Drones do all sorts of crazy things these days. They deliver pizza, snap selfies (“dronies”), and even shoot fireballs.
And in the Pacific Northwest, they fight deforestation — by shooting tree seeds into the dirt as fast as a paintball gun fires ink pellets – thanks to entrepreneurs Grant Canary and Ryan Mykita.
Last year, the seasoned eco-tech industry veterans launched DroneSeed, an innovative, Beaverton, Oregon-based forestry services startup accelerated out of TechStars. Their goal is to improve the environment by revolutionizing the $186 billion-dollar forestry industry. Specialized drones, they say, have the power to modernize reforestation, a highly time-consuming and costly process involving manual labor, helicopters, and other heavy machinery.
In other words, they want to change the game from the sky.
DroneSeed’s mini flying machines look to be up to the task. Not only do they rapid-fire tree seeds where they need to go, they also spray herbicides for invasive species, and they can quite literally oversee tree growth.
They also get the job done for what DroneSeed’s co-founders claim is about a tenth of the cost. First, the drones apply herbicides to logged land that’s coated in brush and grass that would otherwise inhibit the sprouting of seedlings. Next, the precision autonomous flyers hit their seed targets within two centimeters of GPS coordinates. Not bad. Finally, they gather digital imagery to help suss out the overall health of the trees as they grow.
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We weren’t kidding when we compared the small but mighty drones to paintball guns. They blast seeds into the ground at a whopping 350-feet-per-second. And they plant up to 800 seeds per hour, the same amount of seeds it typically takes a human to plant in a day. On a single battery charge alone, the speedy, advanced sensor-equipped drones sow an acre of earth in an hour and a half.
Pretty impressive, right? Curious to learn more, we caught up with Canary to find out what inspired him to fly into the drone business, why the reforestation industry is ripe for disruption, and the lessons he’s learned planting his own sapling startup. The conversation that follows was lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was the ‘ah-ha’ moment that inspired you to start DroneSeed?
“In 2015, I was considering my next venture. I knew I wanted to make a dent in carbon dioxide pollution. I mocked up some ideas and showed them to really smart people. They said, ‘Nope, I’d never pay for that.’ This was super useful feedback and part of the process (see The Lean Startup Methodology). Unfortunately, it was also discouraging.
So I did what most people [do] and went to have drinks with a buddy. I updated him on my dismaying weeks, and he jokingly said, ‘I guess you’re planting trees then!’ That brought up the question, how are trees planted?
Once I started looking at how manual tree planting is compared to modern agriculture, I started looking at ways to automate the process. Now, a year and a half later, DroneSeed has four employees, is funded, and is developing drones for a full suite of forestry services including spraying, monitoring, and planting.”
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What problems does DroneSeed solve and how?
“DroneSeed is paid per acre by timber companies and nonprofits to plant tree seeds, spray to protect them, and monitor their growth — all by drone. We’re innovating by providing the forestry industry the tractor it’s always needed. Just like in agriculture, the industry started with hand tools, and then came the first tractors, which were horrible, but then they got better and better.
The same is happening today with drones. Just in the last two years, drone sensors have become lightweight enough, precise enough, and cheap enough to do our work effectively.”
Why do you think replanting forests via drone is safer, more cost-effective, and more sustainable than relying on manual labor and other traditional methods?
“Tree planting is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. It’s superhero work! Each day planters do the equivalent of running two marathons in calorie burn. As a consequence, there’s high churn, and recruiting labor for tree planting or the other manual tasks, such as spraying, is a constraint to operations. This has been consistent in my discussions with both employers replanting rainforests in Thailand, as well as with timber companies in the U.S.
DroneSeed’s technology allows us to bring the power of automation to forestry. Our drones navigate steep terrain for planting and spraying magnitudes faster and safer than manual labor. DroneSeed’s success means truly scalable reforestation. It also means the conversion of many short-term manual labor jobs into long-term employment opportunities maintaining and deploying high-tech equipment.”
What challenges have you faced in launching and running DroneSeed, and how are you addressing them?
“We’ve been very intentional about which product lines we launch first and why. There were two points in the company history so far where we made big choices and I’m extremely proud of how we made them. In both cases, I asked team members to prep to debate for a position I assigned them. I played moderator.
Halfway through the meeting, I asked them to switch sides, which they weren’t expecting (the first time). Both times, we got a lot of facts onto the board and heard a lot of positions. We weighed customer input and our own mission, and gave thought as to what the future might look like. After that, we dropped our assigned positions and each discussed what we thought we should do. That process guided us extremely well, and now we are the company we are today.”
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What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned on this startup journey that other entrepreneurs can learn from?
“I learned to treat pitching and presenting like an athlete. I measured, practiced endlessly, built muscle memory, and learned to manage the physical adrenaline rush associated with public speaking and high-pressure meetings.
I’ve also learned that today the investment community is incentivized to be biased towards the simplicity and safety of software startups. Medical devices, hardware, IoT [Internet of Things], wearables, clean-tech, and social impact [startups] get less attention from investors for practical reasons.
However, the community is evolving and AngelList has been instrumental. [The website’s] Syndicates product has created the crowdfunded financing that startups have been waiting for — and [it] plays nicely with the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission]. I would recommend any startup founder look into this. I’m such a supporter that I’ve written about it a few times and am growing a community of like-minded people that like to discuss such things over on Medium.”
What’s your best advice for entrepreneurs entering the competitive tech startup world?
“Focus your company on something you’re passionate about that makes the world just a little bit better. Know that salary or a liquidation event has diminishing returns for happiness after a point. For many people, that point is the salary number of $80,000 to $100,000 per year. After that, more salary or wealth is still satisfying, but less and less so with each raise.”