Terraformation gets $30M to fight climate change with rapid reforesting – TechCrunch


Story by: Natasha Lomas TechCrunch » Startup

Every startup tries to fix something, but terraformation addresses the only problem that needs to be important to us all: climate change.

That's why it's in such a great hurry. Its mission – as a "forest tech" startup – is to accelerate the planting of trees by applying a startup-style operating philosophy of scalability to the urgent task of rapidly and sustainably reforesting deforested landscapes – bringing native tree species back to former To revive wasteland and our carbon emissions in the process.

Forests are natural carbon sinks. The problem is, we just don't have enough trees with roots in the ground to offset our emissions. That means at least that the mission is simple: plant more trees and plant more trees quickly.

The goal of Terraformation is the restoration of three billion hectares of global indigenous forest ecosystems by parallel scaling of new tree planting projects, scaling the use of existing techniques and cooperation with all possible partners. (For a small context, the US contains about 2.27 billion acres of total land, according to Wikipedia).

So far it has been said that it has planted "thousands" of trees – with live projects in North America, South America, Africa and Europe hoping to bring in up to 20,000 newly planted acres. It is also in discussion with partners about other projects that could cover hundreds of thousands of hectares with carbon-consuming (and biodiversity-promoting) trees if they come to fruition.

That is of course still a long way from the 3 billion hectare wooded moon shot. However, Terraformation claims it has already achieved a forest restoration work rate that is five times the average. And that's definitely the kind of gas that climate change needs.

His elevator pitch is also punchy: "Our mission is to explicitly solve climate change through mass reforestation," says founder Yishan Wong – whose name may be known as the ex-Reddit CEO (and also a former PayPal / Facebook early-stage engineer ). "So it's about getting trees into the ground and getting trees into the ground faster."

You can't do it alone. It just announced the first close of a $ 30 million Series A funding round led by Sam & Max Altman at Apollo Projects, the brothers' Moonshot Fund. plus several high profile institutional investors (whose names will not be disclosed); along with nearly 100 angel investors including Sundeep Ahuja, Lachy Groom, Sahil Lavingia, Joe Lonsdale, Susan Wu and OVN Cap.

"The [Series A] was a bit bigger than we expected and the idea is to take us to the next phase each year to plant orders of magnitude more trees," says Wong. "It is used both for direct support of forest projects and for the development and use of forest acceleration products and technologies."

"The very, very nice thing about mass afforestation or mass restoration as a solution to climate change is that it can be extremely parallelized," he adds. “You can plant any tree at the same time as another tree. This is the main reason this solution can potentially be implemented within the remaining timeline. But for this we have to start and promote a huge, decentralized reforestation campaign across several continents and countries. "

The funding follows a seed capital of US $ 5 million last year as the young startup worked to refine its approach.

Terraformation targets the main barriers to successful reforestation: Early research and pilot projects identified three main bottlenecks for large-scale forest restoration – namely land availability, freshwater and seeds. It then tries to address each of these sticking points for viable reforestation – by identifying and designing modular, shareable solutions (tools, techniques, training, etc.) that can help eliminate frictional losses and achieve leafy, ramified success.

These products include a sperm bank unit she designed, housed in a standard shipping container and equipped with all the equipment (plus solar off-grip capability if required) to facilitate on-site storage for the thousands of natives to ensure seeds that every project needs to replant an entire forest.

It also offers a grow kit that also comes in a shipping container – a flat-packed greenhouse that supposedly a few people can put together, and then thousands of seedlings can be potted and watered until they're ready to go Plant out.

A third support it offers to the replanting projects with which it wishes to work is the know-how in building solar-powered desalination plants so that young trees can be supplied with sufficient water to survive in locations where poor land management is concerned the growing conditions may have been difficult and harsh.

It goes without saying that planted trees that fail due to poor processes do not help to reduce CO2 emissions. Badly managed new plantings are wasteful at best – and in some cases can be more cynical greenwashing. (Projects of poor quality can be a known problem, for example when claims for CO2 compensation are made by companies.)

Terraformation is therefore looking for repeatable ways to scale and accelerate the successful planting and care of trees, from seed to sapling and beyond, in order to accelerate sustainable reforestation.

