Twenty-six million acres of Australia burned in the recent fires that swept the continent. Large tracts of the Amazon have gone up in flames recently. In America, an average of seven million acres burn each year, up from 2.7 million acres back in the 1990s. And here's the even more worrying news: It's going to get worse

Thanks to the climate crisis, not only are massive fires set to become more frequent, but thanks to the intensity of the burns, they're set to get more destructive too. The result will be millions of acres of scorched earth topped with forests struggling to grow back. One startup is using the latest tech to help mother nature recover more quickly. 

Robots versus superheroes 

Washington-based DroneSeed was founded by serial entrepreneur Grant Canary after he left his previous startup, also in the sustainability space. Looking for a way to have a positive impact on climate change, he prototyped a handful of ideas, all of which went exactly nowhere. Feeling discouraged, he complained to a friend in a bar about his troubles, only to have his friend jokingly reply, "I guess you'll just have to plant trees then." 

A light built went off, Canary tells Inc.com. How are forests replanted after a blaze, he wondered, and could an entrepreneur armed with the latest tech do it more efficiently? 

The answer to the first question is that forests are generally replanted exactly as they were decades ago. Hard-working folks trudge up and down mountains armed with a shovel and a bag of seedlings. Grant calls them "freaking superheroes," and for good reason. Each human planter expends the equivalent of two marathons' worth of calories a day. That means few stay in the job for long, and there are natural limits on how fast they can work. 

Tech should really be able to do better, Canary thought, and DroneSeed was born. The company uses swarms of large drones to map a burned area down to the inch and select specific spots promising for planting. Then the drones drop specially designed "seed vessels" filled with not just seeds targeted for that ecosystem, but also nutrients and other supports to help more of them grow (these vessels are proprietary and Canary was cagey about discussing their exact contents). 

As a result, DroneSeed can plant trees six times faster than human planters, and as they use seeds rather than one or two-year-old seedlings, they can swing into action far sooner after the flames die down.  

More trees grow back faster, capturing more carbon, helping keep the climate under control. Trees alone aren't the solution to climate change. Even a trillion trees wouldn't be enough to fix the problem unless we also reduce emissions and explore other solutions. But they're the most readily available and downside-free way we have to suck carbon out of the air

"We're going to need a bigger boat."

All of which is simple enough in theory, but as Canary explains, putting the idea into action meant clearing a series of giant hurdles. The first was getting FAA approval to fly such large drones (each carries a 57-pound payload), and to fly them in swarms of up to five at a time. After a nail-biting application process, DroneSeed was the first company granted such approval in a series of decisions in 2017 and 2018.

Retrofitting existing drones to actually do the job presented another challenge. "It's kind of like taking the body of a Civic and putting in your own engine, your own everything. The only thing that's left is the aluminum exterior of the car that came from the original manufacturer. That's basically how we build our drones," Canary offers as a metaphor. 

To overcome these obstacles, DroneSeed sought support, first receiving a small investment from the Oregon Technology Business Center, then attending Techstars Seattle, and finally raising a $3.7 million round led by Social Capital and Spero Ventures, for a total of $8 million raised, They now have contracts with three of the country's biggest timber companies, as well as the Nature Conservancy and tribal entities. Companies that help businesses and consumers offset their carbon emissions are another pool of potential future customers. 

DroneSeed sees plenty of demand for its services, but that presents its own challenge. "I would equate it to the movie Jaws, where they first see the shark and they're like, 'We're going to need a bigger boat,'" Canary says, laughing. 

"We have the customer interest, and it is in very large acreage numbers, and so basically [our biggest challenge is to] grow to those numbers," he explains. "We knew the shark was big conceptually, but now we're physically and experiencing the size of the shark." 

A recruiting trump card

One aspect of growth, however, is less challenging for DroneSeed than for many startups: recruiting. Finding great people is never easy, but DroneSeed has one advantage that has made it easier. No hype needed, they really are changing the world. 

"We have something that few companies can offer, which is a realistic opportunity as a small team to make a dent in climate change," Canary says. For those folks who are highly motivated by the impact of their work (and surveys suggest that's a large group, particularly among the young), DroneSeed has an appeal that's hard to beat. 

"We don't win on salary. We don't underpay people but we're trying to stretch out VC dollars as much as possible. Our secret sauce is mission," he continues. That mission has enabled DroneSeed to poach talent even from behemoths like Amazon. 

"We have everyone from people on assembly lines to software engineers to pilots for the aircraft that are coming from the movie industry or the military. We have an incredibly diverse team and we're super proud of that," Canary says of his 40 employees. 

Canary is keen to stress that "the goal is to 'yes, and' this," praising human planters, the nurseries growing their seedlings, and other startups working on various approaches to mitigate climate change. Everyone has a role to play in combating a problem this vast. DroneSeed's approach is simply "another tool in the toolbox," he says. 

But swarms of robot drones rapidly replanting our scorched earth sure seems like one very cool tool. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated how DroneSeed's drones distribute "seed vessels" to plant seeds in burned areas. The drones drop the seed vessels.

Published on: Feb 27, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.