Understory helping guide decisions on harvesting and irrigation

A Madison-based weather analytics company called Understory is partnering with Monsanto to help guide decisions on harvesting and irrigation.

Alex Kubicek, CEO and co-founder of Understory, says the business is providing a “weather network as a service,” with sensor arrays installed across North and South America, delivering localized insights based on weather data readings.

“At one of our deployments in Argentina, where you couldn’t load a webpage on your cell phone, we were able to pull out all the information in real time,” Kubicek said yesterday. He spoke as part of Madison’s Forward Fest, which highlights startups and other tech companies at events that run until Thursday of this week.

As part of a discussion on the use of data in agriculture, Kubicek explained how Understory evolved out of research at UW-Madison. He started the company back in 2012, after diving into atmospheric science at the university.

At the time, he was working to create new algorithms to capture how weather could impact public safety, with a goal of getting better warning systems for thunderstorms and tornadoes.

“Building these algorithms was really exciting because we were on the edge of current research,” he said. “The problem with that is there actually wasn’t any measurements that existed that could validate the models… They were too complex.”

To fill that gap, he created Understory. But after bringing his idea to several venture capitalists in the area, they shot him down. So it was clear that outside help was needed.

“So we actually moved away from the Midwest, out to the coast to secure funding in the Bay Area,” he said. “And then once we had enough funding to come back, we moved the company back because there’s a lot of great things about having a company in Wisconsin.”

Now, Kubicek and his team have raised about $13 million, and announced the partnership with Monsanto in March of this year.

The two companies had previously tested a pilot program in Hawaii with local growers, before expanding Understory’s weather networks to two corn growing regions in Argentina: Cordoba and Buenos Aires. In the United States, Understory has saturated networks in five major metropolitan areas.

Monsanto’s operations are global, and Kubicek says the agrochemical giant produces about 30 percent of the world’s corn and soybean seeds. Understory’s system is currently set up just for corn, but Kubicek says it will be expanded to other crops in time.

“We are using our technology to essentially help them understand their supply chain decisions, around where to harvest, and how to actually manage irrigation,” he said. “A lot of the benefits of the weather data aren’t farmer-specific — they’re getting a lot of value out of it, but it’s all about the large value chain.”

Understory’s sensors each feature a stainless steel ball acting as a sensor unit, which sits atop the weather device and measures atmospheric force. It can read the force of wind, or rain or hail about 50,000 times each second.

It also scans for temperature, pressure and humidity — “other things that go into understanding exactly what’s happening at each location.”

In urban areas, the sensor networks are looking at damage to property, measuring the size of individual hailstones.

“We can apply that same exact technology to the rural stage with agriculture,” Kubicek said. “We have networks throughout the U.S. which are mostly urban, but then a lot of our rural networks are down in Argentina where weather data from satellite radar is just horrendous.”

Kubicek says Understory’s sensors are particularly suited for the rural networks, as they can last up to 10 years in the field without maintenance. Using artificial intelligence, Understory runs all the data from these spread-out sensors and then plugs that info back into a dashboard which is accessible to farmers.

Looking ahead, he says “there’s a lot of really exciting things that I want to talk about today, but they’re all confidential.”

He adds: “We will be scaling globally and doing some really interesting things with our weather technology.”

See more on Understory’s use in agriculture: http://understoryweather.com/business-solutions/maximize-crop-yields-hyper-local-weather-data/

See the full schedule of events for Forward Fest: http://forwardfest.org/

–By Alex Moe