Ultimately, it is the only type of tree planting that really counts in the fight against climate change.

Its first pilot restoration projects began in Hawaii in 2019 – where it was possible to plant thousands of trees in a location called Pacific Flight and revitalize a native tropical sandalwood forest that was unsustainably cut. So that the young trees can also grow on the parched land due to the cattle pasture, the team built the world's largest completely off-grid, solar-powered desalination plant to sustainably supply the baby forest with fresh water.

"The arid environment, the strong winds, and the degraded soils meant that if a team could restore a forest there, they could do it anywhere," it says on its website.

Series A will help develop many more such forest restoration projects for native species – working through partnerships with organizations such as Environmental Defenders in Uganda and other groups in Ecuador, Haiti and Tanzania – as well as more research and development (other products are in the pipeline, we learn); and increasing the number of employees so that the team has the legs to run faster.

Interestingly, the team's approach to a startup with the Silicon Valley engineering pedigree is intentionally technology-driven at its core – it relies only on vital technologies (like solar power and desalination) rather than experimental bells and whistles (drones, robotics, etc.). to ensure that the processes it parallelizes for massive replanting remain as simple, accessible and reliable as possible. So they are able to scale all over the world.

It is clear that sci-fi robotic devices are not the answer here. It is welding work plus proven horticultural processes that have to be carried out systematically and repeatedly in mass parallelism around the world, argues Wong, who has a healthy skepticism about the subject of over-engineering due to his years in technology. ("The biggest lesson I learned was that you want to solve a big problem? You want to use as little technology as possible … Technology always breaks, it always has flaws. The biggest problem with technology is technology . "

“I would say that the key contribution that 'tech' – if you think of a monolith or a culture or whatever – will make to climate change is actually not a new invention or any device or any special magic technology … I think it's really the practice of scalability, ”he continues. “This is an organizational end. A management mindset. Because that's actually something that has been carefully and painstakingly developed in Silicon Valley over the past 20 years. How to take small working solutions, how to solve very large problems, how to scale them. And it's not a very glamorous thing – that's why I consider it one of the purer disciplines.

"It was just less corrupt … scalability just means people think hard and work them out to tackle really tough big problems. And I think this practice and all the little tips and rules that we have about it are the real contribution that technology will make – with one of these principles of using as little technology as possible. "

Terraformation also develops software tools – such as a mobile app that helps catalog and monitor seeds. But the really critical technologies involved, solar and desalination, are very much at the "tried and tested" end of the technical scale ("very, very reliable and sophisticated").

Wong points out that a key development for solar and seawater desalination is related to the system economy – with falling costs, which enable scalability and thus speed.

When asked if Terraformation is a company in the typical startup sense, Wong says it was founded in a known way – as Delaware C Corp – but only because he says it's just the quickest way to get around to work. It would be far too slow to do things as a non-profit, he says, describing it as a "non-profit" (rather than a company with a for-profit mission).

Aka: "It is a company with investors, but primarily it is about solving climate change."

Startup investors of course often place their money on the chance of a quick and fat return. But not here, confirms Wong. "When we got the funding, all of our investors were investing mainly because they wanted to see climate change solved," he tells TechCrunch. “For many of them this was the first time that a plausible, comprehensive solution to solving climate change was presented.

“It's still very, very difficult. It's very, very big. It's really daunting. But it is the first time that someone has mapped out a path that could actually lead us there. And so all of our investors have invested because they want to see it. "

So how will a “non-profit” start-up (even with $ 30 million just paid in) get their hands on enough land to plant enough trees? A variety of ways, per wong. (Perhaps, in some cases, landowners could even pay to turn their dirt into beautiful woodland.)

“The short answer is everywhere we can!” He adds. “The solution is structured in such a way that we have maximum flexibility because we can use a large variety of properties. We don't want to rely on any particular landowner – and I use this very broad term to mean like people, communities, governments, communities – we don't want to rely on a particular landowner to work with us or leave us reforest the land because you cannot guarantee that. "

He also notes that Terraformation's plan to address climate change is based on "worst-case scenarios" – where "no one who owns land that receives enough natural rainfall for forest restoration allows him to to reforest it ". "We are using the least valuable land – essentially deserted, degraded land," he adds. "Is that enough? And it turns out that there is one. "

While personal financial gain is clearly not a priority for Terraformation's investors, Wong still believes that as a by-product of the spread of leafy goodness across the planet, it can unleash much "value" compared to funding greater exploitation.

