Former New 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 development is notable as yet another example of innovation made possible by technology that builds on, amplifies or measures the power of nature — it’s an emerging subcategory of climate tech some experts have dubbed “nature tech.” I like to think of 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 during 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 can be used to describe a broad range of applied and information technologies all focused on this goal — helping scale nature-based solutions to climate change. Those who are exploring and developing the category further split nature tech into four categories:
- ecosystem and biodiversity monitoring mechanisms enabled by satellites, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors, DNA testing and other scientific approaches;
- deployment solutions, such as drones, for reforestation or ecosystem restoration;
- verification approaches, often based on blockchain and artificial intelligence, that can 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 new 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 help demonstrate the degree of permanence,” she said, underscoring a primary benefit of nature tech solutions.
She added, later in our conversation: “Nature tech is really going to be a critical accelerant for bringing nature-based solutions to scale.”
The early pioneers of nature tech
Chances are, you’ve already heard about many ventures taking up the nature tech mantle.
Consider the aforementioned Evolved By Nature, which raised $120 million in Series C funding in June. It falls under the nature tech category of “deployment” — because its approach uses principles of biomimicry, biology and chemistry to call upon nature to help eliminate the use of fossil fuels-derived products.
The startup’s product, Activated Silk, can serve as a replacement 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 benefits to the agricultural lands and communities in which they are 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.
Another example of a company using technology on behalf of nature is Living Carbon, which is genetically modifying poplar trees to sequester more carbon and concentrated metals, such as 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 more than $142 million, which has an active 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 simple label, such as Terraformation, which is using solar panels, desalination and native seeds to reforest desertified microsystems in places such as Hawaii. Terraformation this week announced a relationship with Eden Reforestation Projects, self-described as 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 most active — and probably the largest — categories of nature tech centers on monitoring, reporting and verification. This includes satellite ventures, as well as blockchain and artificial intelligence services sprouting to monitor 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 global platform that plans to provide operational-level data for first carbon projects starting in early 2023. Many entrepreneurs are chasing this space.
Another 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, along with celebrities including Serena Williams, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia DiRossi.
Elsewhere, you’ve probably heard of Planet Labs, founded 12 years ago by three NASA scientists, which is working with many high-profile companies including financial services firm Moody’s, which uses the service to analyze ESG risk data. The company estimates that its satellites capture up to 30 terabytes of data on a daily basis. One example of how its technology is used to protect nature stems from the company’s relationship with Organic Valley, which is using the satellite images to measure pasture health on dairy farms.
Other measurement-focused startups mentioned in 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 other two categories — which hinge on verification and connection — are in many ways tangential to the broader universe of measurement solutions. “Increased processing power, better 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. “This will increase confidence in the robustness of nature-based solutions.”
Among some companies worth watching in the verification and connection categories are NCX, creating 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 many of these verification and information sharing solutions are crucial for more investments to flow into nature tech. In particular, the authors suggest, nature tech could play a critical role in connective stakeholders — such as the Indigenous communities that are stewards to more than half of the world’s biodiversity and the financial institutions interested in financing protective or regenerative projects.
But it’s not a panacea: “Many of the most vulnerable people in these ecosystems don’t necessarily have access to basic technology,” the authors write. “Nature tech is no replacement for meaningful stakeholder engagement and traveling out to local communities to engage with people — in their language — and to understand their needs.”
That said, according to the World Economic Forum, an estimated $44 trillion of economic value — more than half of the world’s GDP — relies on nature. That’s a fact more corporations — and the White House — are just beginning to comprehend.
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 in the foreword of the Nature4Climate white paper, that’s another reason investing in solutions that meet the nature tech job description makes sense both financially and for the sake of the planet.