Author: Mark Wilcox Source: (
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The founders of the newest client company at the University of Wyoming's incubator in Laramie have their heads in the clouds.
Alpenglow is a new spin-out company from UW's Atmospheric Sciences Department that has recently started to fledge in the Wyoming Technology Business Center's incubator. The company has brought together three staffers at the university who said they have been working nights and weekends to hatch their business while retaining their day jobs at the university.
"What we're doing with Alpenglow is a spinoff of a technology that we all kind of studied in the Department of Atmospheric Science," Chief Financial Officer Nick Mahon said in a phone interview. "We're not associated with the university except that we're in the incubator." Mahon's background in mechanical engineering and business administration put him in the financial cockpit of the company designed to build instrumentation to study the atmosphere from the air, enhancing the range of a traditionally ground-based technology. But the company has no CEO; instead the three who started it see themselves as co-pilots.
"We all pretty much do everything," Mahon said. "It's a very organic structure at the moment." Mahon partnered with Zhien Wang, who has taken the role of chief scientific officer with his background in atmospheric science, electrical engineering and physics. Wang is also an associate professor in atmospheric sciences at the university. Taking the third seat is Perry Wechsler, an electrical engineer who is chief operating officer at Alpenglow but is chief engineer for the flight operations group in the department. Mahon himself is an engineer technician in the same group.
The company coalesced around potential sales of the technology developed at UW to the Canadian government, who heard about it after results from the unique instrumentation were published in scientific journals. "Word gets out that you know what you're doing in the scientific community," Mahon said. The group discussed making the products as a department but decided it wasn't the university's place and the department couldn't have allocated the resources to do so anyway. "What makes us unique is we're able to build a ruggedized airworthy instrument to fly on an aircraft," Mahon said, indicating that the Federal Aviation Administration has strict regulations about instrumental airworthiness. "That's something not a lot of people do. To build something that goes on an aircraft takes a much higher level of detail and involvement." The instrumentation developed via Wang's "superior genius" and attached to UW's research plane does high-rate data collection via lidar, or light detection and ranging. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls the technology "a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to the Earth."
And Mahon and company have found a way to affix that to an aircraft flying at about 200 miles per hour and still gather meaningful data from, say, within a cloud. "Based on the way we process the data that's retrieved we're able to return range and reflectivity and with some calculations in there we can basically recreate what you see in the atmosphere -- so the profile of a cloud," Mahon said. He added that they use high-rate collection cards that can then be processed to get an accurate rendering of a cloud. But the airborne nature and a plane's need for speed to maintain lift make that a technical feat.
"It's not easy to collect data at a speed that
fast," Mahon said. WTBC CEO Jon Benson echoed Mahon. "It's a big data acquisition issue," he said. Though the company came together around this issue with guaranteed sales if they formed a company, Mahon said the market is limited -- probably to a maximum of 15 units worldwide. But the instrumentation is modular, and could vary widely in cost for a client based on what kind of information they want to gather. And that could give the startup a way to explore other niche markets -- particularly in the oil and gas field.
A leaky niche
Mahon said oil and gas pipeline operators often have a difficult time finding leaks in their long-distance pipelines, leaving leaks to bleed green as companies lose money into the atmosphere. But Mahon said Alpenglow knows it can construct the instrumentation to sense from an aircraft where methane or other gases that could plume up from a leaky pipeline are located.
Mahon said it would be a good symbiotic relationship and could help Alpenglow to grow. Ideally, he said he would like to have 25- 30 employees at Alpenglow within five years. And such an instrument, along with exploration of other secret niches he wasn't willing to divulge yet, could help that happen. "We know we have the capability to build an instrument like this and we know it's a big market," he said. "If we can tell industry where they're losing profits and plug it it's a huge market."
But unlike their first product, this leaky niche offers a lot of competition. But if it flies, it should help Wyoming's energy-based economy most before it scales out to other locations. Whatever the case, Mahon and company will probably be around for a while.
"We're not in this to get a big idea and sell out quick, we're kind of in it for the science," he said.