"It turns out that solving climate change is indeed a great value-adding act," he argues. “My experience in Silicon Valley is that when you have people who believe in you and believe that what you create is ultimately value-adding, then it is actually wealth-creating. If you're doing something that's basically very, very valuable and you're right by it, there is some way you can monetize it. You will gain some of that value for your shareholders. So it's a bet that if you can really solve climate change that is very valuable, both to the world and to the entity that is [investing]. ”

Of course, climate change is more than just a problem; it is an existential threat to all life on earth – one that affects humans and every other living being and thing on the planet.

In light of such endings, reversing climate change should be the top global priority. Instead, people have hesitated and put off dealing with the rise in atmospheric CO2 and worse (for example, cutting down existing forests like the Amazon rainforest).

Against this background, Terraformation's answer to mankind's greatest crisis looks convincingly simple. His bet is that climate change can be remedied by scaling the most tried and tested technology (trees) for capturing carbon emissions. Who can disagree?

But it also seems to be clear that the afforestation must go hand in hand with a mainstreaming of nature conservation as the prevailing social attitude if the mission is to be fulfilled – otherwise all these beautiful baby trees could only fulfill the same sad fate as all already lost forests the earth.

Nevertheless, nature conservation is something that Wong's team deliberately does not focus on.

Not because they don't care. Rather, your hope is that as the baby forests are built, the protective partners will come – to watch over the trees and extract value from them as they grow.

"I don't want to make it seem like we don't care [forestry conservation]but I'm trying to find out where people are already working and things are already moving in the right direction – and then working on the thing that other people don't work, ”he says when we ask about it. “When I speak to people in forestry, there are many, many people working to prevent deforestation and help solve the broader socio-economic problems that lead to deforestation. And so I have the feeling that the dynamic is moving in this direction – so we have to work on this other topic that other people are not working on. "

Wong also argues that forests are inherently more valuable than the stripped debris / scrub they replant – implying that mere economic interests should help these baby forests survive and thrive well into the future.

The history of mankind shows, however, that an unequal distribution of wealth in a resource-rich natural environment can have all kinds of devastating consequences. And people living in poverty like a rural setting, on or near land that terraformation hopes for replanting, are disproportionately more likely. So if, roughly speaking, these forests cannot provide “value” to their local communities, the risk is that the same cycle of short-term economic damage will rip all that hard work (and hope) all over again.

The inequality of wealth is the core of the counterproductive environmental destruction by mankind. So, from this perspective, reforesting the planet can take just as much effort to tackle the broader socio-economic fault lines of our world – root and branch – as washing, sorting and storing seeds, watering seedlings, and caring for and planting seedlings .

And that exacerbates an already massive climate challenge. But here too, Wong is secretly hopeful.

“People don't cut trees because they are bad, they cut trees because they have to earn a living. So we have to offer them ways of making a living that are more valuable than cutting the trees. I think recognition is moving in the right direction – so I'm hopeful there, ”he says.

When asked what keeps him awake at night, he also has a clear answer ready – one that we have often heard from a new generation of climate activists like Greta Thunberg, whose future is irrevocably dependent on the effects of climate change: humanity just doesn't move fast enough.

“To do this we need to improve both speed and scale by an order of magnitude – which is technically one thing we know but one of the most daunting things you will ever try. So … are we moving fast enough? Are we doing enough? Because time is running out, "warns Wong.

“The time frame remaining is very small compared to the planetary extent of the problem. And that's why I think that we can only get there with proven solutions that move and grow at an exponential rate. "

“I am [hopeful],” he adds. “I'm a big fan of people who work together. People really can. I am very i guess what you would call pro-human. We have a lot of weaknesses, we fight a lot, but I really think that people who work together can do really amazing, amazing things … trees gave us life and now it is time to repay that debt. ”


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Source References: TechCrunch » Startup