In the clouds
Wyoming Business Report / BizWest Media
UW spin-out to provide cloud modeling for science, O&G
BY MARK WILCOX | MWilcox@wyoming.com
The founders of the newest client company
at the University of Wyoming’s
incubator in Laramie have their heads
in the clouds.
Alpenglow is a new spin-out company from
UW’s Atmospheric Sciences Department that
has recently started to fledge in the Wyoming
Technology Business Center’s incubator. The
company has brought together three staffers
at the university who said they have been
working nights and weekends to hatch their
business while retaining their day jobs at the
“What we’re doing with Alpenglow is a spinoff
of a technology that we all kind of studied
in the Department of Atmospheric Science,”
Chief Financial Officer Nick Mahon said in
a phone interview. “We’re not associated with
the university except that we’re in the incubator.”
Mahon’s background in mechanical engineering
and business administration put him
in the financial cockpit of the company designed
to build instrumentation to study the
atmosphere from the air, enhancing the range
of a traditionally ground-based technology.
But the company has no CEO; instead the
three who started it see themselves as co-pilots.
“We all pretty much do everything,” Mahon
said. “It’s a very organic structure at the moment.”
Mahon partnered with Zhien Wang, who
has taken the role of chief scientific officer
with his background in atmospheric science,
electrical engineering and physics. Wang is
also an associate professor in atmospheric sciences
at the university. Taking the third seat
is Perry Wechsler, an electrical engineer who
is chief operating officer at Alpenglow but is
chief engineer for the flight operations group
in the department. Mahon himself is an engineer
technician in the same group.
The company coalesced around potential
sales of the technology developed at UW to
the Canadian government, who heard about it
after results from the unique instrumentation
were published in scientific journals.
“Word gets out that you know what you’re
doing in the scientific community,” Mahon
said. The group discussed making the products
as a department but decided it wasn’t the university’s
place and the department couldn’t
have allocated the resources to do so anyway.
“What makes us unique is we’re able to
build a ruggedized airworthy instrument to
fly on an aircraft,” Mahon said, indicating that
the Federal Aviation Administration has strict
regulations about instrumental airworthiness.
“That’s something not a lot of people do. To
build something that goes on an aircraft takes
a much higher level of detail and involvement.”
The instrumentation developed via Wang’s
“superior genius” and attached to UW’s research
plane does high-rate data collection via lidar, or
light detection and ranging. The National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration calls the
technology “a remote sensing method that uses
light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure …
variable distances to the Earth.”
And Mahon and company have found a
way to affix that to an aircraft flying at about
200 miles per hour and still gather meaningful
data from, say, within a cloud.
“Based on the way we process the data that’s
retrieved we’re able to return range and reflectivity
and with some calculations in there we
can basically recreate what you see in the atmosphere
– so the profile of a cloud,” Mahon
said. He added that they use high-rate collection
cards that can then be processed to get an
accurate rendering of a cloud.
But the airborne nature and a plane’s need
for speed to maintain lift make that a technical
“It’s not easy to collect data at a speed that
fast,” Mahon said.
WTBC CEO Jon Benson echoed Mahon.
“It’s a big data acquisition issue,” he said.
Though the company came together around
this issue with guaranteed sales if they formed
a company, Mahon said the market is limited
– probably to a maximum of 15 units worldwide.
But the instrumentation is modular, and
could vary widely in cost for a client based on
what kind of information they want to gather.
And that could give the startup a way to explore
other niche markets – particularly in the
oil and gas field.
A leaky niche
Mahon said oil and gas pipeline operators
often have a difficult time finding leaks in their
long-distance pipelines, leaving leaks to bleed
green as companies lose money into the atmosphere.
But Mahon said Alpenglow knows it
can construct the instrumentation to sense
from an aircraft where methane or other gases
that could plume up from a leaky pipeline are
Mahon said it would be a good symbiotic
relationship and could help Alpenglow to
grow. Ideally, he said he would like to have 25-
30 employees at Alpenglow within five years.
And such an instrument, along with exploration
of other secret niches he wasn’t willing to
divulge yet, could help that happen.
“We know we have the capability to build
an instrument like this and we know it’s a big
market,” he said. “If we can tell industry where
they’re losing profits and plug it it’s a huge
But unlike their first product, this leaky
niche offers a lot of competition. But if it flies, it
should help Wyoming’s energy-based economy
most before it scales out to other locations.
Whatever the case, Mahon and company will
probably be around for a while.
“We’re not in this to get a big idea and sell
out quick, we’re kind of in it for the science,”