In 1859, a storm wrecked the Royal Charter, a British ship, and inspired Robert FitzRoy – the student of Francis Beaufort known for developing a scale to indicate wind force – to develop charts for “forecasting the weather”, thus coining the term “weather forecast”.
A century and a half later, an Israeli Defence Forces’ Air Force pilot Shimon Elkabetz was told by the traffic control tower that “it’s a clear sky”. But as soon as Elkabetz took flight, he was blinded by fog. He nearly missed the runway and almost lost control.
This near-death experience got Elkabetz out of the cockpit and into the development of Climacell’s technology and services. “Someone has to come up with a new tool to monitor the weather,” he later recalled in an interview.
Currently at a valuation of $20 mn, Boston-based ClimaCell Inc raised an undisclosed Series A funding early this year from JetBlue Technology Ventures which invests in early-stage start-ups at the intersection of technology and travel.
The startup has previously seen financing from Canaan Partners, Square Peg Capitals, along with Indian businessman Ratan Tata.
The startup was founded in 2015 by a team from the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Business School.
Human beings have been trying to predict the weather – formally and informally – for a millennia. The technological advancements in meteorology in the 19th century have focussed on radars to detect changes in the weather. But traditional meteorological monitoring through the use of radars and sensors can be prohibitively expensive. However, it is equally important.
Chicago, for example, is spending $3.1 million to install a network of 500 environmental sensors that will provide “real-time, location-based data about the city’s environment”. As hurricanes ravage the coast of the U.S., the Bureau of Economic Analysis has estimated that hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused about $130 billion worth of damage to fixed assets in the continental United States. This figure got MarketWatch to assume that calamitous weather has destroyed $175 billion of wealth in the U.S. in 2017.
What Climacell is saying is that while climate change wreaks havoc on the economy, there’s little need to continue using clunky “hardware upon hardware” for weather forecasting “that piles up” and may not necessarily be reliable.
Previously incubated at the Harvard Innovation Lab, Climacell has declared that the “existing weather data is not good enough”.
“We started the company in our first week” of graduate school, Elkabetz said in an interview. “By the time we graduated, the company had already raised $5 million.”
But its alternative is not use its funding to install more radars or deploy other hardware. Instead, to forecast the weather with granular accuracy, it is making use of what already exists: the cellular networks.
Climacell uses a software to analyse how weather affects signals in the cellular networks and then uses that information to generate high-definition weather maps. Its algorithm uses data from the other existing sensors at weather stations or radars and integrates their data with its own – such that the results produce hyper-local level granularity in real-time.
But in order to do this, Climacell partners with network owners who in turn give them access to the data. The simple understanding is that Climacell knows signal and knows how it looks with and without interference from wind, hail, rain, snow and other climatic conditions.
Another significant difference between Climacell and traditional forecasting technologies is that Climacell does ground-level tracking. It can differentiate between, say, the intensity of rainfall from one street to another as opposed to the monitoring done by radars high up in the sky.
The company is marketing itself through two of its products – “Hypercast” which integrates data from across networks and an “API” that companies can incorporate into their applications or to use weather data for internal analysis.
Weathering The Storm
The startup has identified and cashed upon the widespread need of weather data, in an effort to keep “planes, cranes, trades, or outdoor games ahead of the weather”. Some businesses need historical data, some need real-time, and many others – from media houses to logistics companies – need real-time and short-term weather data. Naturally, Climacell’s clients are a range of businesses who are heavily reliant on data – from airlines to governments, transportation and logistics or construction companies and even professional sports leagues.
Recently, Climacell extracted all the dates of the Pittsburgh baseball team Pirates’ home games to identify if the team has a higher possibility of victory when it rains (it does).
Last year, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) used Climacell’s Hypercast to access real-time, street-level weather data along the entire route of the Boston Marathon. But Climacell’s most unique client is a hedge fund that uses weather forecasts to make trades.
The Boston-based startup’s pitch to these companies is that it has “double the reliability of radars” and that its short-term forecasting – called nowcasting – is also more reliable than anything else. Moreover, unlike radars that are updated a couple of times in an hour, Climacell updates every minute.
Presently, the startup claims to offer full coverage in the U.S. with plans to use recent funding to expand to India and across the globe. Elkabetz says that its vision is to not only answer questions like “How much insurance is needed for an office building in a flood-prone area? Or how will a prolonged heat wave affect retail sales?” but also work with governments to answer something like “What impact will a drought have on crop production?”
It’s thus that the startup’s role of providing accurate, reliable weather data in developing countries like India becomes important. Climacell intends to help “farmers better monitor and predict rainfall to plan their next steps and improve their yields.” But working with the Indian government, Elkabetz told Forbes, is not something they aim to profit from.