Every startup is trying to fix something but Terraformation is tackling the only problem that must matter to all of us: Climate change.
This is why it’s in such a big huge hurry. Its mission — as a ‘forest tech’ startup — is to accelerate tree planting by applying a startup-y operational philosophy of scalability to the pressing task of rapidly, sustainably reforesting denuded landscapes — bringing back native trees species to revive former wastelands and shrinking 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. So that at least means the mission is simple: Plant more trees, and plant more trees fast.
Terraformation’s goal is to restore three billion acres of global native forest ecosystems by scaling tree replanting projects in parallel, scaling the use of existing techniques, and working with all the partners it can. (For a little context, the U.S. contains some 2.27BN acres of total land area, per Wikipedia).
So far it says it’s planted “thousands” of trees — with live projects in North America, South America, Africa and Europe which it hopes will yield up to 20,000 replanted acres. It’s also in talks with partners about more projects that could clad hundreds of thousands of acres with carbon-consuming (and biodiversity-prompting) trees, if they come to full fruition.
That’s still a long way off the 3BN-acre-wooded moonshot, of course. But Terraformation claims it’s been able to achieve a forestry restoration work-rate that’s 5x the average already. And that’s definitely the kind of ‘gas stepping’ that climate change needs.
Its elevator pitch is also punchy: “Our mission is explicitly to solve climate change through mass reforestation,” says founder Yishan Wong — whose name may be familiar as the ex-Reddit CEO (and also a former early-stage engineer at PayPal/Facebook). “So it’s getting trees in the ground and getting faster at getting trees in the ground.”
It’s not going it alone, either. It’s just announced a first closing 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 aren’t being 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 larger than we anticipated and the idea is to get us to the next stage of planting orders of magnitude more trees every year,” says Wong. “So it’ll be used both for supporting forestry projects directly, as well as for the development and deployment of forestry acceleration products and technology.”
“The very, very nice thing about mass reforestation or mass restoration as a solution to climate change is that it’s extremely parallelizable,” he adds. “You can plant any tree at the same time as your planting some other tree. This is the primary reason why this solution can potentially be implemented within the timetable that we have left. But in order to do so we have to start and drive an enormous, decentralized reforestation campaign across multiple continents and countries.”
The funding follows a $5M seed last year, as the young startup worked to hone its approach.
Terraformation is targeting the main barriers to successful reforesting: Through early research and pilots it says it’s identified three key bottlenecks to large-scale forest restoration — namely, land availability, freshwater, and seed. It then seeks to address each of these pinch-points to viable reforesting — identifying and fashioning modular, sharable solutions (tools, techniques, training etc) that can help shave off friction and build leafy, branching success.
These products include a seed bank unit it’s devised, housed in a standard shipping container and kitted out with all the equipment (plus solar off-grip capability, if required) to take care of on-site storage for the thousands of native seeds each projects needs to replant a whole forest.
It also offers a nursery kit which also ships in a shipping container — a flat-packed greenhouse that it says a couple of people can put together, and where thousands of seedlings can then be tended and irrigated in pots until they’re ready to plant out.
A third support it offers to the replanting projects it wants to work with is expertise in building solar-powered desalination rigs so young trees can be supplied with adequate water to survive in locations where poor land management may have made conditions for growth difficult and harsh.
It goes without saying that planted trees which fail because of poor processes won’t help cut carbon emissions. Badly managed replanting is at best wasteful — and may be closer to cynical greenwashing in some cases. (Poor quality projects can be a known problem where claims of corporate carbon offsetting are being made, for example.)
Terraformation is thus zeroing in on repeatable ways to scale and accelerate the successful planting and nurturing of trees, from seed to sapling and beyond, to accelerate sustainable reforesting.
Ultimately, it’s the only kind of tree planting that will really count in the fight against climate change.
Its first pilot restoration projects begun in Hawai’i in 2019 — where it’s been able to plant thousands of trees at a site called Pacific Flight, reviving a native tropical sandalwood forest that had been logged unsustainably. To enable the young trees to grow in land which had also become arid as a result of cattle grazing, the team built the world’s largest fully off-grid, solar-powered desalination system to supply sustainable freshwater to the baby forest.
