Nevin deMilliano: storm chaser turned entrepreneur

Storm chaser Nevin deMilliano brings boutique weather forecasting to Alberta with Agricast

Clear skies to gathering clouds

It’s not hard to picture Nevin deMilliano as a kid. He’s nearly 30, but he’s still marked by the wonder and hopefulness of the very young. DeMilliano is trim and long-legged, and boyish enough to likely still be ID’d. His straight, dark hair can look slightly unruly even if recently combed. And when he talks about things he likes – such as the severe thunderstorms and tornadoes he chases as a hobby – a broad, unrestrained smile takes over his face.

What’s hard to picture is that boy of four or five being afraid of those storms.

Like many of us – and like many storm chasers, he says – deMilliano was the kid who couldn’t sleep at night as lightning flashed and thunder crashed. Unlike many of us, he was able to identify the source of his fear: a knowledge gap. What was happening in the sky? he wondered. So he hit the library in his hometown of Fort Saskatchewan and faced his fears with armloads of picture books.

By the time he was in school, it was virtually all deMilliano wanted to learn about. “In Grade 1, I always got in trouble for staring out the window at the clouds,” he says on a recent overcast but calm summer day at NAIT. “My head was always in the clouds.”

It still is – but now he’s being encouraged to keep it there. After a semester of university-level atmospheric science, deMilliano came to NAIT in 2014 planning to build a business that could be described as boutique weather forecasting. Especially from the perspective of a meteorologist, Alberta is vast. A TV weatherperson can cover the major centres but conditions can change within an hour’s drive. That can leave many of the more than 40,000 farms in the province guessing at when to carry out highly weather-dependent work. Agricast, a subscription service for custom forecasting that deMilliano launched this summer, is designed to take some of the guesswork out of agriculture.

“It’s about communicating [climate data] so that other people understand the weather better and make decisions that benefit their business or life,” says deMilliano, who’s finishing his studies at the JR Shaw School of Business. “That’s what fascinates me now.”

Almost, that is, as much as storm chasing.

Clouds to rainsuper cell storm near rocky mountain house alberta

DeMilliano couldn’t have been a TV weatherperson. He has the personality and energy for the job, and the ability to translate complex systems into “pack an umbrella” or “cover the tomatoes.”

But the studio isn’t for him. He wants to tell people about the weather but he also wants to see it for himself, and usually up close.

“Clouds are fine,” says deMilliano, recalling his Grade 1 distraction, “but it’s storms that got me going. Just the dynamics at play, the motion. There’s nothing like it. I always say, if you’ve ever seen a rotating thunderstorm, what we call a supercell, even the pictures and video that we take pale in comparison to watching it live.”

Along with three other storm chasers in Alberta and Saskatchewan (historically Canada’s top provinces for tornadoes), deMilliano posts that footage on Twitter @PrairieChasers. With a reach of more than 14,400 followers, it offers a whirlwind tour of probing funnel clouds and alarming but stunning, anvil- and mushroom-shaped formations over Western Canadian skies.

It’s also an invaluable resource for weather television.

“Eyes on the ground are always better than radar,” says CTV meteorologist Josh Classen (Radio and Television ’96). With respect to severe weather, “There’s always some time lag when you’re getting that [radar] data and a bit of uncertainty whether you’re getting the full picture. To be able to have pictures and video from guys who know what they’re looking at is really helpful.”

Classen, who studied meteorology through Mississippi State University, counts deMilliano among those “guys.” They fill a gap he can’t. During stops on chases, deMilliano would meet curious farmers who’d tell him that the weather forecast for the nearest major centre often didn’t apply to them – which ultimately led to the Agricast concept. While Classen can use storm chasers’ real-time reports to tailor a warning of hail or even a tornado for a given rural outpost, he can’t devote himself to predicting their weather.

“I only have so many hours in the day and so many minutes on TV.”

“I only have so many hours in the day and so many minutes on TV,” says Classen. “If I only had 12 viewers, I could spend a lot more time on what might happen in their neighbourhood.” He’s happy to leave that to Agricast. “They’re trying to scale [forecasting] to the point where they can provide the level of service that broadcasters can’t. They’re trying to localize that, acre by acre.”

Classen points out that the climate data farmers need isn’t hard to get. Alberta Climate Information Services provides a deluge of current and historical information from 350 weather stations across the province. “The problem is: what do you do with that information?” he says.

With two business partners (meteorologists based in Manitoba), deMilliano turns those numbers into two-day forecasts for the nine farms that are part of the business’s first phase, capped to keep the workload manageable and to refine the model to meet farmers’ needs. Though less exciting for Twitter followers, the activity is similar to pinpointing an Alberta weather event that might blow up into something worthy of the six o’clock news.

When deMilliano chases a storm, he knows not only where to go, but exactly when to hit the road, often driving hours and arriving right on time to catch the action. He understands the mechanics of a storm in a way that allows him to predict funnel clouds that materialize minutes later. And he always learns enough about any given weather system to have mapped out an escape route.

