Turning research into revenue
They never thought of themselves as businessmen.
The three University of Wyoming researchers simply wanted to know whether their laser-based radar, which detected particles in the air while sitting on the ground, would work when bolted on top of an airplane.
Eight years and three functioning machines later, UW engineer Nick Mahon, research scientist Perry Weschler and atmospheric science professor Zhien Wang are commercializing their research with help from the Wyoming Technology Business Center, a university-run incubator for technology-based businesses.
Their limited liability company is called Alpenglow Instruments. It’s named after the visually startling effect of sunlight reflecting off dust particles and water droplets in the mountain air to illuminate a mountain ridge.
“It’s so perfect around here, actually,” Weschler said, referencing the way the mountains near Laramie seem to “glow” just before dawn and shortly after sunset.
It all started when Wang joined UW’s Department of Atmospheric Research in 2005, Weschler said. Wang proposed building a smaller version of an already well-known technology called a lidar, a laser-based radar made of glass and aircraft-grade aluminum that operates much like a weather radar, but using light instead of radio waves. A lidar measures moisture and other particles in the air by shooting light up from the ground then receiving and recording the light’s reflection.
“It sends out a pulsed light,” Wang said. “A zillion times, it just spreads out in the air.”
The light detects any particles in a nearby cloud, providing an accurate picture of its size, shape and moisture. That data can be important for atmospheric researchers, airline navigators or the military, Wang said.
Developing that type of technology normally takes several years, Weschler said.
But under Wang’s tutelage, the machine was on the airplane and flying in six months.
And frankly, Weschler said, they were surprised by how well it worked.
“So what you get, is you can see with a lidar what you can’t see with a radar,” Weschler said. And with an airplane, he said, a pilot can cover an entire basin or mountain range realistically quickly.
“For us, we’re interested in clouds, because clouds [are] making precipitation,” Wang said. “That’s what this department is interested in.”
But the possibilities don’t stop there. The trio envisions their technology being useful for natural resource researchers monitoring air quality or studying methane leaks near oil and gas developments, and for pilots hoping to avoid clouds with heavy moisture that could turn into ice on a windshield under the right conditions.
WTBC Chief Executive Officer Jon Benson said he thinks the company has what it takes to make it as a small business. He likes to see businesses in the incubator making at least $3 million in revenues with a 10 to 20 percent profit margin, he said.
“We think the company has a lot of potential,” Benson said.
Alpenglow Instruments already has contracts to develop two lidars for Canadian environmental agencies.
For the academic entrepreneurs, it could be just the beginning.
Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.