For Allison Wolff, the 2018 wildfire season in California marked a turning point. During that record-breaking year, she started asking a lot of questions.
"We were in the middle of the 2018 wildfire season, with the Carr Fire, and what I thought at the time was the worst season ever," Wolff said. "I started asking lots and lots of people — climate scientists I’d worked with, land managers, utility leaders, insurance leaders — why is this happening so catastrophically? What does the future look like? And what can be done about it?"
Out of those discussions was born Vibrant Planet, a public-benefit startup that is developing Land Tender. It’s basically SaaS for forest management, something the company calls an "operating system for forest restoration."
As wildfire season once again takes hold in the American West, Vibrant Planet told TechCrunch exclusively that it has raised a $17 million seed round led by Ecosystem Integrity Fund and The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.
"I quickly realized this is a climate-related issue," Wolff said. "Land management is a big part of the problem, of course, because even if the climate stayed stable, we’d still be losing a lot of forest. But climate change is definitely exacerbating it big time," she said.
"We just need to do this — we need to restore forests faster, and they might make it through climate change, and they might help us survive climate change."
Valia Ventures, Earthshot Ventures — backed by Laurene Powell Jobs and Tom Steyer — Cisco Foundation, Halogen Ventures, and Day One Ventures also participated in the round. The startup’s previous backers include Meta chief product officer Chris Cox and Netflix’s former chief product officer, Neil Hunt, who later joined Vibrant Planet in the same role.
Vibrant Planet offers access to a range of datasets, with the centerpiece being a lidar map of the state of California. Lidar is incredibly helpful when it comes to mapping forests in 3D and determining their fire risk, but it’s not a panacea. Dense forests, which often represent the greatest fire risk, are hard to map from top to bottom, so the team has trained a machine-learning algorithm to fill in any gaps.
And since lidar is expensive to fly, the company uses another AI tool to keep it updated using cheaper satellite imagery. (All of this comes with the caveat that the data generated by the AI tools is speculative — you can’t “enhance” with 100% accuracy, no matter what police procedurals say.)
The company sells Land Tender via per-seat licenses aimed primarily at land managers who work for federal agencies — think Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and so on — as well as stakeholders who have interests in the lands they oversee. Those stakeholders might include fire chiefs, land conservation groups or nongovernmental organizations that advocate for wildlife preservation.
The platform, which is focused on wildfire-adapted forests, will be available for users across California by the end of the year and in other Western states where demand materializes throughout next year. The company said it can add additional regions or countries depending on the availability of lidar data.
Within the platform, users can prioritize their objectives, like fire risk, endangered species conservation or water quality. They can then run analyses to determine how different landscape treatments — say, mechanical thinning or a specific regimen of prescribed burns — will affect their priorities.
At $3,500 per seat, Vibrant Planet’s offering ranges from being competitive with annual pricing for ArcGIS, the industry-standard geographic information system, to less expensive depending on the types of ArcGIS extensions a group might spec to meet their needs. The main difference, though, is that the company includes a host of data that ArcGIS users would otherwise have to find on their own, plus what sound like some clever collaboration tools. For some groups, that might not add value, but for others, it’ll offer significant time savings.
Land Tender grew out of Vibrant Planet’s consulting for the North Yuba Forest Partnership, a group of nine organizations that was developing a forest management plan for a 275,000-acre watershed northwest of Lake Tahoe. The startup then tested an early version with the Truckee River Watershed Council, which is currently planning resilience projects across the 330,000-acre Middle Truckee River watershed that runs out of Lake Tahoe down to Reno and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe's Reservation. By August, Vibrant Planet said Land Tender will be used across all of the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Tahoe National Forest.
The second plank of the startup’s business model is to provide data and analysis to develop carbon credits — also known as carbon offsets — but Wolff wasn’t ready to reveal much about that yet.
Vibrant Planet has recruited heavily from the ranks of universities and government agencies, building a team of about a dozen ecologists, foresters and geospatial experts. It has also drawn engineering talent from a range of Big Tech companies, including Facebook, Lyft and Netflix.
For Wolff, that was all part of the plan. “I had many people in my kind of listening tour tell me, ‘How do we rally people in Silicon Valley? How do we get the best technical people that are helping sell ads on Facebook focused on building solutions for climate?’” she said.
At the time, fires were raging throughout the West, so the issue was on the top of many people’s minds. Plus, having Hunt on board with his decades of experience didn’t hurt when it came time to pitch them. “It’s been pretty easy to recruit top Silicon Valley talent,” Wolff said.