Madison’s WInstruments allows weather watchers to go inside the storm
You might say Alex Kubicek once dreamed of becoming the Mark Zuckerberg of the meteorological world.
Unfortunately, it was a dream that went nowhere, but Kubicek is still thinking big, hoping that WInstruments, Inc., his start-up weather data company, can tap into a potential $2 billion market and transform the way weather information is gathered.
“My business actually started out as a weather social network, so people could buy these inexpensive weather stations that could link up to each other, and they could talk about the weather,” said Kubicek, WInstruments’ CEO. “I found out that no one really wanted to buy weather stations, and I had to kind of pivot to a business-to-business venture.”
But while Kubicek soon discovered that rain and wind gusts didn’t hold quite the same fascination as grumpy cats or the collected musings of George Takei, like a good entrepreneur, Kubicek was hardly bothered by that initial hiccup.
He saw vast potential in his idea for small, localized weather stations arranged in grids to yield the kind of precise, on-the-ground information that satellite and radar images simply can’t produce. And he’s not the only one who believes in his vision. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. recently certified WInstruments (dba Subsidence) as a Qualified New Business Venture, meaning investors in the company are now eligible for a 25% tax credit on the amount they invest in the business.
It’s the sort of boost that Kubicek, who sees a potential $2 billion market driven largely by the insurance industry, utilities, and weather forecasting, well appreciates. And since the number of stations the company could sell is theoretically limited only by the number it can produce and the size of the globe, the sky – where satellites and radar dominate – truly does appear to be the limit.
“I’ve been kind of a huge weather geek my entire life, and I didn’t really know I wanted that to be my career until I did some cleanup after Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 and saw the raw power of weather.” – Alex Kubicek, CEO, WInstruments
So what exactly does Kubicek’s system offer that satellites and radar, which yield increasingly precise above-ground data, can’t? WInstruments’ system, which features a ball sensor that can read three-directional wind, rain, and hail data as well as temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and dew point, can be connected to the company’s Web-based application platform, and customers can get custom notifications, create weather analytics, and visualize microgrid data. In a nutshell, customers can see what’s happening underneath the clouds, not just from a bird’s-eye view.
For Kubicek, this type of system has several real-world applications, starting with compiling more accurate information on severe storms and improving storm notifications.
“For a satellite image, you’re only seeing the very tops of the clouds that are actually occurring,” said Kubicek. “You can’t actually see what’s happening on the surface. Same with radar. It starts two miles above the ground, and it’s difficult to actually understand if there’s hail brewing.
“So you may have models that predict that the hail falls directly under where this radar signature is, but in reality, it got blown out of the storm and it’s hitting 20 miles away from the actual radar signature. So our devices allow you to actually see what’s happening on the ground, because they’re actually taking measurements on the ground.”
An insurance industry godsend?
Another potential application for WInstruments’ weather grids is fraud prevention in the insurance industry. Kubicek notes that storm claims reached over $25.8 billion last year, and of that, fraudulent claims accounted for $500 million.
“If you have widespread storm damage, like in a storm last year that happened in Dallas where there was about $2 billion in hail damage to various parts of the city, it would allow them to have a map of where the largest hail damage was, where the largest wind damage was,” said Kubicek. “They could actually focus their claims adjusters to the fringe areas – and when I say fringe areas, I mean areas where it’s questionable if there was large hail damage or not – and they would be able to be on the front lines to make sure these fraudulent roofers don’t actually create claims where there aren’t any claims.”
WInstruments’ microgrid system would also allow insurance companies to provide better customer service, said Kubicek.
“Our device allows an insurance company to go out the moment after a storm hits, or call the policyholder and say, ‘Hey, we notice there’s hail or severe winds or heavy rain that affected either your house or were very nearby your house, and we’d like to send a claims adjuster to assess the damage,’” said Kubicek. “Right now, the insurance company has to wait for the policyholder to actually call them, and that takes six to 12 months maybe, and in that time it may have created a leaky roof or something, and the problem has gotten much worse.”
Kubicek also sees his microgrid system as a boon to utilities, which could benefit greatly from real-time information on weather conditions.
“One of the things our microgrids can do is help you know more about [conditions at] substations,” said Kubicek. “So the storm’s coming in, you’re able to see that, okay, there’s going to be some hail or heavy winds that are heading toward my substation within 10 minutes. I’ll notify our maintenance crew to get out there and be ready for some sort of outage that may occur, and hopefully they’ll be able to use that knowledge to either stop a power outage or get it repaired faster by being early on the scene.”
The eureka moment
Kubicek, who has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in atmospheric science from UW-Madison (his business partner, Bryan Dow, is currently working on a master’s in mechanical engineering from the UW), came up with the idea for WInstruments partly to address a perceived need and partly as an extension of his lifelong fascination with weather.
“I’ve been kind of a huge weather geek my entire life, and I didn’t really know I wanted that to be my career until I did some cleanup after Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 and saw the raw power of weather,” said Kubicek. “But the idea for the weather stations came about when I was at my parents’ place on Lake Beulah in East Troy and I heard a bunch of sailors at this yacht club complaining about how they don’t know where the winds are on the lakes. The winds could be anywhere on one side of the lake. You could get a breeze somewhere and wouldn’t have any idea which direction or how strong the wind was on any given part of the lake. … So they would go out and spend half a day getting their boat ready and then go out and see if there’s no wind or the wind was actually too high.”
That sailor’s conundrum prompted a “eureka moment” for Kubicek.
“I thought I could build a network that could actually see the winds around the lake, and once I kind of got that thought process going, I thought, wait, wouldn’t it actually be great to have this all over the place if you could actually see weather for different types of places?”
If all goes well, Kubicek might actually see his vision of ubiquitous weather stations that relay on-the-ground data come to fruition. But first, the system needs to be thoroughly tested. Kubicek said the company hopes to implement its first grid, consisting of about 10 stations, in Madison within the next two months. The company is also working on securing investments that would allow it to deploy grids in Milwaukee and Illinois as well.
Kubicek said that for the time being, the company needs to make sure all the bugs are worked out of the system, and his top priorities are making sure that deploying the stations becomes easier, that the software works, and that they be low maintenance with respect to repairs.
And if WInstruments can get beyond the proof-of-concept stage, there appears to be no limit to the territory it can cover.
“If we get a lot of them deployed, these weather stations will just take off, but in the meantime we can deploy these smaller microgrids and they can work independently to create weather data for smaller areas,” said Kubicek. “And the value will grow with the more coverage that we have.”
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