A Q/A with DroneSeed
Company HQ: Seattle, WA
Team Size: 30 and counting
Focus: Put a dent in climate change by making reforestation scalable.
Tell me a little about DroneSeed?
DroneSeed provides reforestation at scale using a proprietary seed vessel and heavy-lift drone swarms (up to five large aircraft operating simultaneously). We are the first and only company approved by the FAA to operate drone swarms over the legal limit of 55lbs, and primarily work in post-wildfire environments.
Our seed vessel is adapted from nursery technology -- it’s essentially a microsite, a patch of soil a seed will grow well in. They’re a fibrous material that we amend to deter predators. When dispensed on site, they absorb moisture like a sponge, preventing the seed from drying out. We also collect LiDAR and high-resolution imagery via drone to target ideal planting locations. All of this means the seed will have the best chance to not only survive, but thrive, on a site. Our solution is designed to be copy/pasted across the globe. This extends our reach and allows us to plant more trees, faster.
Can you expand on what problem you're solving?
Planting trees is the cheapest and most effective climate solution, but with current tools it would take 400 years to replant the forest deficit. Manually planting trees is slow and back-breaking, and the nursery supply chain takes years to grow seedlings.
This is exacerbated by wildfires that are burning more frequently, and more severe. These wildfires expose the soil, making forests susceptible to invasive plants. This puts the land at greater risk for wildfire, and can require costly chemical or mechanical treatments.
Furthermore, nursery stock must be ordered 12-36 months in advance, and trees are not grown on speculation. When unexpected wildfires consume hundreds to thousands of acres per year, land managers can find themselves years behind in replanting.
Foresters need better tools. Our enhanced seed vessels eliminate the need to wait for tree seedlings to grow, and our drone swarms put them on the ground six times faster than manual tree planting.
Who are your customers?
DroneSeed’s target user is anyone who owns or manages forested land, and particularly those who have had forests severely burned and do not have the resources to replant. Clients who are environmentally minded and aligned with our mission are going to be champions of the business. These are people who acknowledge the need to do more faster, and are excited to harness the innovative technological solutions DroneSeed presents.
Our current clients include three of the top five timber companies, nonprofits such as The Nature Conservancy, and government agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
How would you describe your team?
Our team is a diverse group of passionate and innovative silviculturists, ecologists, engineers, and military pilots. We have all come together recognizing the critical need to address climate change, and share a love for the data, theory, and hands-on work necessary to grow forests.
What phase is your company at right now?
DroneSeed was founded in 2016, and is currently in its fourth year. In the last year, we’ve expanded our capacity to include two fully qualified operations crews with the necessary equipment to execute projects -- mainly six aircraft with seed vessel depositors, and a mobile charging system that includes a custom-engineered recharging truck and enough batteries capable of maintaining continuous operations.
In addition to multiple other contracts, we’ve signed two multi-million dollar two-phase federal contracts that we’ve already begun earning as revenue.
What excites you about GENIUS NY?
The GENIUS NY program has provided us excellent mentorship and a huge learning opportunity. The workshops and webinars have been fantastic, and the GENIUS team is always tremendously supportive, helpful, and all around a great group to work with -- especially during these challenging times. As a company, we’ve been looking for opportunities to expand, and the GENIUS program in Syracuse is providing us a perfect space to continue growing. It’s also really cool to meet new and talented people from around the world who share similar interests, and are equally excited about emerging technologies.
Have things changed or pivoted with COVID-19?
Yes, but we are adapting. We still continue to execute seeding projects and establish field trial sites. The seed vessel manufacturing continues to be completed in-house -- the technicians typically wear full PPE anyway, but now we have fewer people at a given time. However, anyone who can work remotely does.
For special events, we’re lucky to have a creative team that comes up with great solutions. For instance, while we formerly would host demos and shop tours in person, we have found ways to do this virtually with a person in a mask using a camera and gimbal.
How are you keeping your team motivated during COVID-19?
We have a passionate team, so it has been important for us as a company to continue the close collaboration even as a number of folks work remotely. To do this, we have virtual get-togethers that are sometimes work-related, sometimes not. For example, we have virtual site tours from the Bio and Operations teams in the field, we play online games together, have virtual team lunches, and other online social activities such as a fun, light-hearted Slack “Question of the Day.” One of our engineers even developed a special Discord channel with “rooms” that small groups of people can easily hop into, facilitating casual conversation.
How can Central New York benefit from DroneSeed?
In the immediate future, we are hiring for a GIS Specialist position in Syracuse! In the next 1-2 years, DroneSeed is looking to establish a presence on the US east coast. Our operations are designed to utilize modular squadrons that are mobile, facilitating travel from a single location. Syracuse presents a prime opportunity to be that location as an east coast headquarters. Some of our key vendors are in the east, we have a number of eastern projects in the pipeline, and the robust forestry program at SUNY is a perfect pipeline for hiring as we grow.
How would you use the $1M grand prize if you won it?
We are working towards automating steps in the vessel manufacturing process, and the grand prize would certainly help with that. We would also continue to build out our squadrons, and expand across North America and internationally. Climate change is a massive problem, so to solve it we need a solution on a massive scale, and that is what we intend to do.
*Due to COVID-19 GENIUS NY Finals Night has been postponed to September 17. On Finals Night the 2020 finalists will pitch live for a shot at the $1M grand prize. More information coming soon!