“The arid environment, high winds, and degraded soils meant that if a team could restore a forest there, they could do it anywhere,” is the pitch on its website.
The Series A will go toward spinning up lots more such native species forest restoration projects — working via partnerships, with organizations such as Environmental Defenders in Uganda, and other groups in Ecuador, Haiti and Tanzania — as well as on more R&D (additional products are in the pipeline, we’re told); and on expanding headcount so its team has the legs to run faster.
Interestingly, for a startup with Silicon Valley engineering pedigree at its core, the team’s approach is intentionally light on technology — leaning only on vital tech (like solar and desalination), rather than experimental bells and whistles (drones, robotics etc) to ensure the processes it’s packaging up for massive replanting parallelism remain as simple, accessible and reliable as possible. So they are able to scale all over the globe.
It’s clear that sci-fi robotic gadgetry isn’t the answer here. It’s sweating toil plus tried and tested horticulture processes, done systematically and repeatedly, in mass parallelism all over the world that’s required, argues Wong, whose years in tech have given him a healthy scepticism on the issue of over-engineering. (“The biggest lesson I learned was, you want to solve a big problem? You want to use as little technology as possible… Technology’s always breaking, it’s always got 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 not in fact some new invention or some gadget or some sort of special magical technology… I think it really is the practice of scalability,” he goes on. “Which is an organizational end. A management way of thinking. Because that is actually something that has been carefully and painfully developed… over the past 20 years in Silicon Valley. How to take small working solutions, how to solve very big problems, how to scale them. And it isn’t a very glamorous thing — which is why I think it’s one of the more pure disciplines.
“It just has been less corrupt… Scalability is just people thinking hard and grinding it out to address really hard big problems. And I think that practice and all the little tips and rules that we have to doing that is the real contribution that tech is going to make — with one of those principles being use as little tech as you can.”
Terraformation is building software tools too — such as a mobile app to help with cataloguing and monitoring seeds. But the really critical technologies involved, solar and desalination, are very much at the ‘tried and tested’ end of the tech scale (“very, very reliable and refined”.).
Wong points out that a key development for solar and desalination is related to the unit economics — with falling costs allowing for scalability and thus speed.
Asked whether Terraformation is a business in the typical startup sense, Wong says it’s been set up in a familiar way — as a Delaware C Corp — but purely because he says that’s just the quickest way to be able to operate. Doing stuff as a non-profit would be way too slow, he says, describing it thusly as a “non non-profit” (rather than a business with a for-profit mission).
Aka: “It’s a corporate with investors but primarily the aim is to solve climate change.”
Startup investors are of course often betting their money on the chance of a quick and meaty return. But not here, confirms Wong. “When we raised funding all of our investors invested primarily because they wanted to see climate change solved,” he tells TechCrunch. “To many of them this was the first time that a plausible, full-scale solution to solving climate change had been presented.
“It’s still very, very hard. It’s very, very large. It’s really daunting. But it’s the first time someone has mapped out a path that could actually get us there. And so all of our investors invested because they want to see that happen.”
So how will a ‘non non-profit’ startup (even with $30M just banked) get its hands on enough land to plant enough trees? A variety of ways, per Wong. (Perhaps even, in some instances, landowners could end up paying it to turn their dirt into beautiful woodland.)
“The short answer is anywhere we can!” he adds. “The solution is structured to give us maximum flexibility, given that we can use a large variety of land. We don’t want to count on any particular land owning entity — and I use that very broad term to mean like people, communities, governments, municipalities — we don’t want to rely on any one particular land-owning entity wanting to work with us or allowing us to reforest the land, because you can’t guarantee that.”
He also notes that Terraformation’s plan to fix climate change is based on “worse case scenarios” — where “no one who owns any land that gets enough natural rainfall for forest restoration will allow it to reforest it”. “We use the least valuable land — basically desertified, degraded land,” he adds. “Is there enough of that? And it turns out there is.”
Even though personal financial upside clearly isn’t front of mind for Terraformation’s investors, Wong still believes there’s plenty of ‘value’ to be unlocked as a byproduct of spreading leafy-green goodness all over the planet vs funding more extractive exploitation.
