UCAR Foundation launches tech-transfer firm

A new company designed to help bring NCAR innovations into the private sector opened for business in July. Located in Boulder, Peak Weather Resources, Inc., is starting with seed money from the UCAR Foundation (UCARF). The firm has already identified several NCAR technologies it believes could thrive in the commercial realm, given the right blend of support services and marketing.

Russell Peterman. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

“Peak’s philosophy will be to facilitate technology transfer from the research community to the commercial meteorological community,” says president Russell Peterman. A former president of Vaisala Meteorological Systems in Boulder, Peterman was a principal scientist and vice president at Radian International in Austin, Texas and served most recently as a senior manager in NCAR’s Research Applications Program (RAP).

UCARF was created by UCAR in 1986 as a vehicle for commercializing UCAR knowledge and technology. Peak Weather follows the success of WITI, Inc., a for-profit company launched by the foundation in 1989 and sold in 2000 to LifeMinders. Unlike WITI, the new firm is envisioned as a permanent means for bringing technology from NCAR and the UCAR Office of Programs to market, although joint ventures may be spun off.

Peak is wholly owned by UCARF but will operate independently from it. UCARF will retain the rights to most of the intellectual property that Peak markets.

Potential clients for Peak include the private sector, U.S. government entities such as the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security, and international markets. As with WITI, royalties and license fees paid by Peak for the use of UCAR intellectual property will flow back through UCARF to support further research at NCAR. Peak also may subcontract with NCAR for specific tasks.

Learning from academia

Universities have become increasingly adept at commercializing the fruits of their research labor through foundations or commercialization firms similar to Peak Weather. The Bayh-Dole Act and other legislation spurred these tech-transfer efforts. Now NCAR is feeling a nudge from some of its divisions and sponsors to get NCAR-based discoveries into the marketplace.

For example, says Peterman, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a strong proponent of commercialization. RAP received nearly $10 million in FAA funding in fiscal 2003. One long-term project has been the Weather Support to Deicing Decision Making (WSDDM) system, which helps airports determine when and how to deice aircraft. In spite of its proven research success, WSDDM has been a tough sell to the cash-strapped commercial aviation community, and past commercialization efforts through third parties have not been successful.

Peterman thinks that can be changed. “The FAA is pouring a lot of money into WSDDM research with the caveat that the technology ends up being used by airports and the airlines. Peak can help fulfill that part of UCAR’s mission.” The company is bringing WSDMM to the attention of existing commercial partners and other potential users. “I believe you will see WSDDM being used at a number of larger airports as soon as this coming winter,” says Peterman. “Airlines have no choice but to deice their aircraft when conditions warrant. WSDDM can bring great value, increased safety, and environmental friendliness to that process.”

Another strong candidate for marketing to the private sector is Four-Dimensional Weather Systems and Technology (4DWX). This RAP-based modeling and visualization system uses a high-resolution version of the Penn State/NCAR Mesoscale Model, version 5. Originally developed for use at U.S. Army test ranges, 4DWX now has additional sponsorship from several other DOD agencies. The system was used to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to model potential airborne threats to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and to support wildland firefighting this past summer.

According to Scott Swerdlin, 4DWX program manager and Peak Weather technical liaison, “One of our current goals is to transfer the DOD’s considerable investment in this R&D work to applications that could be immediately deployed for homeland security.” Such concerns have been explored at length recently by the National Research Council. An NRC committee headed by former NCAR director Bob Serafin published a 2003 report on tracking and predicting the disperson of airborne hazards.

Peak also plans to market the Dynamic Integrated foreCast (DICast) system. Created at RAP in the late 1990s, DICast integrates a variety of forecast techniques and produces a consensus outlook at user-defined locations, taking into account the recent skill of each forecast module. An offshoot of DICast now produces local forecasts used by millions through a number of commercial sources.

Peak Weather’s initial board of directors includes Peterman; Brant Foote, director of RAP; Jeff Reaves, UCARF vice president; and Don Veal, former president of the University of Wyoming and a founder of Particle Measurement Systems in Boulder. Additional outside directors will be added as Peak’s business model matures. Peterman also expects the company to hire a small technical and support staff in the first year of operations.

In addition to marketing NCAR technology, Peak may assist UCAR member universities with their own commercialization efforts. “It’s something we’re open to, and it fits into the flexibility of how we carry out our mission. We are familiar with best practices for technology commercialization, and we have a number of business models available for universities to consider,” says Peterman. He invites any interested university researchers to contact him at peterman@peakweather.com.

by Nicole Gordon and Bob Henson

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