Former Recent York Giants football player and “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan in early September launched a skincare line including beard wash, shaving products and moisturizer formulated and manufactured by Evolved By Nature, a Boston-based biotechnology startup developing petrochemical replacements formulated from natural silk protein.
The event is notable as yet one more example of innovation made possible by technology that builds on, amplifies or measures the ability of nature — it’s an emerging subcategory of climate tech some experts have dubbed “nature tech.” I like to consider these technologies as either mimicking the Earth’s ecosystems or focusing explicitly on accelerating natural systems’ inherent ability to regenerate. There have been literally dozens of funding and partnership announcements related to this space through the past month alone, if my bloated inbox is any indication.
As suggested by a white paper published this week by the coalition Nature4Climate, the term nature tech could be used to explain a broad range of applied and knowledge technologies all focused on this goal — helping scale nature-based solutions to climate change. Those that are exploring and developing the category further split nature tech into 4 categories:
- ecosystem and biodiversity monitoring mechanisms enabled by satellites, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors, DNA testing and other scientific approaches;
- deployment solutions, corresponding to drones, for reforestation or ecosystem restoration;
- verification approaches, often based on blockchain and artificial intelligence, that could be used for accounting and disclosure; and
- applications and software that helps create marketplaces for nature-based solutions, connecting them with would-be investors or buyers.
“We see these technologies as strengthening the case for nature-based climate solutions,” said Shyla Raghav, co-founder and chief portfolio and partnership officer for media organization Time’s recent CO2 initiative, still operating in stealth mode. Raghav was one expert who provided input for the white paper, for which I contributed the foreword. “They assist reveal the degree of permanence,” she said, underscoring a primary good thing about nature tech solutions.
She added, later in our conversation: “Nature tech is absolutely going to be a critical accelerant for bringing nature-based solutions to scale.”
The early pioneers of nature tech
Chances are high, you’ve already heard about many ventures taking on the character tech mantle.
Consider the aforementioned Evolved By Nature, which raised $120 million in Series C funding in June. It falls under the character tech category of “deployment” — because its approach uses principles of biomimicry, biology and chemistry to call upon nature to assist eliminate the usage of fossil fuels-derived products.
The startup’s product, Activated Silk, can function a alternative for certain petrochemicals in skincare or that act as protective coatings for leather and textiles. Meanwhile, the mulberry trees grown to feed the silkworms provide regenerative advantages to the agricultural lands and communities through which they’re planted. The substance itself helps displace a petrochemical alternative. The Michael Strahan skincare line is using Activated Silk 33B, a polypeptide that naturally boosts skin barriers.
One other example of an organization using technology on behalf of nature is Living Carbon, which is genetically modifying poplar trees to sequester more carbon and concentrated metals, corresponding to nickel.
Also falling under the deployment category of nature tech is a series of drone startups focused on helping scale reforestation or ecosystem restoration including DroneDeploy, backed with greater than $142 million, which has an energetic practice focused on forestry management; DroneSeed, championing “rapid” reforestation; Dendra Systems, focused on managing land and biodiversity restoration; and Sentera, which supports agronomists with decision-making.
Other ventures defy a straightforward label, corresponding to Terraformation, which is using solar panels, desalination and native seeds to reforest desertified microsystems in places corresponding to Hawaii. Terraformation this week announced a relationship with Eden Reforestation Projects, self-described because the “world’s largest nonprofit restoration organization.” Under the partnership, Eden will use Terraformation’s seed banking technology to cultivate nearly 160 biodiverse, native seeds for projects in Kenya and Mozambique.
One of the vital energetic — and possibly the most important — categories of nature tech centers on monitoring, reporting and verification. This includes satellite ventures, in addition to blockchain and artificial intelligence services sprouting to watch and manage more precisely the carbon-sequestering services of forests, agricultural land, wetlands and the like.
The nonprofit Ctrees, led by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Sassan Saatchi, launched a worldwide platform that plans to supply operational-level data for first carbon projects starting in early 2023. Many entrepreneurs are chasing this space.
One other oft-mentioned startup attracting substantial investments is Pachama, which uses data from sensors, satellites and other data collection resources to measure carbon sequestered by forests. Its $55 million Series B funding included investors Future Positive, Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital, together with celebrities including Serena Williams, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi.
Elsewhere, you’ve probably heard of Planet Labs, founded 12 years ago by three NASA scientists, which is working with many high-profile corporations including financial services firm Moody’s, which uses the service to research ESG risk data. The corporate estimates that its satellites capture as much as 30 terabytes of information on a each day basis. One example of how its technology is used to guard nature stems from the corporate’s relationship with Organic Valley, which is using the satellite images to measure pasture health on dairy farms.
Other measurement-focused startups mentioned within the white paper include NatureMetrics, a U.K. company that measures biodiversity; forest monitoring and management software firm Treemetrics; and carbon intelligence and reviews service Sylvera.
The opposite two categories — which hinge on verification and connection — are in some ways tangential to the broader universe of measurement solutions. “Increased processing power, higher algorithms, machine learning and wildly available data, make it possible for nature-based carbon projects to be monitored and credited at greater scale,” note the white paper’s authors. “It will increase confidence within the robustness of nature-based solutions.”
Amongst some corporations price watching within the verification and connection categories are NCX, making a forest carbon marketplace; Nori, developing a platform that rewards farmers for carbon sequestration; CarbonStack, developing local afforestation projects; and Taking Root, a forest restoration organization explicitly centered on smallholder farmers.
The white paper argues that a lot of these verification and knowledge sharing solutions are crucial for more investments to flow into nature tech. Particularly, the authors suggest, nature tech could play a critical role in connective stakeholders — corresponding to the Indigenous communities which can be stewards to greater than half of the world’s biodiversity and the financial institutions involved in financing protective or regenerative projects.
Nevertheless it’s not a panacea: “Lots of probably the most vulnerable people in these ecosystems don’t necessarily have access to basic technology,” the authors write. “Nature tech is not any alternative for meaningful stakeholder engagement and traveling out to local communities to have interaction with people — of their language — and to know their needs.”
That said, based on the World Economic Forum, an estimated $44 trillion of economic value — greater than half of the world’s GDP — relies on nature. That’s a fact more corporations — and the White House — are only starting to grasp.
Reporting frameworks that account for corporate impact on biodiversity and nature are germinating, but there are few formal resources for those calculations and disclosures today. As I wrote within the foreword of the Nature4Climate white paper, that’s one more reason investing in solutions that meet the character tech job description is smart each financially and for the sake of the planet.