He puts this kind of effort into forecasting because he knows the Prairie Storm Chasers’ audience – locals, weather geeks and meteorologists alike – needs to know what’s happening up in the troposphere, that sliver of the atmosphere where most of our weather occurs. He applies the same rigour to his farmers’ forecasts. He knows their livelihood depends on it.

alberta clouds prairie storm chasersRain to storms

A perfect supercell storm comes from an ideal alignment of circumstances. In most thunderstorms, warm air rises from the ground, meets cooler air and produces precipitation. This causes a downdraft that blocks the entrance of more warm air that would strengthen the storm, and the storm dies. A supercell is what happens when it doesn’t.

Winds tilt the system and set it rotating, allowing the cold downdraft to exit in a way that allows the warm updraft to reach and feed the storm. Tornadoes are the storm chaser’s prize, produced by just a small fraction of all supercells, with some researchers putting the number at about 10 per cent.

That proportion, coincidentally, also represents the number of startups that go on to become successful. Conditions must be perfect for the full potential of one to be realized. With his business off the ground, deMilliano has to ensure he can continue to fuel the system.

“I’m the least entrepreneurial person there is,” says Classen. But as a broadcaster, he thinks scalability is one challenge Agricast may face. He sees the need for deMilliano’s business to expand and make the hours that go into forecasting worthwhile but not at the cost of sacrificing service.

Tyler Graham, one of Agricast’s current clients, sees a similar need. Based in Lamont, about 70 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, Graham’s 1,200-acre mixed farm, and his business as an agricultural consultant, lie outside the reliability of a forecast tailored to the capital. “Pretty much everything we do is outside and weather dependent – whether you’re making hay, spraying crops, seeding or harvesting,” says Graham. “To watch the news is not really a local forecast. [We’re] trying to get a better handle on one of the main variables in our operation to help us make better day-to-day decisions.”

Since May, he’s received detailed two-day forecasts from Agricast as emailed reports that he keeps handy on his phone. But in a business that can require knowing the very hour that rain will fall, he finds that his forecasts can falter by the end of that second day. He knows weather changes quickly but he needs the information he’s given to remain as accurate as possible if he’s to renew his subscription to deMilliano’s service in 2018.

As an entrepreneur himself, Graham sees this as an opportunity for developing Agricast – something he’ll share when deMilliano surveys his clients post-season. An Agricast app now being planned may be part of the solution, and a winter of work directed by customer feedback may lead to more improvements.

For Graham, the need for Agricast in the agricultural community is clear as deMilliano’s drive. The young forecaster is doing something, he points out, that no other entrepreneur has had the knowledge and courage to attempt before in Alberta. “I put my trust in him to develop that product,” he says.  

Blue skiesNevin deMilliano, Prairie Storm Chasers, Agricast

That trust – and deMilliano’s willingness to build it – will determine the success of Agricast as much as the product itself. As Sandra Spencer (Accounting ’10, Bachelor of Business Administration ’13) points out, reaching out for feedback shows he’s acknowledging that entrepreneurship can involve a kind of partnership with clients.

“A business needs a customer,” says the CEO of Nimble Strategizing, a firm that coaches entrepreneurs. “A product doesn’t necessarily equate to a business.”

Jay Krysler also sees value in the openness of deMilliano’s approach. “The biggest thing that he’s doing right now is he’s testing things out,” says the JR Shaw School of Business instructor who taught deMilliano subjects including new venture creation and business planning.

Krysler invokes the “corridor principle” to justify that exploration. An entrepreneur, says the instructor, should be willing to investigate doors that open along the way as he or she heads to the light at the end of the hall. “Will [Agricast] change from the business plan he did last year? Yeah, sure, once he gets feedback from his test sites. [But] that’s a key entrepreneurial competency.” And one he feels deMilliano has.

Apart from that, he possesses a rare determination, adds Spencer, who in a previous role as a NAIT manager for services for startup entrepreneurs oversaw workshops deMilliano once participated in. He’s a dedicated student but his ambition was bigger than a degree, she recalls.

“He was obviously not there just to get a piece of paper,” she says. “The fact that he’s still pursuing this” – on a student budget, no less – “is impressive.”

Agricast isn’t likely to see a shortage of customers next season, given deMilliano's decision to limit his client number this year. He’s also investigating market expansion, including the construction industry and outdoor event planners. All of this makes Classen wonder if deMilliano hasn’t tapped into some form of the future of forecasting. Recently, the CTV meteorologist read an article suggesting that artificial intelligence could undermine his profession. Agricast may represent a way for the human touch to prevail over algorithms. “If you are the kind of guy who can give people information to act upon and tell them how to act upon it, I think there’s a real future for that,” says Classen.

DeMilliano has already proven himself capable of giving that kind of advice when storm chasing, he adds. He’s also proven able to face things other people won’t, be it his own fears, or a supercell turning eerily in the Prairie sky. DeMilliano talks about watching a storm the way others might talk about a tropical sunset. In place of a pleasant breeze, there’s the thick rush of warm air at his back as he watches transfixed.

"That’s bliss for me. That’s my happy place.”

"That’s bliss for me,” he says. “That’s my happy place.”

That place can lead to disaster or to witnessing something extraordinary. DeMilliano is aware of that any day that he wakes up and smells what he swears is the scent of a storm brewing. Blue skies aren’t always going to be part of the forecast as he develops Agricast. But if bad weather looms on the horizon, he’s not likely to just wait for it to come to him.  

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