mehrdad said their sensors can connect to IoT through a wireless connection, and users within client companies will be able to work together anywhere with the data through the cloud.

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