Colliding in Climate City

Entrepreneurship and innovation meet in Asheville, N.C., a powerhouse of government, military, and academic climate experts


National Climatic Data Center employees at the federal building in Asheville, circa 1960. (Photo credit: National Climatic Data Center)

After World War II, at the start of the Cold War, the U.S. government decided that its paper weather records, stored in New Orleans, would be better off warehoused in a city with slightly less volatile and wet weather. Asheville, at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina, not only enjoyed a milder climate with fewer perilous forecasts but was also within a day’s drive of the nation’s capital, and—unlike Washington, D.C.—was not a Soviet target. Plus, the federal government had recently acquired a building there, one of the largest in the Southeast, which came with a trained workforce.

Nearly seven decades later, Asheville—a hippie mountain town better known for its Biltmore estate, craft breweries, and popular “Shindig on the Green” summer music gathering—remains home to the world’s largest repository of climatological data.

Downtown Asheville is home to:

  • The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) headquarters, which falls under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA);
  • The U.S. Air Force’s 14th Weather Squadron, which provides climate services to the defense and intelligence communities;
  • The North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies (NCICS), a center of excellence that operates the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites—North Carolina; and
  • The University of North Carolina Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), which worked with NOAA to build the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit during the Obama administration.

But perhaps nothing has helped secure Asheville’s “Climate City” nickname as much as an entrepreneurship and innovation center established in 2016 known as “The Collider.”

Founded by local businessman and philanthropist Mack Pearsall, The Collider is a nonprofit organization dedicated to incubating startups that use data to work toward climate change solutions. Located in a sunny, 25,000-square-foot space across the street from the park that hosts Asheville’s famous drum circle, and just a few blocks from the federal building that houses NCEI, NCICS, and the 14th Squadron, The Collider provides space for co-working, collaboration, meetings, and presentations. Its 65 member companies include climate tech startups (some founded by retired NCEI climate experts), consultancies, nonprofits, and entrepreneurial support businesses.

The Collider office in Asheville provides space for co-working, collaboration, meetings, and presentations. (Photo credit: Joe Pellegrino)

“I do think there’s something special about what’s being built here that can serve the world by exporting climate change solutions,” said The Collider CEO Josh Dorfman.

Given Asheville’s remarkable concentration of climate scientists and researchers in government, academia, and business, Dorfman said he anticipates The Collider will be at the forefront of creating an industry. “If you have the big brains and the big data, you can do important things in the world.”

In October, The Collider hosted its first climate data hackathon, and in March, it announced its first Climate Tech Challenge—a global search for the best emerging idea in climate tech, with a $5,000 cash prize. In April, The Collider hosted its second annual climate change conference, with speakers such as author and inventor Bill Nye, NERDette podcast’s Greta Johnsen, and venture capital fund In-Q-Tel’s Tom Gillespie, among others.

This fall, the organization will launch a virtual, mentor-led incubator program open to climate analytics startups around the world. Among the focus areas: climate-smart agriculture, resilient infrastructure, and climate data and analytics. The Collider’s goal is to work with more than 60 companies in its first five years.

While activating the science community to engage with the entrepreneurial community has been challenging at times—“The personalities are different,” Dorfman said—The Collider has succeeded in becoming a rich space for networking. It is a place where academics, government scientists, and entrepreneurs who might not typically cross paths can literally collide to share ideas and brainstorm solutions.

For instance, the 14th Weather Squadron—which ingests nearly 3.8 million weather observations each day and supports hundreds of intelligence agencies, combatant commands, and coalition partners—has consulted with NEMAC+FernLeaf, a public-private partnership and The Collider’s anchor tenant, to start modernizing its data capabilities.

“We are in the early stages of transforming the way we deliver geospatial datasets to customers, including the Air Force or Intelligence Community,” said Raymond Kiess, a senior climate scientist with the 14th, who explained that currently, the squadron relies on sorely outdated desktop capabilities. “We reached out to NEMAC+FernLeaf, our partners at The Collider, who have experience in geospatial data, and we asked them how to do it. Our desire is to be able to meet OGC (Open Geospatial Consortium) standards for sharing GIS data over the web.”

