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USU Commercialization Rising to New Heights

Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2013

A rendering of an AsiaSat satellite

An artist's illustration of an AsiaSat satellite. Photo credit AsiaSat.

Utah State University is working on a technology that will help meteorologists to better predict severe weather and atmospheric instability in a faster, more detailed way. The sophisticated technology, called the Sounding Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology, or STORM, is a weather sensor that will sit some 23,000 miles above the Earth’s surface and collect detailed data and measurements critical to those needing the most accurate and up-to-date weather information.

“STORM will provide 3,000 times more data per image than any other existing weather-sensor technology available today,” said Robert Behunin, USU’s vice president for commercialization and regional development.

As part of USU’s Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) portfolio, STORM has become an integral component of the university’s commercialization efforts. The commercialization team has worked diligently to move the STORM program forward since 2011. It hopes to have the technology launched into outer space by late 2016 thanks to a partnership formalized with GeoMetWatch and Asia Satellite Telecommunications Company Limited (AsiaSat) in April 2013

“This is the single largest applied engineering project in our USTAR portfolio,” said Behunin. “While the actual cost to build the sensor is proprietary and competition sensitive, we are in a range of more than $100 million to build one sensor.”

The benefits of the STORM-1 sensor build are numerous for USU and the surrounding community. The project will add new, high-paying, engineering jobs and USU will benefit from the data sales provided by the sensor. The university will also have access to the STORM data for research and educational purposes.

“The STORM program will not only provide new revenue streams for USU, but also new opportunities for our students and faculty,” said Stan L. Albrecht, USU president. “We will be able to employ our most talented people in the field of science and engineering, and those who get to work on the STORM program will find themselves on a new frontier where education, innovation and commercialization meet.”

Having originally gained momentum from technology that the USU Space Dynamic’s Laboratory built for NASA in 2006 called the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer (GIFTS) technology, the STORM program expanded upon that technology and took it to the next level.

“STORM is a unique USTAR story,” said Behunin. “We took a technology that was, quite literally, stranded and put it to work.”

Initial efforts to further the STORM technology started in 2009 when USU’s commercial enterprises helped create a small start-up company called GeoMetWatch. In January 2011, after receiving $1.3 million of USU USTAR funds, as well as support from the original GIFTS technical team at the Space Dynamics Laboratory, trade and technical studies began to get the STORM technology positioned for an overhaul that would make it ready to ride into space.

Efforts were made to find the right strategic partners and GeoMetWatch secured a license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to put the STORM sensor into orbit. USU commissioned marketing studies that would help establish the market value of the data that the STORM sensor would deliver.

In July 2012, AsiaSat began exploring the possibility of a strategic partnership with USU and GeoMetWatch. USU’s Advanced Weather Systems Foundation (AWS) would build the STORM sensor, AsiaSat would host the STORM sensor on one of its telecommunication satellites and GeoMetWatch would broker the data.

“This is a huge milestone for the GeoMetWatch, AsiaSat and USU partnership,” said David Crain, CEO of GeoMetWatch. “This is a significant step towards the implementation of our global geostationary sensor constellation.”

As USU worked to start building the sensor, it became readily apparent that the STORM project would need to be moved out of the Space Dynamics Laboratory and be placed into a different entity.

“There are always bumps in the road,” said Doug Lemon, president of USU’s research foundation. “SDL’s status as a university affiliated research center would not allow us to have the necessary commercial affiliation required for the STORM program to be successful. There was not an acceptable alignment between what SDL could do commercially and its role as a government contractor.”

So, in January 2013, USU created the Advanced Weather Systems Foundation (AWS), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Utah State University. Its mission is to function as an applied engineering research laboratory that will build the STORM sensor.

While USU’s Advanced Weather Systems lab is focused on building the first STORM sensor that will fly over Asia at 122 degrees east, the AWS team is positioning itself to build seven more within the decade.

“The need is for global coverage, and for that we will need to build and fly six to eight sensors,” said Scott Jensen, AWS director. “Each sensor takes about 38-40 months to build, so we hope to be busy for a very long time.”

Jensen went on to explain that AWS can build more than one sensor at a time and that a full constellation could feasibly be deployed by 2018 to 2020.

“We will have about 40 people working on the sensor at any one time,” said Jensen. “And as we build new ones, we could hire as many as 100 people to get the first four sensors moving forward.”

Related link:

USU Office of Commercialization and Regional Development

Contact: Kate Peterson, USU Commercial Enterprises, 435-797-9608,

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