|PhD, Environmental Fluid Dynamics
As a child growing up outside of Washington D.C., Thomas Sherman dreamed he would grow up and become a moose trainer. It didn’t matter that no such job existed; no one bothered to tell him it didn’t. So young Thomas happily continued to dream about the moose he would master during the endless hours he spent playing outdoors.
It’s somewhat fortuitous than Sherman created his own career as a kid because that’s exactly what he’s doing now as the co-founder of CRCL (pronounced circle) Solutions with fellow University of Notre Dame alumni Daniel Vassallo in 2019. At the time, the two were PhD candidates in Environmental Fluid Dynamics who shared a vision of becoming entrepreneurs.
Environmental Fluid Dynamics is a complicated and specialized science that is relatively unknown outside its space. “Basically, we’re looking at hydrology, atmospheric science, oceanography, and the interaction between them. Weather forecasting is also part of it. As a discipline, we’re typically put with civil engineering or earth science. We’re the academic misfits,” Sherman explains.
“As foreign as it may sound to most people, it was an exciting subject for me” he adds. “As a kid, I was constantly checking the weather, looking for snow days, and watching National Geographic on TV. Then during my undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, I studied math and environmental science. Modeling environmental fluid dynamics was a good fit for me as it lets me keep studying nature.”
Notre Dame played a key role in putting Sherman’s passions into practice. He had not planned on going to graduate school, but a professor suggested he check out Notre Dame’s PhD program. Intrigued, he met with an advisor in the university’s engineering department who explained a flexible approach to research for its PhD candidates.
“I have a little academic ADD so the ability to explore many subjects in terms of research was very appealing,” Sherman says. “I applied to Notre Dame.”
A critical part of his strategy was to secure a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, which he did. The grant paid for his degree and provided the opportunity to be more independent in his research. “It was great because I could work on the ocean, atmosphere and geological angles; basically anything I wanted.”
During his second week in South Bend, Sherman met a kindred spirit and his future business partner, Vassallo, who was pursuing his PhD in the same discipline. The two hit it off and agreed they should start a company. The question was, in what? And then, how? The second question was easier to answer. They signed up for a class in Entrepreneurship.
“I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurship,” Sherman says. “I was the neighborhood dog walker. I also had a mulching business. So when Daniel said he enjoyed entrepreneurship, too, I got excited. I’ve always liked working for myself and having the ability to pick what I go after.”
The two batted around a series of ideas for a startup. First, it was a goal-setting app. They moved on to a sports betting app. “Finally, we asked ourselves, why not do something around what we’re working on? It made perfect sense to focus on atmospheric modeling and forecasting so we registered the company, CRCL Solutions, in 2019,” Sherman says.
That same year Sherman was awarded a PhD after presenting his dissertation, Upscaled Stochastic Transport Modelling of Hydro-Geologic Systems. (Please don’t ask us to explain what this means. You’ll have to ask Sherman.) He then accepted a contract position as a senior scientist in the Washington DC area doing mathematical modeling and data analytics support for advanced space systems. While the job was challenging, his heart was pulling him back to CRCL.
Thus, in 2020, he and Vassallo started doing the heavy lifting of launching a startup. This included interviewing more than 200 people in the environment and energy industries. Sherman combed through LinkedIn to find people willing to talk with him. “I learned pretty quickly that people were more than willing to talk with me once they understood I was there as a collaborator and not as a competitor,” he says. “I met a lot of people and got great insights.”
The biggest data point the co-founders uncovered was weather forecasting is a huge problem—even for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Despite being the experts, weather forecasters can fall prey to the inherent weaknesses of traditional modeling and make wrong calls on weather events. Most days, that’s not a big deal. However, as last December’s unusual tornadoes in Kentucky and countless hurricanes have proved, weather events can be deadly.
Sherman and Vassallo pounced on the opportunity to improve weather forecasting, bringing the twist of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to the mix. “What we’ve done is built a platform that allows us to take NOAA data and historical trends and using machine learning and atmospheric modeling achieve more accurate wind and solar forecasting,” Sherman explains.
Now you might think the two would offer this as a service to meteorologists everywhere, but they started in an entirely different place: the renewable energy trading sector. Much like pork bellies, corn and soybeans commonly traded in the futures market, there are traders around the world focused on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Their bets hinge on when the wind will blow and sun will shine which in turn determines energy production, making the data generated by CRCL extremely valuable to when to buy and when to sell futures.
“What we’re doing is reducing some of the inherent risk of futures trading in the renewable energy sector,” Sherman explains. “Our algorithms detect anomalies in weather patterns and telling traders when this could happen and affect market volatility. They can then choose to participate or not based on data.”
The big freeze that hit Texas in February 2021 and literally shut down its production of wind energy turned into a pivotal moment for Sherman and CRCL. All eyes were on Texas as the state’s energy grid was thrown into crisis mode. The situation was rectified but the media attention inspired renewable energy traders from Europe to start investing in Texas.
That data point caught Sherman’s attention and he immediately combed LinkedIn to connect with every energy industry trader he could that represented a potential customer for CRCL. Thanks to Sherman’s opportunism, many are now relying on CRCL for more reliable weather forecasting data.
In April 2021, Sherman and Vassallo accepted an opportunity to join the Austin Technology Incubator, a move that put them deep in the heart of the Texas energy industry. The Lone Star State is not only a leader in the oil industry, Texas is also a leading producer of renewable energy. As members of the Austin Technology Incubator, Sherman and Vassallo were immediately connected to a wealth of energy-specific legacy and high-tech resources.
“We have an advisor who put us at the trailhead of the Texas energy industry and that has been a huge help,” Sherman says. “We also have a board of advisors who are connected to the energy industry and experienced fundraisers. MBA students from the University of Texas are available to help, too. Although COVID has caused us to work remotely, we’ve been able to tap into people and assets like the University of Texas library when we need them.”
In the meantime, Sherman and Vassallo applied for and were awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 grant of $250,000 from the National Science Foundation. The co-founders plan to apply for an SBIR Phase 2 along with a Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) grant with the University of Dayton. The non-dilutive funding of these grants is the lifeblood of science-driven startups like CRCL.
“We are introducing new technical methods to the industry that are very difficult to do at scale. Our SBIR funding means instead of fundraising, we can concentrate on finetuning our product-market fit and our strategy,” Sherman says.
That strategy will expand CRCL’s reach into markets beyond energy traders. This includes utility companies, renewable energy generators, self-driving vehicles, wildfire warning systems, and the insurance industry that routinely gets hammered by unexpected severe weather events. And that’s likely the tip of the iceberg in terms of industries that would benefit from more accurate weather forecasting.
Sherman believes CRCL has a large market opportunity, but that’s yet to be determined. Even so, his and Vassallo’s work is on the radar of none other than Forbes, which included the duo on their 2022 30 Under 30 list of people out to change the world.
While Forbes’ recognition is definitely a highlight of Sherman’s career as a founder, he considers his biggest win to date to be taking the leap as an entrepreneur and going for it. “Starting a business is hard. I had no idea what to expect , but here we are.”
Sherman is quick to point out that he is still trying to figure things out as a company founder. He strongly suggests student entrepreneurs find an environment where they can test ideas, fail, play, and learn. Also, find a co-founder or mentors who complement your strengths and weaknesses. Finally, make it a point to listen to established businesspeople. “They know the issues. Having someone who tells you you’re stupid and challenges you is so much more valuable than receiving constant praise.”