November 29, 2021

Goodbye academia – and welcome science-based startups


Svante Henriksson built his career in research working with complex simulation models. During the last four years, he has turned it all around: as the CEO and Co-founder of Skyfora, he and his team are building the future of weather forecasting. Despite all the changes, science is still at the core of his daily work.

Svante Henriksson is not the most typical startup founder. He studied mathematics and theoretical physics, holds a Ph.D., and has researched magnetic fusion before his career at Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI). Now his startup Skyfora combines artificial intelligence and the newest measuring technologies to forecast tropical storms better.

For a layman, magnetic fusion and hurricanes don’t seem to have much in common. But to Henriksson, they have a lot of similar features. “The basic elements are the same: both require a supercomputer-level capacity to solve complicated equation groups to simulate vortex.“ Despite his theoretical background, Henriksson has always been interested in work that has a real-life impact.

The idea for Skyfora was born while watching the news in 2017. Back then, several hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—caused massive damages in the US. This made Henriksson think. How was it possible that forecasting how hurricanes develop was such a mystery? How was it possible that they were still causing all this damage and suffering because people were unable to prepare for their arrival? And… doesn't a hurricane really resemble a fusion vortex?

Community support for getting started

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Henriksson wanted to take the idea further. He applied and received research funding for researching the development of hurricanes using AI modeling. Not soon after, he started to think about taking the commercial route. The community around him encouraged this. First Slush Science Pitching in 2017 helped with improving the idea, then their first investor offered a great support network and a lot of good connections helping them to get started.

Also, Henriksson’s employer FMI was supportive. They felt positive about the idea of commercialization and open questions about intellectual property rights were solved right at the beginning. This was great news for Skyfora: complications with IPR can actually form a bottleneck for any startup, but especially a research-based one. If there is ambiguity about who owns the IPR, investors have a good reason to stay afar. And without capital, growth gets hard.

“At FMI, offering a possibility to work with my startup on the side was seen as a part of their societal mission. They were eager to support new innovation via spin-off like mine.”

"In the future, research institutions and universities could support new entrepreneurship by harmonizing their practices around these topics—quite often research is made in collaboration with different institutions. Instead of individual estimation and permission process of each case, common guidelines outlining what kind of commercialization is encouraged would help researchers to ponder through their possibilities at an earlier stage."

Sensoring the atmosphere

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Forecasting the weather requires tons of data, and collecting it requires a complicated system extending from earth to space. Survey stations, radars,  satellites, and planes, to name a few, collect data around the globe and nearby space. It's no wonder that state-controlled infrastructures and information produced by state institutions have a strong role in this process.

Skyfora aims to accelerate the introduction of new technologies to the sector. AI, light electronics, and 3D animation technology or just examples of technologies that are not yet fully utilized in weather forecasting. In addition to its AI prediction models, Skyfora works somewhere between earth and space by gathering data from the atmosphere with the world's lightest weather sondes.

Growth companies don’t have the same baggage and duties as national institutions. But they are on the same side here. “It’s important and fun to cooperate with researchers and national institutions. More precise weather forecasting will make life more effortless and safe all around the world.”

Nevertheless, building a research-based company is a very different game from focusing purely on research. “In a startup, you can and you need to take more risks.”

Svante HenrikssonCEO, Skyfora