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Air Force vet finds UAlbany the perfect spot for weather risk-management startup

Outlook

Air Force vet finds UAlbany the perfect spot for weather risk-management startup

The company has served a variety of industries
Air Force vet finds UAlbany the perfect spot for weather risk-management startup
Meghan Conway and Jason Anderson, with TruWeather
Photographer: Marc SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

In 1999, Don Berchoff helped re-engineer the way the U.S. Air Force responds to disagreeable weather.

“They would send aircraft full with cargo places where they were not going to be able to land,” he said this month, speaking from St. Louis, Miss., where he was attending a 20th-anniversary celebration of the opening of the 15th Operational Squadron at Scott Air Force Base.

In one year, Berchoff’s weather risk-management system cut delayed missions from 100,000 per year to 5,000, saving the Air Force $200 million, he said. 

Today, he has brought the same system to the private sector as founder and chief executive officer of TruWeather Solutions. The company has served a variety of industries. Among its accomplishments: modernizing the government of Thailand’s weather-prediction system in 2016 and supporting Paul McCartney’s recent tour of Brazil and Mexico. Its sights are now set on servicing another developing technology: drones.

The company is working with the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the University at Albany to improve short-term weather forecasts for operators of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones. The Albany project is focused on the New York State UAV Test Range, which hovers above the Thruway, from Griffiss International Airport in Rome to Hancock International Airport in Syracuse. Berchoff said the use of drones in the U.S. beyond the visual line of sight is “mostly in a testing and demo mode,” but that potential uses include package delivery, surveying damage caused by natural disasters, inspecting farmland, pipelines and power lines, and mapping. TruWeather is working to improve forecasts specific to hazardous weather conditions, which will lower liability risk, better preserve assets and enhance UAV proficiency, he said.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
TruWeather screen,  an Albany company that uses technology to cut costs for weather-sensitive businesses and government agencies at the University of Albany.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
TruWeather screen, an Albany company that uses technology to cut costs for weather-sensitive businesses and government agencies at the University of Albany.

“We’re developing technology that could take weather information and translate it into actionable countermeasures for UAV operators in real time,” he said. The company was awarded $400,000 at the GENIUS Awards in Syracuse last year, funds that will support the project.

“As a weather company, we see ourselves as a magnet for other innovative weather companies,” he said. “We’re trying to grow the ecosystem by attracting these companies to New York so that they can support [TruWeather], as well as generate funds for [the university].”

Berchoff said he expects the company to hire five employees this year as the work to support the drone industry progresses. TruWeather currently employees three full-time workers and an intern in Albany and one full-time employee and two interns in Syracuse.

Berchoff said his company runs high-resolution models, which break the globe into boxes of 1,000 square meters or less – three times more detailed than the resolution provided by other services in the United States and Europe, at about 3,000 meters. Outside those countries, the best available forecasts are broken into 18,000 square meter boxes, or 12 square miles.

“That means a whole city can look the same,” he said. “The more boxes you have, the more computing you need, and the more expensive it is to do.”

Berchoff supported aviation operations in the Air Force for 24 years before retiring in 2008 and becoming science and technology director for the National Weather Service. In 2015 he founded TruWeather in Reston, Virginia, about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C. In 2017, tax incentives offered through START-UP NY encouraged him to open the company’s operations center on the University at Albany campus. Through the program, his company doesn’t pay state taxes on revenue for 10 years; employees also don’t pay state taxes for 10 years. The presence of the National Weather Service, the university’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center and the state’s new weather system, Mesonet, also made the location appealing. As did the Excelsior Scholarship Program, which allows New Yorkers to attend SUNY school tuition-free if they meet certain requirements and agree to work in New York state after college.

Don Berchoff, CEO of TruWeather Solutions LLC.  Photographer: Paul Miller
PAUL MILLER
Don Berchoff, CEO of TruWeather Solutions LLC.

“There are not a lot of atmospheric science jobs in New York state today. A lot of students are leaving the state to get jobs … and those that stay, a lot of them aren’t going to stay in meteorology,” he said. “I’m giving people a chance to stay in New York.”
Matt Grattan, UAlbany’s director of economic development, said having TruWeather on campus provides invaluable opportunities for collaboration with university researchers and faculty. The company has also hired UAlbany students as interns, which is “fundamental to the START-UP NY relationship,” he said.

Meghan Conway interned with TruWeather in 2017 while earning her masters in atmospheric science from UAlbany. Now she’s working full time there as a project scientist.

“What they had me doing was so much more diverse than what I thought I could do as a meteorologist, and I absolutely loved it,” she said, reflecting on the internship. “So when they brought me on as a full-time employee, I was ecstatic.”

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Growing up in New Jersey, she knew she wanted to be a meteorologist, but thought that would mean working for a T.V. station or the National Weather Service. At TruWeather, she said, she has learned that meteorology is “not just forecasting.”

“It’s the research part, it’s working in different industries like the drone industry or the automated vehicle industry, even the live events industry. While they all include forecasting, it also includes bringing in kind of different data sets that you wouldn’t think were typical, and learning about hi-resolution models from some of our industry partners, different ways to sense weather that I never knew about. and bringing those together to make a cohesive weather environment both in sensing and forecasting.”

Like Conway, Berchoff knew from a young age that he wanted to be a meteorologist. But he didn’t have the means or the grades to attend college and pursue the career he had dreamed of since the age of 5.

"I was focused on so many other issues with my family,” he said, explaining that two of his siblings had cystic fibrosis – “one of them passed away, one became a miracle” – his father had kidney disease and his mother had breast cancer. 

Berchoff persevered, however, with the help of the State University of New York’s Equal Opportunity Program, which granted him a full scholarship to SUNY Oneonta covering tuition, housing, and meals. Berchoff, who grew up in Queens, would go on to earn a bachelor’s in meteorology from SUNY Oneonta and master's degrees in both procurement and acquisition management and national security strategy.

“It gave me a lifeline and a ladder,” he said.

He said he wants to give back by hiring more interns – potential employees – from UAlbany as well as SUNY Oneonta.
“All the things I learned I’m bringing back to stimulate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in Upstate New York,” he added.

TruWeather will eventually be housed in the Emerging Technology and Entrepreneurship Complex, which has been under construction since last spring and is slated to open in 2021. The National Weather Service, the Atmospherics Sciences Research Center and the state Mesonet will also be located there.

More from Outlook 2019

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