Understory, a Madison startup whose ultra-local weather sensors can tell if a hailstorm that pelted your roof or a downpour that flooded your street left damage in its wake, is heading into a year of explosive growth.
Understory generates real-time weather data for use by insurance companies, agriculture and emergency government.
Today, people in five U.S. metro areas and farmers in Argentina are getting access to the specialized weather impact reports, ranging from home-by-home wind or hail damage to the prime time to pluck crops from farm fields.
The company also is launching a new service: Identifying areas with high pollution levels and offering recommendations to improve the air quality. The service, called Atmosphere, was announced last week at the Sustainable Innovation Forum in Poland.
Understory’s Atmosphere service has kicked off in Dallas, and the company plans to expand its availability to cities around the globe in 2019.
Along with the anticipated growth in the company’s potential client base will come a surge in manufacturing and employment that could benefit the Madison area, CEO Alex Kubicek said.
The big push is possible, in large part, thanks to $7.5 million that Understory recently raised from nine investors, led by Madison-based 4490 Ventures with some funding from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund.
Revolution, a Washington, D.C., investment firm founded by Steve Case, the former CEO of AOL, invests in young companies that disrupt the norm, primarily between the East and West coasts. The $150 million Rise of the Rest fund was established in 2017, named after Revolution’s Rise of the Rest tours to highlight innovative, young companies inside the coasts.
The Rise of the Rest tour, a startup pitch contest, came to Madison in 2014 and awarded $100,000 to Solomo Technology, a shopper location analytics company that closed in 2017. Only one other Wisconsin company — Lanehub, a Green Bay shipping logistics firm — has received Rise of the Rest funds.
“Understory is powering innovation in weather data infrastructure with its sensor networks and on-the-ground insights,” Case said. He said he thinks the company can “redefine real-time weather information for insurance, agriculture, academics, utility companies and more.”
Understory’s Kubicek said he’s very excited to have Rise of the Rest come on board. “We are looking to bring in some of the best talent ... and (the support of) Rise of the Rest gives us the capability to do that,” he said.
Kubicek said with the additional money in hand, Understory will be able to expand. “This will get us to the next stage,” he said.
Understory, founded in 2012, currently has 15 employees, including 12 at the company’s offices at 316 W. Washington Ave. Kubicek said he expects to double that number over the next year, with most of the increase in Madison.
“We see a lot of people who want to move from the coasts to Madison” because they can afford to buy a house and start a family here, he said. “They think of Madison as the land of tech and babies.”
Detecting damage, plant growth
The basis of Understory’s weather stations is a metal globe about the size of a soccer ball that contains most of the weather sensors and has no external moving parts. The base contains a circuit board and processing equipment that collects the data which is stored in the computer cloud.
Mounted on metal rods, the units can be installed in the ground or on the roof of a building. They collect real-time information on hail, wind, humidity, temperature and barometric pressure and can identify where damage has occurred and analyze plant growing conditions, Kubicek said.
More than 500 of the company’s weather stations have been installed throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Denver, St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as a few sites in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Hawaii.
By the end of 2019, Understory expects 5,000 of its units will be placed in 75 cities, based on upcoming contracts with new customers who buy a subscription for the service.
Earlier this year, the company began setting up its weather stations in farm fields across swaths of Argentina, through a partnership with Bayer, formerly Monsanto, to help farmers determine the best times to harvest their corn and soybeans.
The company’s devices predicted how the crops would behave, based on environmental conditions such as sunshine, warmth and precipitation, down to projecting “how many leaves a plant will have at a given time,” Kubicek said.
A serious drought complicated the growing season, he said, but Understory’s data helped farmers pinpoint the best harvest time, adjusting it by two weeks and increasing the yield. “This is a lot in the agricultural world,” he said.
“We are hoping we’ll be expanding to many more continents over the next year,” Kubicek said.
Collecting disaster damage
Also this year, Understory began a project designed to improve emergency response to weather disasters.
The City Warn project, with the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), keeps close tabs on the weather in north-central Texas.
Understory is providing ground-level data, coupled with the area’s advanced micro-radar networks, to better determine rainfall and wind velocity and let rescue crews know more quickly where respond to hazardous weather situations, such as floods or tornado damage, the company said.
“Our sensors guide the radar to pick up the phenomenon that’s happened,” Kubicek said.
More than 1,000 emergency management officials and first-responders in 50 locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area were involved in the pilot project.
As the information builds up over time, it will be used by CASA’s lead institutions, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Colorado State University, to more accurately predict vulnerable areas by using artificial intelligence, Kubicek said.
“Having access to hail data from the Understory sensors helps us to validate measurements made by our gap-filling X-band CASA radars, and to create better hail forecasting algorithms,” said Prof. V. Chandrasekar, lead scientist from Colorado State University.
While Understory’s sensors can grab a quick reading on current weather occurrences, they can’t predict where flooding will occur in the near future — at least, “not yet,” Kubicek said.
The company’s expected growth spurt will require many more Understory weather stations. They are manufactured in Massachusetts, but Kubicek said he is looking at locations in southern Wisconsin or northern Illinois that might handle the increase.
So far, Understory has received $17.5 million from investors; Kubicek declined to give revenue figures for the young company.
As for competitors, Kubicek said, “Nobody’s doing exactly what we’re doing.”
Understory was named one of Forbes’ 25 Most Innovative AgTech Startups in 2018.