Keith Ayotte

At home in a sea of air...

Windlab's Chief Technical Officer is Dr Keith Ayotte. Ayotte has been a meteorologist, an academic and a businessman and has worked in Canada, the US and Australia. But swirling through his life has been a common thread - a fascination with the workings of the atmosphere. Perhaps it's not surprising that for recreation he flies a glider...

He completed an honors science degree with majors in climatology and meteorology, and then followed that up with a masters degree in the same subjects. From there it was to Toronto for training in weather forecasting, followed by a posting to Halifax.  But weather forecasting didn't hold Ayotte's interest for long.

"Being an operational meteorologist is not all that interesting - after a couple of years you get the same experience over and over again. It's challenging but not all that stimulating."

Ayotte then completed a PhD in Toronto and moved to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The next step was to the other side of the world, to take up a new appointment at the CSIRO in Australia. Working as an atmospheric scientist, he researched turbulent flow over hilly terrain. Ayotte stayed at the CSIRO for eight years but when he chose to leave, the decision was an easy one.

"My view is that if you're going to do science, you should probably do science," Ayotte says. "If you're going to do commercial things, you should do commercial things. Scientists are not the best businesspeople and businesspeople are probably even worst scientists. There was an awful lot of that going on in CSIRO."

So having left the CSIRO to do exactly that - become a scientist businessman - how does Ayotte reconcile his viewpoints?

"Well, you're always going to fail!" he says, tongue clearly in cheek.

"But the fact that there is some ground in the middle is good for me. I know enough about the theory to be able to collaborate with scientists and at the same time, by having a foot in the other camp, I can be the conduit between science and engineering outcomes."

The decision to spin-off a new company from the CSIRO was easy.

"It was just the right thing to do," says Ayotte. "We happened to be sitting on practical technology that was generating a fair amount of revenue so [starting Windlab] seemed like a fairly simple choice."

But, says Ayotte, based on the statistics of small startup companies, at launch he gave Windlab just a 10 per cent chance of success. The stunning subsequent success of the company, largely underpinned by the unique wind prospecting technology developed by Keith Ayotte and Nathan Steggel (Windlab's other founder), shows the prediction was unduly pessimistic!

And does being an atmospheric scientist, and also someone responsible for developing complex computer models to predict wind conditions, help in his gliding?

"When you set off on a cross-country journey without an engine it's good to have some idea about how the day is going to develop.

"It helps if you stay out of farmer's fields," he says with characteristic understatement.

But what about gaining a key competitive advantage?

"I fly mainly for recreation.  But I've done weather forecasting for gliding competitions which provides some pretty direct feedback on how the theory matches up with reality.

"I've also done calculations over the hills around our gliding field to figure where the air is going up - that's important because you can fly along the upwind side of the hill in the rising air. It's a bit like surfing - challenging and good fun.

"The other technique is wave flying. The wind hits the mountains and under the right atmospheric conditions, waves propagate up very high."

Ayotte says that by riding these waves, the gliding pilots in his club (of which he is president) can regularly ascend to 20,000 feet - considering that the altitude record in Australia is 33,000 feet, that's very high.

But sailing through the sea of air can be a humbling experience.

"Even though I know how the theory works, what you have to do is get out into the atmosphere and feel it."

And he ruefully adds: "What you usually find is that the observations that you make while gliding let you know that the theory is really just scratching the surface."

Ask Ayotte why the atmosphere has become his life and there's a long pause.

Then the glider pilot says: "It's outdoors, so it's natural - it's real and can be quite exciting."

But the atmospheric scientist has the last word: "There's also interesting mathematics to explain how it works!"