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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Section: Science Life
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Published: 31.08.2006, 06:00
Modified: 30.08.2006, 10:58
ETH spin-off company carries out short-range weather forecasts
Weather warner as a profession

The ETH spin-off company meteoradar gmbh operates as a niche service provider specialising in local short-range forecasts. There is growing interest in up-to-date weather information on mobile devices. That’s why the medium-range forecast for this small business is: bright and sunny.

Roman Klingler

“ We are in a cyclical business,” says Willi Schmid, proprietor of the meteoradar GmbH company, in an interview with ETH Life. Just for once, that does not mean the ups and downs of the economy which determine the course of business for many firms, instead it means the weather. The company has specialised in preparing short-range forecasts of bad weather. In this context, short-range means one to two hours before the event. The demand for bad weather warnings is correspondingly small when good weather prevails for weeks on end, but as soon as a bad weather front pushes over Switzerland, increasing numbers of people again subscribe via the Internet to the warning service, which warns them of precipitation by SMS, Fax, E-mail or pager.

Fortunately – for Willi Schmid – meteoradar can count on loyal business customers as well as individual customers. The customers, who have a professional interest in weather forecasts which are as accurate as possible, include cantonal civil engineering authorities, fire brigades, airports and open-air event organisers. In these cases, short-range forecasts can provide the basis for important decisions, for example to clear snow. A class of customer that has arrived on the scene only in recent years are the organisers of adventure holidays. The canyoning accident in Saxetbach in the summer of 1999 showed the dramatic consequences that can result from a misjudgement of weather conditions. On that occasion, 21 people lost their lives after a severe local thunderstorm turned the stream into a raging torrent.

Outsourced know-how

The crucial part of the weather forecasts – the weather radar – is situated on the Hönggerberg, or to be more precise, on the roof of the ten-storey HPP physics building. The radar sphere, together with the entire technical infrastructure, was installed and commissioned in the late eighties. At that time, radar meteorology was still a branch of research with its own professorial chair at ETH. Research priorities have shifted somewhat since then, and the idea arose of outsourcing know-how acquired over the years to a spin-off company. In 1999, Willi Schmid founded a private company to do this, and the ETH atmospheric physicist with a doctor’s degree has now been exclusively an entrepreneur since autumn 2005.

Various contracts with ETH governed and continue to govern collaboration between Schmid’s company and his former employer. According to these contracts, Schmid is permitted to use the ETH radar, and in particular exploit the forecasting method (COTREC/RainCast) developed in the former Atmospheric Physics Laboratory for commercial purposes. But what will happen when the infrastructure, which will soon be 20 years old, needs replacing? – Willi Schmid guesses that “A new weather radar would probably cost a six-figure sum,” at the same time seeming to send a hurried prayer to heaven for this event to be delayed as long as possible into the future. At any rate, the head of this small business is already resorting to weather data from MeteoSchweiz to enable him to deliver forecasts to his customers even when the ETH radar fails.


In operation since the late eighties – the spherical weather radar on the roof of the HPP Physics Building on the Hönggerberg. large

Partners and competitors

Since the weather is becoming increasingly capricious in Switzerland as well, interest in weather phenomena is growing, and so too is the need for weather forecasts which are as up-to-the-minute as possible and accessible via mobile devices. The market leader and main competitor is MeteoSchweiz with about 270 employees and an extensive measuring network. Schmid’s two-person company looks really tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, Willi Schmid is convinced that he has some advantage over the Swiss weather Goliath: “With our radar we measure the changes at lower levels than MeteoSchweiz, and that’s why we can be more accurate for local weather forecasts.”

At the same time, Schmid also obtains raw weather data from foreign suppliers and refines it into short-range forecasts which he sells to, among others, the meteorology businessman Jörg Kachelmann, who is well-known on radio and TV (meteomedia). However, Schmid intends to remain loyal to his specialty – local short-range forecasting – but is also thinking of developing his company into a full-service provider. In other words, Willi Schmid would then not only forecast “bad” weather and warn against thunderstorms, hail and blizzards, but would also be able to offer good weather forecasts and would be less exposed to the economics of bad weather.

What is an ETH spin-off?

Two conditions must be satisfied for a company to be allowed to call itself an ETH spin-off: the company must be based on ETH Zurich research findings, and either ETH staff or graduates must be involved in founding the company. An ETH spin-off not only benefits from the ETH Zurich “brand”, but can also use specific know-how commercially within the framework of licence contracts. The start-up assistance also includes the fact that the companies can lease the shared use of ETH Zurich premises or instruments on special terms.

Official web site of the meteoradar GmbH Company:
Successor web site of
Another W. Schmid web site with short-range forecasts:

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