Asheville entrepreneurs are making a business out of climate change

The Collider is Asheville's moon shot

Bill Dean, CEO of The Collider, compares the incubator for climate related businesses and research to NASA's moonshot.
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Bill Dean, CEO of The Collider, compares the incubator for climate related businesses and research to NASA's moonshot.

The renovated top floor of a downtown bank building opened this month with a new purpose: Making money from Asheville’s mountains of climate data.

The Collider, a nonprofit that will offer work and meeting space as it chases market opportunities, is the latest expansion of a growing local industry that pairs climate science with business.

“This is Asheville’s moon shot, an opportunity to do something that’s kind of undiscovered,” chief executive Bill Dean said of Asheville’s climate cluster.

Climate science has been a quiet force in Asheville for decades. The federal government moved its weather archives to the city in 1951, in part because it was an unlikely target of enemy attacks or hurricanes.

The National Centers for Environmental Information, headquartered in a sleek building at the edge of downtown, now house the world’s largest climate archive. Access to data and expertise from its 184-member staff make NCEI the hub of Asheville’s climate sector.

The building’s basement holds yellowing records written by Thomas Jefferson and digital data that, if converted to stacked discs, would tower nearly four miles high. NCEI is still the research base for nine of the 17 climate change scientists who contributed to work that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Their work is increasingly relevant. Last year was the hottest on record and inflicted the extreme weather, such as droughts and floods, that climate experts say the globe will see more often.

That gloomy forecast poses business opportunities. Fifteen to 20 companies have opened in Asheville in the past five years to turn climate and environmental data into products and services.

Helping communities and companies understand climate risks and adapt to them is a field called climate resilience. Climate change was a $300 billion U.S. industry in 2013, the Climate Change Business Journal reported, and worth $1.4 trillion worldwide.

“NCEI is an extraordinarily unique asset, and we’ve had literally a 20-year conversation about how we could leverage that asset for economic development,” said Clark Duncan of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville and Buncombe County.

“What we have seen is a marketplace emerging that is attractive to the entrepreneur, the industry that can access and use the tremendous amount of data, literally terrabytes, for business and government.”

Climate cluster

Climate scientists span the globe. What makes Asheville attractive is the ability to work at close quarters with colleagues, said Glenn Kerr, executive director of the American Association of State Climatologists, which opened its headquarters in Asheville last September.

“NCEI has some deep subject matter experts. Data is one thing, and it’s really great to have that available. It’s even better to have access to that expertise,” he said. “Once you get a critical mass of people, you realize a synergy you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have that proximity.”

That’s one reason The Collider is in the Wells Fargo building just a couple of blocks from NCEI.

Bill Dean, its CEO, was a veteran science park executive when he semi-retired to Asheville a few years ago. His resume includes work at the sprawling Cummings Research Park in Huntsville, Ala., which has roots in aerospace, and Winston-Salem’s biotechnology-focused Piedmont Triad Research Park.

In Asheville he connected with philanthropist and business leader Mack Pearsall, who wanted to mesh his passion for the environment with economic growth. Eclectic Asheville, with its $2.6 billion tourism industry and leafy vibe, seemed like a natural fit.

In talks with Asheville business and academic leaders, Dean identified NCEI’s data and climate scientists as a foundation for his next project.

”My mentor said, ‘Bill, when you’re doing this, take the brains. Take the brains every time,’ ” Dean said.

Fast-tracking technology

The Collider will house businesses, host conferences and special events such as speeches by visiting scientists. It will also have a commercial side, possibly with staff scientists, to identify market opportunities and fast-track technological advances to fill them.

Eight events are already scheduled for April, including meetings by two international research bodies, the Atmospheric Observation Panel for Climate and the World Climate Research Programme Data Advisory Council.

The center had four tenants when it opened March 11 with an appearance by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor.

UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center will be the Collider’s anchor tenant. NEMAC translates complex data into readily-digested graphics and narratives, managing content for the federal Climate Resilience Toolkit.

Rear-projection images on a wall-sized screen are part of NEMAC’s new interactive conference room. NEMAC works on projects as diverse as Asheville’s climate resilience plan and three-dimensional maps of flood risks for coastal Broward County, Fla.

“What we really specialize in is moving from data to decisions,” said director Jim Fox. “We want to move from ‘did you know?’ to ‘why should I care?’ to ‘what should I be doing about it?’ ”

Fox likens the new climate entrepreneurs to the Weather Channel, which found decades ago that it could make money from National Weather Service feeds.

A NEMAC for-profit spinoff, FernLeaf Interactive, will share space at the Collider. FernLeaf says it will harness technology and analysis to look into the future of climate resilience.

Other Collider tenants include the climatogical services company Global Science & Technology Inc., which works mostly with federal agencies, and an office of Acclimatise, a climate change consulting company based in England.

Largely ignored in the entrepreneurial bustle is that climate change remains a politically charged topic. While 90 percent of Democrats say global warming is already having a serious environmental impact, a recent New York Times/ CBS News poll found, only 58 percent of Republicans agree.

“We work hard to move beyond the political football of climate change,” Duncan said. “What people are unified about is that this a bona fide economic development opportunity.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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