The private side of the NEMAC+FernLeaf partnership, FernLeaf Interactive, has a proprietary software dubbed AccelAdapt that uses tax, climate, and socioeconomic data to help local governments assess climate risks, propose targeted actions, and communicate those plans to the public. The company is one of Esri’s emerging business partners and is also working on incorporating climate change resilience into the Esri Hub, a framework that focuses on citizen engagement.

Jeff Hicks, CEO of NEMAC+Fernleaf, presents in 2018 at 1 Million Cups, a free program designed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to educate and inspire entrepreneurs. (Photo credit: Brendan Almand/The Collider)

“The Hub helps get data into the hands of people who may not even know what GIS is,” said FernLeaf CEO Jeff Hicks. “We want people to be able to type in their address, and it’ll say, ‘Hey, you live in an area that is susceptible to wildfires. Here’s what you can do to be more resilient.’”

Hicks, who founded FernLeaf out of his home, described The Collider as a “center of gravity” for people working on climate change solutions. While the data is important, he said, it’s more important to be able to show up at happy hour and run into someone responsible for a particular dataset he’s using. “I’m not walking over to NCEI to pick up a hard drive,” he said. “It’s the people. There’s a brain trust here.”

NCEI, formerly the National Climatic Data Center, stores climate information dating back to 1743 on tens of millions of pieces of paper as well as in the cloud at a volume of nearly 40 petabytes. The center is responsible for issuing weather watches and warnings in addition to generating statistical information such as weather norms, averages, and anomalies. It also produces datasets for nearly every sector of the economy, but not for individual businesses. The challenge is getting that data into the hands of decision-makers and market drivers.

“The Collider’s the next step,” said meteorologist Scott Stevens at NCEI’s Center for Weather and Climate, adding that the decades-old collaboration between NCEI and the 14th set the stage for Asheville to be known for its climate data expertise. “What do we do with all this data?”

The Collider’s COO, Megan Robinson, formerly of NCEI, said it’s beneficial for government employees to meet with those from the private sector and academia. “The government sometimes has a hard time understanding what impact their data has on society, what formats are needed, how to improve their data streams,” she said. “By convening at The Collider, those from the federal side are able to understand the intersections that they don’t normally see in their day-to-day jobs.”

Collider member Innovim works primarily with the Department of Defense, NOAA’s National Weather Service, and NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. It provides sub-seasonal to seasonal weather and climate monitoring, as well as forecasting up to weeks or months in advance. The Maryland-based company has 14 computer scientists and systems engineers working out of Asheville’s federal building.

Philip Ardanuy, Innovim’s chief science officer, said The Collider offers staff a place to network, recruit new employees, and learn about other areas of the industry. More than anything, he said, it’s a community in which professors, civil servants, technicians, researchers, and academics can share information as equals.

“The work we do is typically driven by our customers’ missions and the function we support, so it doesn’t necessarily cover the entire enterprise of climate change,” Ardanuy said. “By interacting across the diversity of The Collider, we can understand all aspects of how climate affects society. The conversations are diverse, and as a consequence, they broaden my perspective and help me see the big picture.”

Climate change as a national security threat—with potential to wreak havoc on coastal and urban communities, agriculture, and food and water supplies—has been discussed at various Collider events. Ardanuy predicts The Collider’s future role as perhaps helping to prepare a “climate-ready nation,” not unlike NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation program, for which Innovim is an ambassador. To that end, The Collider would help the public understand the causes and likely impacts of climate change, prepare for the worst, and mitigate when possible.

“Regardless of how climate is changing, and regardless of what portion is manmade, society will have to be agile enough to adapt to climate change as—and before—it happens,” Ardanuy said. “The interactions that The Collider facilitates will promote the flow of information across different organizations that normally might not even know of each other. At the end of the day, it will help America be more climate resilient.”

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