$6 Million of New Capital for Smart Weather Balloons: Meet WindBorne CEO John Dean
Learn about WindBorne’s latest fundraising news, the importance of weather forecast accuracy, and how this has been a decade in the works.
WindBorne Systems builds and operates smart weather balloons for use in collecting weather data. Ubiquity first invested in WindBorne’s pre-seed round.
What is today’s big news?
WindBorne just raised a $6M seed round from Footwork (and prior investors like Ubiquity)! We’re using this money to greatly increase the scale of data collection and hire for critical roles. We are scaling up to create better weather forecasts that do something about climate change.
Can you sum up what WindBorne does in one sentence?
WindBorne designs, builds, and operates a constellation of long-duration weather balloons to collect weather data from all over the globe and help improve forecasts globally.
Can you sum up what WindBorne does in one picture/photo?
This is a map of flight ground tracks since the inception of the company showing the aggregate reach that WindBorne has achieved.
Tell us more about WindBorne’s product.
Our current product is data, but what we're building over this fundraising round is a weather forecast product powered by the data we produce. Right now, we provide data as a service to a number of different customers. We fly balloons globally, we collect soundings of atmospheric data, and then we provide those soundings to customers over both API and data as a service, so they subscribe to it and get soundings in more areas that are otherwise impossible to get. This helps close the global sensing gap: the fact that 85% of the Earth is missing weather data. Filling this is critical for better forecasts, because even the 15% of the Earth with good data is usually downwind of a data desert. Our data-as-a-service product lets our customers see the parts of the atmosphere that were previously invisible.
Over the next year, we’ll be launching a new product: forecasts that we produce from this data source. We currently run numerical weather models to do weather prediction, and we’re scaling up our data collection until we are collecting a large enough scale of data to greatly improve weather forecasts. We’ll be selling weather forecasts and analytics to businesses and governments.
What is the story behind the founding of WindBorne?
The project that became this company was started by Andrey Sushko - our CTO - back in 2015 as part of the Stanford Student Space Initiative. He and a bunch of students wanted to do more hands-on engineering on space-related things, and when you’re in college on a student budget, balloons are the easiest things to work on that are close to space. For no other reason than for fun, we started taking a conventional weather balloon - one that only flies for two hours and then pops - and then adding things to it so it could fly longer.
Through that process, Andrey formed a team; one really good engineer joined the project each year, and it grew into a larger team. We eventually broke the endurance record for latex balloons by making these weather balloons fly for longer, and then by the time we were graduating, we had published a few papers at aerospace conferences and we had inbound interest. This platform was interesting, and it was the lowest-cost possible platform for atmospheric sensor delivery. That got the gears turning - maybe this was more than a fun project, maybe this could provide value.
We looked at flying stratospheric payloads and that wasn’t a very big market or interesting opportunity, so we spent the summer after graduation looking at what the value of this long-duration platform is, and that’s when we discovered this massive sensing gap in the atmosphere. We didn’t realize it at the time we were working on it, but 85% of the Earth’s surface isn’t adequately monitored for weather, and the platform we built perfectly solves this problem, where you can get accurate weather observations around 100% of the planet. And doing that would greatly improve forecasts, especially forecasts of severe weather which are ever-increasing from climate change because severe weather often forms in the 85% of the Earth with missing data.
Once we realized that the platform we built solved this problem, we had no other choice than to start this company! We looked at what other people were doing to solve this problem and what other balloon companies were doing, and nobody was approaching the problem in a way that we thought made any sense at all, except for the way that we were. We thought: we have no choice, we have to solve this problem with what we have. And that’s how we started WindBorne.
How did you notice the need for better weather data collection?
We noticed this from two sides of things. The first was that weather forecasts really did rely on accurate and comprehensive data, so solving the data gap would improve forecasts radically. The second was that the missing data in the data gap was the full altitude measurements our balloons are really good at collecting. The world launches more than half a million balloons each year because the kind of data they collect is so valuable. With the realization that weather forecasts are so dependent on the sort of data we can collect, we started digging into the “so what?”. Why does it really matter whether you have a good weather forecast?
We quickly realized it’s not just “do you bring an umbrella to work tomorrow?”, but rather “how do you rely on a grid where power production is determined by weather-dependent renewables if you don’t know what the weather is?”, “how do you route ships and planes to save fuel?”, and “how do you reduce contrails – which are 57% of aviation’s warming impact?”. All these aspects of human life came back to weather. We had this realization that not only was there huge value both financially and to humanity in delivering better weather forecasts, but also our technology was really well-poised to do so.
What attempts did you and your team try before getting to the current solution?
