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Taxpayer-backed Utah satellite project reboots with new backer

Published April 6, 2014 4:18 pm

Science • Firm has little time to get $150M to send taxpayer-backed weather instrument into space.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Four years ago, a Las Vegas-based company promised to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to the Logan area to build advanced weather-sensing satellite instruments at Utah State University.

The state put nearly $3 million of taxpayer money into the project.

USU dissolved its contract with GeoMetWatch after the company failed to secure $150 million to send the instrument into space. Now, a new Ogden-based firm has less than 90 days to pull together the cash to put the instrument on board an Asian telecommunications satellite.

"We are sort of Plan B as far as the university is concerned," said Alan Hall, a longtime businessman and philanthropist. "Their issue was really around the former license holder — he was not able to complete their agreement."

Hall has launched a new company, Tempus Global Data Inc., to market and sell the data from the instrument, which uses infrared technology to predict weather hours earlier than current technology.

The state money came to USU over the last four years from the Utah Science and Technology Research initiative (USTAR), a state program designed to leverage university research into businesses and jobs.

USTAR has come under scrutiny in recent months for inflating its numbers of jobs and revenue. Among other problems, state auditors said in October that USTAR leaders reported a $134 million contract with GeoMetWatch as revenue it helped produce — even though that contract hadn't yet paid out.

"This is why you don't do it that way," said audit supervisor Brian Dean Friday.

The state is still entitled to a portion of the profits once the effort hits "certain milestones," said USTAR spokesman Justin Berry.

"This is a great project there's no reason the board would not approve," Berry said. "Unfortunately, every day contracts fall through. GeoMetWatch was not able to meet their end of the bargain."

GeoMetWatch has contracted with aerospace company Exelis to design a hyperspectral sounder instead. A spokesman for the company declined to comment in detail on the end of the agreement with USU.

Hall, who is also chairman of the Weber State University board of trustees, said he'll be able to sell weather data the instrument will produce, which is more accurate and faster than what's available now.

"The bottom line is I have lived in this world of taking products to market for 25 years," said Hall, adding that the marketing and sales company he founded, Marketstar Corp., manages some $8 billion in global assets. "We're going to make sure the return on investment for USTAR is met."

After this year, USTAR isn't slated to provide any more money for the project, said Scott Jensen, who oversees the Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology (STORM) project at USU.

"We are completely funded by private money at this point," said Jensen.

There are nine people working on the project now, and that could ramp up to 40 if Tempus brings in the funding to put the instrument aboard a satellite owned by TV and Internet company AsiaSat. It's slated to launch in 2016.

Jensen acknowledged, however, the 90-day deadline is a tight race to raise the capital, and said USU has other leads if it doesn't work out.

STORM started some 15 years ago as a NASA project, though the government pulled the plug on the project in 2006 after investing some $400 million. David Crain, then CEO of GeoMetWatch, claimed the license after having worked on the effort.

The instrument uses infrared sensors to track particles of water vapor, trace gases, volcanic ash and pollutants to produce a more detailed image of upcoming floods, hurricanes and other weather events up to eight hours earlier than current technology.

"This device is going to save lives," Hall said. "It's a big thing for humanity."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst