Weather Tech Q&A: Understory CEO on “Ground Truth,” Climate Change

[Updated 5/17/19, 3:56 pm ET. See below.] As climate change brings more extreme and unpredictable weather, the stakes for improving the ability to track and forecast atmospheric conditions are rising.

That has contributed to a growing interest in startups developing technologies for weather monitoring and analytics. The latest to cash in is Understory, a Madison, WI-based startup that this week said it raised $5.25 million in a Series B funding round led by True Ventures. Previous Understory investors 4490 Ventures and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund joined in the deal.

The financing round brings Understory’s venture capital haul to $22.25 million, the company says. It last raised money in November, a $7.5 million investment. The company says it will use the new cash to speed up its international expansion, move into a larger headquarters in Madison, and expand its team. CEO and co-founder Alex Kubicek tells Xconomy the plan is to grow from 17 employees to around 30 in the next year.

Understory is restocking its war chest to go after an increasingly competitive market. Other players in weather analytics include Spire, ClimaCell, Earth Networks, and TempoQuest. Their technologies and business approaches vary. San Francisco-based startup Spire, for example, uses satellites to track things like weather, maritime, and aviation data. ClimaCell, a startup based in Boston, performs “hyper-local,” real-time weather monitoring and makes predictions using a variety of information sources, including data from software it developed that measures the ways in which weather impacts wireless communication networks, and gleans insights from those signal effects. Founded in 1993, Germantown, MD-based Earth Networks says it provides customers with real-time local weather information gleaned from thousands of ground-based devices that track 25-plus atmospheric conditions. It also has a network of sensors specifically monitoring lightning. [Added Earth Networks info.—Eds.]

Meanwhile, Understory also uses equipment to collect data directly at the Earth’s surface. The seven-year-old company developed a solar-powered device (pictured above) that typically gets installed atop flat-roofed commercial buildings and monitors weather information such as wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, rain, hail, solar radiation, and air quality. The company’s software crunches that data to create actionable reports for customers in agriculture, insurance, government, and other sectors.

The idea is to establish a dense network of compact weather stations on the ground in various cities, creating a less expensive, more technologically advanced weather-tracking system than the current standard. Understory has said its system provides a more comprehensive and accurate picture of the movement and intensity of weather events. (The word “understory” is a term for the area beneath a rainforest’s canopy.)

Part of Understory’s pitch is its devices don’t have moving parts, enabling its sensors to last more than 10 years without requiring maintenance, the company claims. [Added info about device durability.—Eds.]

A spokesperson says the company has installed more than 600 of its stations around the world.

Farmers have used Understory’s products to make decisions about irrigation and optimal harvest dates and times. Its data help insurance adjusters make more accurate damage reports after weather events, so insurance carriers don’t end up paying out more in claims than necessary. And last year, Understory launched a new product to help municipalities more accurately monitor air quality, to inform pollution reduction efforts.

Xconomy connected with Kubicek this week to get his thoughts on trends in weather tech and what’s on the horizon. The following are highlights from our email exchange.

Xconomy: What’s driving all this activity in the weather tech sector?

Alex Kubicek: Weather remains the most powerful natural destructive force on the planet, while proving to be evermore unpredictable and volatile. This recipe for catastrophic damage compels a transformation in human understanding, and therefore investment, to better prepare and guard against it. This is all coalescing at a time when we have seen damages and losses from natural disasters skyrocket in both costs and human life.

As concerns on climate change and extreme weather escalate, Understory’s weather technology is uniquely positioned to generate the most accurate and granular data available to provide real-time (up to the second) actionable information. Understory can help power data-driven decisions in many industries, particularly the ag industry, insurance industry, and governments.

X: What’s one prediction for how the weather-tracking technology sector will play out over the next few years?

AK: We are on the cusp of the industry evolving, so the next decade will favor consistent and accurate, hyper-local weather [predictions]. We have already seen the application of massive bandwidths of computing power to help better predict the general weather, but it still suffers from poor quality data coming into its models in attempts to build forward-looking projections. The key to unlocking the transformation therefore becomes the integration of accurate data across regions, continents, within microclimates, and at different levels of the atmosphere in order to deliver reliable projections. Only then will we realize the benefits of the computing power available.

X: Why is Understory’s approach to weather tracking more desirable than competitors?

AK: Tracking past weather information for large financial decisions is only possible by having an empirical understanding of how the weather actually impacted an area at the ground level. In short, you can’t have ground truth without actually seeing what is happening on the ground. Nothing else—no algorithms, no AI, no added tangential weather data streams are a substitute for more observations.

Understory is the only one who has done that on a metropolitan scale, through networks of scientific-grade sensors placed in a dense grid. Understory is bringing a very cost-effective technology to the industry that can not only replace the existing infrastructure, but can also cost-effectively blanket countries and continents into a network of precision insight-generating infrastructure.

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