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How a small start-up firm wants to revitalize climate change research

Satellite image of three hurricanes in the Atlantic at once — Katia, Irma and Jose. (NOAA/NASA)

Where the Trump administration sees waste, the small but rapidly expanding Silicon Valley climate services firm Jupiter Intel sees opportunity. Jupiter announced Monday it is launching a community science program to invest in academic climate research, the same kind of research the president’s fiscal 2017 and 2018 budgets placed on the chopping block.

In an intriguing demonstration of what may become a more common funding model in coming years, Jupiter named Columbia University as its initial collaborator.

Jupiter, which offers tools to help customers manage the risks of climate change, is funding several projects at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, whose research evaluates many of these same risks. The two parties said they believe the collaboration will build a mutually beneficial partnership, while putting society in a better position to deal with the consequences of climate change.

Climate change could put businesses underwater. Start-up firm Jupiter aims to come to the rescue.

“Columbia is the first of many planned collaborations between Jupiter and academic institutions at the vanguard of understanding climate change science and its impacts,” said Rich Sorkin, CEO of Jupiter. “Collaboration between these partners and our staff … will foster productivity and innovation. Perhaps most importantly, we are accelerating the practical adoption of research.”

Sorkin designed Jupiter’s community science program to identify and fund science that is close to ready for commercial application and can be integrated into its cloud-based computing framework, on which its climate simulations operate.

Sorkin said research that might take 10 to 20 years to be applied in government could be put to use in as little as six months at his company. “We have a strong interest in seeing the best available science and technology reach maturity as soon as possible,” he said.

The partnership is win-win-win for research, business and society, says Columbia’s dean of science, Peter de Menocal. “It’s a new science-delivery model,” he said in an interview. “We win by supporting scientists and making markets and society more resilient to climate change.”

De Menocal, who founded Columbia’s Center for Climate and Life, said the business community is increasingly taking note of the economic consequences of climate change and it is more urgent than ever for scientists and corporate leaders to work together. “The private sector and the investment community is where the rubber meets the road in terms of acting on what we know,” he said. “What’s needed is engaging the private sector to transfer knowledge to action.”

Jupiter is initially offering $300,000 for a project to advance Columbia’s Hurricane Interactive Track Simulator (HITS). The model projects coastal flooding from landfalling storms and incorporates effects from severe wind and rain.

The simulator “is addressing several important factors in an integrated way that are computationally efficient and well-suited for our cloud-based [computing] infrastructure,” Sorkin said. “The social benefit of that is that we’re contributing to acceleration of raw knowledge to practical impact from basic/advanced research to applications. We can go probably one to three years faster with a collaboration with a first-year partner at Lamont-Doherty than if we’re just doing this on our own.”

Sorkin said Jupiter will fund at least two additional projects, to be announced soon, at Columbia  relating to the coastal effects of climate change.

But can a for-profit company such as Jupiter pay an institution like Columbia to conduct work without trying to commandeer how it proceeds, potentially tainting the academic independence of the results?

Sorkin said his company will not interfere. “We are confident enough, in totality, of what we’re doing as a company that we don’t need to control any particular component,” he said.

De Menocal expressed no concern about working with a partner that has a financial stake in its findings. “You don’t want to pollute the discovery process, and to [Sorkin’s] credit, he understands, respects and enforces that,” he said. “The science is going to unfold how it’s going to unfold. Then it’s up to [Sorkin] to see if there’s a market for that knowledge.”

In all, Jupiter said it will invest more than $1 million at Columbia, including contributions from a network of philanthropic partners that it is cultivating. “Many of [Sorkin’s] investors are private individuals who have philanthropic foundations,” de Menocal said. “He’s made it clear to those investors he’d be very happy if they invested in science.”

“We think by a taking leadership position we can catalyze philanthropic community to do much more,” Sorkin said. “We have commitment as a company to public, private and academic collaboration. That commitment is core to the culture of our company.”

Jupiter also announced Monday it has formed a relationship with the University of Southern California. “Jupiter’s founders and investors are supporting a new philanthropic program at USC intended to foster interdisciplinary work in the area of natural perils and risk,” the company said in a news release.

Both Sorkin and Columbia’s de Menocal emphasized their collaboration helps fill the gap between available federal dollars and what is necessary for climate and weather research to thrive.

“There’s always an unlimited amount of demands on federal budget,” Sorkin said. “This administration and others have decreased funding in areas of weather, climate, hydrology and related disciplines that affect health and safety issues and can have economic disruptions.”

For climate researchers, the declining budgets have meant tough times. Dollars are few, and the competition is fierce. While Congress rejected the Trump administration’s cuts to climate-related programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, federal funding for basic research fell below 50 percent last year for the first time post-World Work II.

With the federal pot of money on a downward trend, many climate researchers find themselves looking outside the government. Last year, 13 American climate scientists left the United States for France for more promising funding opportunities.

J. Marshall Shepherd, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia and past president of the American Meteorological Society, said he was pleased to see private ventures like Sorkin’s “filling the gap” as federal investments in academic research flatten or decline.

“I am cautiously optimistic that [they] will be valuable players in the climate risk space,” Shepherd said. “More importantly, at a time when ideology is pressuring federal investments on climate-related activities, the private sector is moving forward because they understand the risks, and, frankly, the potential value of climate services or risk analysis.”