SXSW Startups: DroneSeed Plants Trees

Fifty startups in 10 categories are showing off their skills on March 10 and 11 at the 2018 SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event. Winners in each category will be honored at the Accelerator Award Ceremony at 7 pm Sunday, March 11, at the Hilton Austin. The SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event takes place within the Startup & Tech Sectors track of programming. You can also network with all 50 of these finalists on Monday, March 12, at the SXSW Accelerator Demo Day, at the Hilton Austin, Salon C.

A finalist in the Enterprise & Smart Data Technology category, DroneSeed will pitch at 12:30 pm Saturday, March 10, at the Hilton Austin, Salon AB. The Seattle, Wash.-based company provides precision forestry services to timber companies and non-profits. They’re paid per acre to plant tree seeds and spray to protect them — by drone swarm. The premise of their technology is that swarms are an entirely new form of aircraft. Humans started moving payloads with fixed wing aircraft, then invented helicopters. Today, swarms of drones can distribute a payload and operate faster and more precisely — it is the difference between direct download and a torrent file (or for that matter banking and blockchain). DroneSeed pioneered and continues to build the software that allows these swarms to function.

This startup’s CEO, Grant Canary (pictured above in a Pacific Northwest forest), answered questions for this interview.

Please tell us more about your mission.
Our mission is to make reforestation scaleable. Since the 1990’s, 300 million acres have been deforested. Reforestation today is an incredibly manual process. It’s not only cost prohibitive, but labor prohibitive. Recruiting labor is extremely hard for timber companies and in reforestation projects in places like Thailand. This is because few people anywhere on the globe last long in this job. The calorie burn per day is the equivalent to running two marathons.

What are DroneSeed’s goals for 2018?
Last year we executed full-size projects for two of the largest timber companies in the U.S. We did that with one operator using our software to guide a single drone. This year our software version will allow our operators to guide multiple aircraft — swarms. We’ve done it using test aircraft and now we’ll be operationalizing it.

What is your competitive advantage?
Pragmatism. Engineering, data and survival and growth over ideology.

What inspired your team to apply for SXSW Accelerator?
We participated as a panelist for Startup Week Seattle talking about our experience with Techstars (couldn’t have better things to say about that community and culture) and getting funded with Angel List Syndicates. The event was moderated by ThinkSpace and they encouraged us to apply. Glad we did!

Has anyone on your team been to SXSW before?
Nope. We aren’t totally lame however. A few of us have street cred at another desert festival that burn things.

What is the most intriguing thing that you heard about the event?
The chaos that ensued due to rain one year! We’re from the NW. Umbrellas are taboo.

What are DroneSeed’s goals for SXSW 2018?
Understand the amazing culture that’s been built at SXSW. See what chance opportunities we can discover and capitalize on. Have fun. Find a place to dance.

What kinds of people is your team looking to meet at SXSW 2018?
We’re looking for future hires for 2019 and 2020. I believe strongly in starting those relationships now for the people we’ll need in the future. Two current team members I met a year before hiring them. Hardware and software engineers, ex-military pilots, etc.

Which SXSW 2018 sessions most excite the DroneSeed team?
There are quite a few! I’m excited about “Coal to Code: Reimagining a Disrupted Economy.” I want to hear about retraining and successes and failures. We don’t want to see the communities based on coal left behind. I also want to hear Ethereum team’s vision and The Daily Show’s digital vision.
My guilty pleasure for the event is Overwatch League’s vision.

DroneSeed is based in Seattle. How would you characterize the startup ecosystem there?
Seattle is one of the top four cities in the U.S. for startups, last I looked at deal flow. I love it and I worked for five years against the ebbs and flows of life to move here. There’s a tremendously inclusive culture being built, and a lot of energy being put in by great people and companies. I’ll plug Startup Poker 2.0, ChickTech, Techstars and Startup Week, as they should be lightning rods and first contacts for anyone thinking about moving here.

If your team weren’t involved in building DroneSeed, what would they be doing?
Our team has come together because of a mission get to a capacity where our reforestation makes a dent in carbon emissions globally. I think if we weren’t in DroneSeed, we’d have found other ways to spend our waking hours working on that mission. Personally, every job I’ve ever held has focused on for-profit sustainability: Vestas wind energy, U.S. Green Building Council, and founding a company for sustainable protein from insects for industrial fish feed (acquired).

Looking at the entire tech industry, what technology does your team think is most overrated — and how the strong presence of mega-companies like Amazon and Microsoft impact the scene?
Most overrated: The ability of tech sector giants to successfully interact with government (cough *net neutrality* cough). From what I understand, the tech sector in D.C. has virtually no presence. That’s a pretty weak position for some of the world’s most valuable companies, whose users and themselves are being affected by things like net neutrality, immigration and the electricity mix. As a tech company, we’ve built relationships with the FAA and state Departments of Agriculture, advancing their processes and integration of drones into the airspace. As a result, we’re the first and only company approved by the FAA to operate drone swarms to spray to protect trees.