When we started the company, we had the platform which we had developed in college, but there was a long way to go towards making it economically viable. We started the company on the premise that we could collect data for 1/10th the cost of alternatives - turns out that’s not even close enough, and we couldn’t build a single business on what we had. Since then, we’ve improved the platform by another factor of 15 and now we’re 150x cheaper than alternatives, and now it’s economically viable. It wasn’t necessarily a failure, but we started this company on the premise that what we had was good enough, and it honestly wasn’t. In the meantime, we continued to make improvements to get to where we are today, which is 150x more data per dollar than alternative methods for this.
We did have a concrete failure at the beginning of the company. We named each launch with a number - so W1 was the first launch we did (now we’re at launch W-645!) - but W1 flew for only 10 minutes and then hit a tree. When we launched the balloon, the valve was stuck open and we didn’t realize it, and it was leaking gas on launch. So the very first launch of the company was a complete failure; no launch we’ve done since was as bad as that one. But even though W-1 was a total disaster, we’ve now launched over 600 balloons, including some that have flown for over a month.
How do you think you fit into the climate tech ecosystem?
WindBorne has huge potential in both adaptation and mitigation. The adaptation side is pretty straightforward: if you’re in the path of a hurricane, you want to know whether or not to evacuate, and to make that decision you need to be able to trust the weather forecast. Similarly, as wildfires and floods and other extreme weather events driven by climate change continue to ravage the world, we desperately need better weather forecasts in order to make life-critical decisions.
But then there’s also the mitigation piece: WindBorne has the opportunity to save more than 500 megatons of carbon dioxide, and the way we can do that is through a few different places that are kind of hidden and that not many people know about. One of the first ones is contrail reduction; this sounds crazy, but contrails are 57% of aviation’s warming impact, and by diverting just a few flights you can cut those contrails down by 4/5ths. That is a huge amount of warming impact that you’re able to cut out of the atmosphere. You can also save fuel, and thus carbon dioxide, from ships and planes by routing them such that these assets always have a tailwind behind them so they use less fuel. Then you also have all of the advantages for managing your grid; if you know when the sun is going to shine and the wind is going to blow, then you don’t have to fire up peaker plants which produce a huge amount of carbon dioxide. Overall, what this comes back to is: better weather forecasts help businesses operate more efficiently, saving both carbon dioxide and money.
How do you know customers love your product?
We have a number of customers right now that we sell to within the U.S. government, and we have pretty frequent meetings with them. The response we get in pretty much every meeting is that they’re blown away by what we’ve been able to do so far, and they’re shocked at the speed in which we do it. The number one thing customers are happy with is how quickly we move, and so the products that we can make in a few months are really exciting. The alternative global technology for weather sensing is a satellite, and it might be six months before it launches, whereas we can launch balloons within a week.
Another thing customers like about us is the interaction with our tools. We recently signed a contract with customers in the U.S. Air Force, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback from them and engagement with the data we’re collecting.
What keeps you going during tough times?
WindBorne truly is an “n of one” company - there is no other group of people that I know of that exists on the surface of the Earth that are solving this problem in the way that we are. We have 100% conviction based on the laws of physics and the economies of scale that this is the way to solve it. And because no one else is doing it, that means that either we do it right and we solve this problem or humanity never sees a solution - or doesn’t see it for at least another 20 years because no one else is going to come in and solve it.
The fact that we have no direct peer competitor means that it’s up to us to solve this problem; there is this burden of it’s either you or it doesn’t happen. With that, it doesn’t matter how tough it is, we just can’t give up because then humanity never solves this, and countless lives would be lost and disasters will always cause the same level of problem.
What would you tell your past self if you could give them advice?
Follow your gut, and don’t listen to too much advice. To get to where we’ve gotten today, we just did the things that we think make sense. Generally, when we make choices that we understand and believe in rather than listening to what people tell us we should do, they end up working out well. In success or failure, trusting yourself can bring you a long way. It might bring you into failure, but at least you know it was your own failure because it’s a choice that you made rather than just blindly following advice. So my advice would be to not worry too much about other advice.
What’s your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet taken the leap to launch their new company?
Don’t start a company if you don’t really believe in it and don’t really believe that what you’re doing is meaningful. Inevitably, things are going to be hard, and unless you have 100% conviction that what you’re doing matters - not necessarily in a business sense but in the big picture of humanity and the planet - then you’re going to get lost eventually.
Another thing is, spend the time early on to learn the types of things you’d learn in business school. An example is: if you’re an engineer, if you approach finances and accounting and law in the right way, it’s actually really interesting. However, if you ignore those things, it’s going to cause problems in your company. Take the time to apply your same technical curiosity but to business, and learn as much as you can there because it will pay off in the long run.
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on startups solving real-world physical problems with "software beyond the screen", often using smart hardware or machine learning.
If your startup fits this description, fill out the 60-second Ubiquity pitch form and you’ll hear back within 24 hours.
Thanks for reading Ubiquitous Thoughts! Subscribe to receive new posts.