UND research turns into National Service


David L. Dodds

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UND research turns into National Service

You can't miss it when you're driving the nation's highways and byways: the signs are everywhere — literally.

The national advanced traveler information system providing weather and road information, now known as "511," was a brainchild of UND's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences and its researchers, who needed an idea to satisfy a Federal Highway Administration contract.

The result was one of the best and first examples of UND scholarly scientific research spinning off to the private sector to benefit the public.

UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Leon Osborne was the driving force behind the concept but not its genesis. That credit goes to none other than the late founder of UND Aerospace, John Odegard.

"John was the type of person always trying to think up new ways for us to get involved in things," Osborne recalled.

In addition to his teaching duties, Osborne had an ongoing research project involving computation of weather information targeted for the airline industry.

Concurrently, Odegard was angling for his school to tap into a major highway administration funding opportunity. It basically was money looking for an idea to float. The only stipulation was that it had to be something that provided "assistance with traveling."

The highway administration had already rejected two other proposals and time was running out before the funding opportunity would expire. UND had 48 hours to come up with a plan. That's when Odegard turned to Osborne.

Using his research experience in computational weather information for aviation, Osborne quickly altered his focus toward ground level and developed a concept for "en route traveler information."

"We wrote the proposal and got it submitted on time," he said.

In January 1995, research on the concept began in earnest at UND. By the end of the next year, Obsorne and his team had developed the "Advanced Transportation Weather Information System" (ATWIS), which was operated out of UND's Regional Weather Information Center in Odegard Hall.

This marked the beginning of "24/7" weather information activity originating from UND.

"It was targeting multistate roadway-based activity," Osborne said. "That set the tone for what is now the nation's 511 system."

A main stipulation of the research was that it had to be sustainable and it had to be transferred to the private sector upon completion. But no one was interested, including the "Big Three" automakers, because there was still too much risk involved. They claimed the proper frameworks were not in place to ensure seamless sustainability.

"So we were striking out," Osborne said.

That's when UND's two big idea men of the time came to the rescue: Odegard and the late President Emeritus Tom Clifford. They suggested a company be formed to provide the quality assurance mechanisms that were lacking.

"Whenever those two giants come to you and say, 'we will help you' and 'this will work' — you listen," Osborne said.

Before the end of 1996, Meridian Environmental Technology, Inc. was launched and soon it had an office in the UND Rural Technology Center incubator (now the Norm Skalicky Tech Incubator).

Enter the great Red River Valley Flood of 1997.

The flood had a wide-reaching impact on all lives, businesses and industry in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, and Meridian was not immune. Instead of folding, Osborne, his wife Kathy — the major shareholder in the company — and fellow founders and UND co-workers Bryan Hahn and Mark Owens were forced to set up shop in an upstairs spare bedroom of the Osborne home.

By 1999, the company was back in the RTC incubator, taking up two full suites. After some tweaking of the old ATWIS system to make it more efficient and market ready, Meridian started securing more contracts, including a major deal with the State of Minnesota.

Meridian also started becoming a job magnet for UND graduates, especially those in the computer science and atmospheric science fields.

Nearly two years ago, Meridian was acquired by Iteris, Inc., based in Santa Ana, Calif., which has offices across the country. Iteris' Grand Forks location heads up the company's advanced traveler information systems division and all of its weather activities.

Through the buyout, Osborne retained the title of president and CEO, while his wife, Kathy, is vice president of operations. The Grand Forks company has about 50 employees now.

And as for the 511 system, it is currently in effect in about 40 states.

"It has been a tremendous amount of work and it is wonderful that it's all worked out," Osborne said. "We're continuing the innovations we started in the 1990s, when Meridian was started, and have now put into place several more national systems that are having a similar impact to 511.

"Another important aspect of where Meridian is now is that it is positioned to undergo explosive growth in Grand Forks, now that it is a part of Iteris, with its vast capabilities and resources in other aspects of transportation."

Pretty good for a concept that started out as University research looking for a purpose in the world.

Just look out the window of your car on your next road trip. The signs are everywhere — literally.

On the Web: www.meridian-enviro.com

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