Hail raisers

Understory technology collects weather data like never before.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Things have changed since engineers Alex Kubicek, 29, and Bryan Dow, 27, first started their weather data company, Understory. The startup was in gener8tor’s inaugural class in 2012, but back then, according to Kubicek, hardware startups garnered little more than a yawn from Midwest investors.

Kubicek was on a mission to help solve a problem he discovered while studying atmospheric science at UW–Madison. “I was studying cloud microphysics and how hail forms but quickly learned that there wasn’t a lot of real-life data out there. So we had to fix that,” he says.

With Understory, the cofounders (and cousins) have created a system that generates real-time localized atmospheric data, collecting weather information they say has never been studied before.

Unable to secure funding here, they moved to Boston, connected with BOLT, an accelerator program for hardware startups, and before long Understory had grown to 10 employees and received its first $2 million investment.

Earlier this year Kubicek, the company’s CEO, and Dow, vice president of deployment, returned to Madison to become a part of the growing tech explosion and be closer to their Midwest markets. The company now has 18 employees, including 10 in Madison, and it recently received $7.5 million in Series A funding led primarily by Madison-based 4490 Ventures.

Understory’s weather station technology measures wind, rain, hail size, the momentum or speed at which hail falls, the distribution of the different hail sizes, and the angle of impact. “Hail coming in at a 45 degree angle, for example, would mean siding damage on a house,” notes Kubicek.

This type of data is very important for insurance companies, he explains, or agriculture. Monsanto, the multinational agriculture company, is an investor in Understory.

“We can provide data two minutes after the damage is done,” Kubicek states, “and send alerts while the storm is happening.”

Communicating how and when a building is damaged can allow an insurance company to contact its customers proactively rather than wait for claims to be filed.

It can also thwart fly-by-night roofing companies anxious to make a quick buck. For example, a recent storm in Madison affected a large swath of the city, but Understory data proves that damaging hail only fell in concentrated areas west and south of town. If a fly-by-night roofer claimed that roof damage occurred in Cottage Grove as a result of that storm, they could be found fraudulent.



Key to Understory’s success is the ability to install weather stations on flat rooftops every two miles apart throughout a city, creating a grid of coverage. Depending on the location, Understory will often pay for that space, and schools have been particularly receptive with some developing weather-related curricula around the analytics. “With the schools, we indemnify any problems we could have with insurance and essentially cover all the costs ourselves,” Kubicek adds.

Understory owns and operates their networks and will sell the analytics to single or multiple clients.

Kansas City and Dallas were Understory’s first networked markets. “We will cover 1.5 million homes in Dallas,” Kubicek says. Meanwhile, Dow is working with contractors who are searching for new rooftops in targeted cities. Denver and St. Louis are being networked right now, and Minneapolis, Chicago, and Oklahoma City could soon follow.

Kubicek plans to install 20 to 25 units in Madison. “The stations are very cost effective,” he explains. “Fifty weather stations inside a city will cost far less than putting in the Dane County airport’s weather station.” Using smartphone technology, the wireless, 10-foot-tall devices are attached with non-penetrating roof mounts. They are solar operated and can withstand 120-mile-per-hour winds.

Originally, Kubicek and Dow launched Understory with a “very small loan” from their grandfather. “He wants to be paid back when we’re profitable or when we sell,” smiles Kubicek.

That could come sooner rather than later.


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