What trend does your team think is most underrated?
Blockchain. ‪It’s an invention potentially as significant as the invention of modern accounting. Yes it’s surged. Yes its fallen. Forget the over-hype on price of various currencies. Watch adoption and use case.

Which podcasts does your team listen to?
Five Thirty Eight, RadioLab, ReplyAll

What do you like best about the startup experience?
Communicating the mission and sharing the execution of the team.

What about least?
Paperwork processes that clearly could be simplified.

What has the startup experience taught you about life?
More like what have poker and chess taught me about startups. Poker opened my eyes to probability-based decision-making as opposed to brute force, computational decision-making. Chess teaches the latter — trying to engineer a result by predicting every possible outcome 14 moves ahead — and I tried to make decisions that way until I was 26. Poker is the opposite. Make a quick calculation on probability, think long-term, and in a few key moments make big moves and know you’ll win and lose. Trying to see 14 moves ahead is actually impossible, slows you down immensely and creates a super high opportunity cost for each decision.

What does work-life balance look like at DroneSeed?
It’s not work if you love doing it. Be in the right job with a purpose and then everything else is just avoiding burnout with exercise, diet, sleep, art (comic books/graffiti for me), nature and great people.

Other than DroneSeed, what is world’s the most intriguing startup?
I like the Blue Forest Conservation. It is a futures market on water for dams and agriculture. from better forest management in California. Loftium is also neat — it allows down payment on a house for one-year of AirBnB of a room. Brilliant. Phenoh is the only alkaline drink out there other than green tea. Next wave after Kombucha. It has something no other drink has.

Person, company, thing or goal. What inspires your team to work harder?
SpaceX inspires. Few people can help them build better rockets. But anyone who joins that company is attached to a mission and joins a team hell bent on working towards that mission. They get the best people because anyone working there gets purpose and social status from friends and family due to the company’s mission: make humans a multi-planetary species.
It’s sad that the reason for that mission is because we’ve increased the possibilities of an extinction event so much in the last 100 years. DroneSeed is working on the sister to SpaceX’s mission: mitigate climate change (one of those extinction events).

Actors, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists— you can invite any three living people to dinner. Who do you invite and why?
First of all, I’d most like to be invited to the secret dinners between Banksy and Satoshi Nakamoto. Humor me and imagine playing them in Clue! I’d love to hear their histories without the narrative fallacy and biographer hype. I also like mysteries with endings. But, if I’m going to be inviting people myself, then here goes. First would be Elon Musk, for two reasons. (1) I want to ask him a ton of questions about how he and his team recruit for mission. It’s one of the hardest things to do in HR and they do it well. (2) I want off-the-record answers about him putting his entire fortune on the line for SpaceX and Tesla. Super captivating. It was stupid. It was awesome. Few things command as much respect. It’s like free climbing El Capitan. Next is Ben Horowitz: I want to ask him about Hard Thing About Hard Things and some of the amazing creative decisions he made writing that book. That book inspired me in tough times and fueled DroneSeed. I also want to ask him why with all his power and clout he hasn’t gotten someone to make an audiobook of one of his favorite books by Andy Grove, High Output Management. I’ll toss a gauntlet and let it be known that I’ll put my time in and read it (for a non-profit) if he can align the stars to do the copyrights with Vintage Publishing.
I’d also like to invite Jennifer Doudna. I’d love to hear her vision for CRISPR today. Finally, why dinner? I’d learn so much more playing Hold ’em with them.

What do you know now that you wish you had known before you began the startup journey with DroneSeed?
Hire people for mission alignment. That’s what creates trust. Despite disagreements, you know that deep down whatever is going on there is agreement on one thing: a desire to achieve a goal. That helps significantly in creating and maintaining trust. It’s the closest you can get to creating that family feel.

Look for interviews with other SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event finalists in this space between now and March. Startups already profiled as part of this series include 70MillionJobs, ARwall, Bluefield, Cambridge Cancer Genomics, Commutifi, DashTag, FanFood, Goalsetter, GoTech, HealthTensor, Instreamatic, Leaf, Moms Can: Code, Pawame, PolyPort, Sceenic, Switchboard, UPGRADED, USHR, Vochlea and wrnch.

Or, click here to browse the full lineup of startups for SXSW Accelerator 2018.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.

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Hugh Forrest

Hugh Forrest

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Celebrating creativity at SXSW. Also, reading reading reading, the Boston Red Sox, good food, exercise when possible and sleep sleep sleep.