“It turns out that solving climate change is actually a huge value creating act,” he argues. “My experience in Silicon Valley is if you have people who believe in you and believe in the thing that you’re creating is ultimately value-creating then it’s actually also wealth creating. If you do something that is fundamentally very, very valuable and you’re right next to it, you will be able to monetize it in some way. You will capture some of that value for your shareholders. So it’s a bet that if you really can solve climate change, that’s super valuable, both for the world and to the entity that’s [investing].”
Of course climate change is more than just a problem; it’s an existential threat to all life on Earth — one which affect humans and every other living creature and thing on the planet.
Given such terminal stakes, reversing climate change should be the highest global priority. Instead, humans have procrastinated — putting dealing with rises in atmospheric CO2 on the back-burner and worse (cutting down existing forests like the Amazon Rainforest, for one).
Set against that backdrop, Terraformation’s answer to humanity’s greatest crisis looks compellingly simple. Its bet is that climate change can be fixed by scaling the most proven technology possible (trees) to capture carbon emissions. Who can argue with that?
But it does also seem clear that reforesting will need to go hand in hand with a mainstreaming of conservation, as a prevailing societal attitude, if the mission is to be pulled off — otherwise all these beautiful baby trees could just meet the same sad fate as all the Earth’s already lost forests.
Nonetheless, conservation is something Wong’s team is deliberately not focusing on.
Not because they don’t care. Rather their hope is that by building the baby forests, the protective partners will come — to watch over and get value from the trees as they grow.
“I don’t want to make it seem like we don’t care about [forestry conservation] but one of the things that I try to do is figure out where people are already doing work and things are already moving in the right direction — and then go work on the thing that other people are not working on,” he says when we ask about this. “When I talk to people in the forestry world many, many people are working on avoiding deforestation, helping solve the broader socioeconomic issues that result in deforestation. And so I feel like there is momentum moving in that direction — so we have to work on this other issue that other people aren’t working on.”
Wong also argues that forests are naturally more valuable than the denuded waste/scrub ground they’re replanting — implying that pure economic interest should help these baby forests survive and thrive far into the future.
However the history of humanity shows that unequal wealth distribution can wreak all sorts of havoc on a resource-rich natural environment. And people who live in poverty may well be disproportionately more likely to like in a rural location, on or near land that Terraformation hopes to target for replanting. So if these forests can’t provide — in crude terms — ‘value’ for their local communities the risk is the same cycle of short-term economic harm will rip all this hard work (and hope) out of the ground once again.
Wealth inequality lies at the core of much of humanity’s counterproductive destruction of the environment. So, seen from that angle, reforesting the planet may require just as much effort toward tackling — root and branch — the wider socioeconomic fault-lines of our world, as it will washing, sorting and storing seed, watering seedlings and nurturing and planting saplings.
And that further dials up an already massive climate challenge. But, again, Wong is quietly hopeful.
“People aren’t cutting down trees because they’re evil, they’re cutting down trees because they need to make a living. So we have to provide them with ways to make a living that is more valuable than cutting down the trees. I think that recognition is moving in the correct direction — so I’m hopeful there,” he says.
Asked what keeps him up at night, he also has a straightforward answer to hand — one we’ve heard many times already from a new generation of climate campaigners, like Greta Thunberg, whose futures will be irrevocably stamped by the effects of climate change: Humanity simply isn’t moving fast enough.
“In order to do this we have to make order of magnitude improvements in both speed and scale — which is technically a thing that we know how to do but is among the most daunting things that you ever try to undertake. So… are we moving fast enough? Are we doing enough? Because time is running out,” warns Wong.
“The timeframe that we have left is very small when compared to the planetary scale of the problem. And so I think the only way that we’re going to get there is with proven solutions, moving, growing at exponential speed.”
“I am [hopeful],” he adds. “I’m a big fan of humans working together. People can really do it. I’m very I guess what you’d call pro-human. We have a lot of flaws, we fight amongst ourselves a lot, but I really think that when people work together they can really do amazing, amazing things… Trees gave us life and so now it’s our time to repay that debt.”