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Climate Risk Analytics Startup with Northeastern Links Receives Phase II Funding Grant

April 9, 2018

When the record flood of May 2010 destroyed lives and property in Nashville, Tennessee, Evan Kodra and Auroop Ganguly were working on climate extremes in the greater Knoxville region of East Tennessee. The Knoxville News Sentinel, citing the US Army Corps of Engineers, reported that the Nashville flood was a 1000-year event. On March 1 2018, when a report in the Washington Post indicated that for the second time this year a once-in-a-generation flooding was possible in the Boston area, Evan Kodra and Auroop Ganguly, were working on climate extremes in the greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

From 2010 to 2018, from one perspective, a lot has changed. Evan Kodra, a Northeastern alumnus (PhD ‘14, Interdisciplinary Engineering) from the Sustainability and Data Science Laboratory (SDS Lab), is now the co-founder and CEO of risQ, a climate analytics startup. Auroop Ganguly, now a full professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern and principal investigator of the SDS Lab, is a co-founder, as is Northeastern alumnus Colin Sullivan (B.S. ‘14, Computer Engineering).

From 2010 to 2018, from another perspective, nothing has really changed. The flood insurance program, as pointed out by the New York Times, remains “broke, and broken”. Local governments, and federal agencies in the US still struggle, perhaps even harder than ever, to incentivize climate risk and resilience. Even the private and public sectors are not immune. The leaders of the insurance industry may describe climate change as a major threat, real estate experts may talk about climate gentrification, and the US Department of Defense may state that climate change is a threat multiplier, but for one reason or the other, the reality on the ground does not appear to change. Questions persist, such as the one posed in a CNN opinion essay: “Holland has solved this problem; why can’t the US?”

Floods of course are not the only problem. Weather and hydrological extremes range from heat waves and cold snaps to heavy rain and snow, thunderstorms, tornadoes, cyclones sea level rise and storm surge. Climate related stresses include changes in regional hydrometeorology and coastal and/or urban processes. These extremes and regional changes happen under the backdrop of natural climate variability and climate change. The statistics of these extremes and stresses, including their change patterns in space and time, form the basis of climate risk management, whether for infrastructures and disaster management or for agriculture, energy, real estate and financial services. Publications by Evan Kodra and Auroop Ganguly, along with colleagues, in these areas have been published and highlighted in high-impact venues such as Nature and Nature Climate Change. They have also contributed to climate action plans for cities, and supported federal agencies and public sectors. What has been frustrating to the risQ team is the inability of best-in-class research to make a real difference in the public and private sector climate adaptation effort, and the lack of well-designed incentive structures for climate adaptation and risk management. This is where risQ Inc., originally a spinout from Northeastern’s SDS Lab, aspires to make a difference.

“Climate change is an immense threat and we cannot afford to relegate the best science only to academia and government labs,” says Kodra, “it's time to get the private and public sector on board and illuminate how climate change is affecting them and will continue to, and do it in an actionable way”. Kodra went on to add that this is a real need that nobody is addressing, and risQ was started to fill this void. “The current state of the climate risk industry is probably comparable to where the natural catastrophe modeling world was more than twenty years ago,” says Ganguly, citing the original vision by Karen Clark, who started pioneering company AIR Worldwide. What is needed, according to Ganguly, is a jump-start through an innovative startup such as risQ, which can clearly and convincingly demonstrate that climate risk analytics can be a sustainable business model in the private sector. As Kodra and Ganguly describe this, the broader vision is to develop the risQ climate analytics engine such that it can address multiple climate threats across different industry verticals, starting with areas such as real estate, insurance, and agriculture, while remaining open to other possible commercial opportunities. This is where risQ’s recent success with the National Science Foundation (NSF) can help.     

This April, risQ was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grant by the NSF. The grant will provide $750,000 in funding over two years for risQ’s continued research and development of its Climate Risk Analytics Platform. The company was previously awarded a $225,000 SBIR Phase I grant in June of 2016. “The National Science Foundation provides a funding mechanism that’s truly unique: up to $1.6 million in non-dilutive seed capital, along with leading commercialization mentorship,” said Sullivan. “The Phase II grant will fund the development of a platform that can serve sectors impacted by climate change, including software layers that allow risQ’s technical team to quickly tailor views of climate risk for different stakeholder types,” Sullivan added.