Weather fas­ci­na­tion turns ex-gov­ern­ment man into gale-force en­tre­pre­neur

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - BY PAULA BURKES Busi­ness Writer pburkes@ok­la­

NOR­MAN — Me­te­o­rol­o­gist Mike Eilts could’ve con­tin­ued to rock along in his for­mer, nearly twodecade gov­ern­ment job with the Na­tional Se­vere Storms Lab­o­ra­tory. He had risen to as­sis­tant di­rec­tor, had at­tained the max­i­mum, six-fig­ure pay grade, and was com­fort­able in the po­si­tion.

But Eilts quit in 2000 to start Weather De­ci­sion Tech­nolo­gies Inc. (WDT). He and four col­leagues who left with him wanted to mine their own raw weather data to pro­vide higher res­o­lu­tion mod­els to busi­nesses with vested in­ter­ests in the weather.

“We raised $1 mil­lion right out of the chute,” Eilts said. “We called it our 3-F fundrais­ing round — fam­ily, friends and fools,” he said, laugh­ing.

No one is laugh­ing now. In 2002, the Ok­la­homa Cen­ter for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy helped the startup raise an­other $1 mil­lion, and in 2007, WDT at­tracted its first big in­vestor.

To­day, the com­pany has 600 global cus­tomers — from cruise lines and oil and gas com­pa­nies with multi­bil­lion-dol­lar off­shore as­sets to in­surance and roof­ing com­pa­nies and spon­sors of ath­letic events and out­door con­certs and fes­ti­vals. About 90 per­cent are do­mes­tic, but worry about weather — hur­ri­canes, high winds, light­ning and more — in thou­sands of lo­ca­tions world­wide.

De­pend­ing on their needs, some cus­tomers pay as lit­tle as $1,000 a year for WDT’s ser­vices, Eilts said, while oth­ers sign halfmil­lion-dol­lar or more con­tracts for 24-hour, ded­i­cated mon­i­tor­ing with phoned per­son­al­ized warn­ings.

The com­pany also now owns the RadarS­cope app, which has 500,000 users who, de­pend­ing on pref­er­ences, pay $10 to $100 a year.

In 18 years, WDT has gen­er­ated $140 mil­lion in rev­enues, Eilts said. To­day, it em­ploys 83 full­time work­ers with av­er­age an­nual salaries of $78,000, along with a dozen part­time em­ploy­ees, he said.

The com­pany an­nounced Oct. 8 that it’s be­ing ac­quired by Burnsville, Min­nesota-based DTN, which has 18 of­fices glob­ally that serve more than 2 mil­lion cus­tomers. Eilts, 59, will re­main as part of the ex­ec­u­tive team.

From the WDT of­fices on the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa South Re­search Cam­pus, he sat down with The Ok­la­homan on Mon­day to talk about his life and ca­reer. This is an edited tran­script:

Q: Earn­ing a Boy Scouts merit badge spurred your ini­tial in­ter­est in me­te­o­rol­ogy. How old were you?

A: I was 12. I was al­ways good at math and sci­ence, so me­te­o­rol­ogy was a nat­u­ral fas­ci­na­tion. My fa­ther was a civil en­gi­neer, and my mother was a stay-ath­ome mom. I’m the old­est of eight, in­clud­ing three adopted broth­ers and sis­ters. From the time I was in the third or fourth grade, my par­ents took in foster chil­dren and adopted those who didn’t go back to their fam­i­lies or to a for­ever home. We all gather ev­ery sum­mer and at Christ­mas in St. Paul, Min­nesota, where I lived my first 20 years and where my par­ents and sib­lings still live.

Q: Be­sides Boy Scouts, in what else were you in­volved in school?

A: I traded Scouts for sports in high school. I played golf and bas­ket­ball and walked onto the golf team at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, where I went my first two years of col­lege and, to save money, lived at home. Then, I hopped in my car and drove to OU, be­cause of its top na­tional me­te­o­rol­ogy pro­gram. The year I left home, it snowed be­fore Thanks­giv­ing in Min­nesota, and the snow didn’t melt un­til mid-April.

Q: You worked 17 years for the Na­tional Se­vere Storms Lab­o­ra­tory in Nor­man, ris­ing from a re­search sci­en­tist to as­sis­tant di­rec­tor. What are the high­lights of your time there?

A: Most of my peers wanted to be re­search sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing learn­ing why tor­na­does tick. But I wanted to build soft­ware to help peo­ple; to de­tect and solve things for so­ci­ety. I was re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing nu­mer­ous con­tracts with FAA, DOD, NASA and other agen­cies, to­tal­ing more than $8.4 mil­lion an­nu­ally, in ad­di­tion to a $2.5 mil­lion base-funded bud­get. I also grew our staff to 100. Our mile­stones in­cluded de­vel­op­ing ma­jor mod­ern­iza­tion up­grades to com­po­nents of the na­tion­wide NEXRAD sys­tem; de­liv­ery of four weather de­tec­tion al­go­rithms to the NEXRAD pro­gram; devel­op­ment and test­ing of a pro­to­type Warn­ing De­ci­sion Sup­port Sys­tem at 16 sites around the coun­try in­clud­ing in At­lanta as part of the Olympics weather sup­port; and com­plet­ing the field phase of a $4 mil­lion ex­per­i­ment called VOR­TEX. We were do­ing pow­er­ful stuff and get­ting funded for it.

Q: The 1996 movie “Twister” is based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of you and other storm chasers with the Na­tional Se­vere Storms Lab­o­ra­tory. Is the film a true de­pic­tion of what chas­ing tor­na­does is like?

A: Parts of the movie are a farce, with cows fly­ing by and moo­ing as they go by. At the end, He­len Hunt’s and Bill Pax­ton’s char­ac­ters, in a real tor­nado, would’ve been ripped from the me­tal posts to which they strapped their belts and hit by fly­ing de­bris. We did have a data-gath­er­ing ma­chine that we de­vised and dropped ahead of tor­na­does. We named ours “Toto.” In the movie, they call theirs “Dorothy.” The clos­est we got to a tor­nado was a cou­ple hun­dred yards, be­fore we floored it. Large hail broke our win­dows and dented our truck. To­day, with ad­vances to Dop­pler ra­dio, we can give 14-minute ad­vance warn­ings ahead of tor­na­does, which is a huge pub­lic ser­vice. To­day’s tech­nol­ogy is such that we can ac­cu­rately fore­cast se­vere weather some three days out. Ev­ery decade, we get a day bet­ter.

Q: WDT has cus­tomers across North Amer­ica, Aus­tralia, South Amer­ica and Europe. Where have you trav­eled, and what’s your fa­vorite city out­side the U.S.?

A: I’ve been to Paraguay, China, Brazil, lots of coun­tries in Europe, Thai­land and South Korea. In 2007, we had a big in­ter­na­tional deal with Dubai air­port. Dubai — on the south­east coast of the Per­sian Gulf and the largest and most pop­u­lous city in the United Arab Emi­rates — is the coolest place I’ve been. You ex­pe­ri­ence such a di­chotomy of cul­tures there — from Euro­pean women wear­ing short skirts to Arab women whose dress only shows their eyes. Dubai is home to the tallest build­ing in the world, and a mall with a ski slope in­side. It’s crazy.


Michael D. Eilts pres­i­dent and CEO, Weather De­ci­sion Tech­nolo­gies Inc., is shown in the com­pany’s of­fice on the south­ern edge of the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa’s cam­pus.

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