In 2017, fresh into the first year of the presidency of Donald Trump, who openly stated he didn’t believe in climate change, Silicon Valley veteran Yishan Wong looked at the future with concern. What would happen if the world failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he wondered. And was it possible to find a reasonably priced, deployable solution to at least absorb emissions?
Reforestation could be that solution, Wong imagined. The engineer-turned-entrepreneur calculated how many trees would be needed to offset the world’s emissions. And then, the early employee of PayPal and Facebook who built Reddit into an internet powerhouse during his two and a half year reign as CEO, did nothing. “Because I was not an environmental scientist, I didn't trust my math. So I just actually just sat on it,” Wong tells Forbes. “I talked to a lot of people about it, but I just really didn't trust myself—I'm just this computer scientist.”
Four years later, Wong is founder and CEO of Terraformation, a startup which aims to help companies and countries meet the net zero carbon goals of the future through rapid reforestation. The Hawaii-based company just closed a $30 million funding round which will go towards its goal of helping restore 3 billion acres of native ecosystems using technology such as solar panel-powered desalination, which efficiently and affordably hydrates areas grown arid due to climate change or soil degradation from human activities.
It was a 2019 study by the Crowther Lab at the prestigious ETH Zurich which gave Wong the confirmation he needed to launch Terraformation. The study looked at how much land would be available for reforestation purposes across the world and how much carbon those naturally regenerated trees could capture. Wong found that the calculation the paper used corroborated his own maths. That same year, he moved his family to Hawaii and launched his pilot restoration project, Pacific Flight. The 45-acre site off Akoni Pule Highway in North Kohala had suffered two centuries of logging that destroyed the native tropical sandalwood forest, and subsequent cattle grazing had denuded the land and degraded the soil.
“When we started the project, every local botanist said it couldn’t be done, there was no way you could grow anything out there,” Wong recalls. To bring the much-needed water to this now-arid land, Terraformation built an off-grid, 100% solar-powered desalination system that produces 34,000 gallons of water per day. Within six months, Terraformation planted several thousand trees, including a number of rare and endangered species, which they claim is approximately five times faster than a typical restoration project.
“That’s what we consider the unique contribution tech can make—it’s not a magical new gadget, it’s how to scale quickly and how to scale without screwing up the thing you’re doing well,” Wong says.
When Wong first approached investors to raise seed capital for his business, he had little more than his reputation. “I didn't even have a PowerPoint deck. I had just written this [Medium] article outlining the plan from a high level and I'd done some math,” Wong recalls. But that was enough to raise $5 million to establish the business. Pacific Flight’s promising results armed Wong with more arguments to approach investors for Terraformation’s first proper funding round. He initially aimed to raise $20 million but eventually closed a $30 million round that was led by Sam and Max Altman at Apollo Projects.
"The simplest solutions are often the best ones, particularly when they have sufficient scale,” says Sam Altman, the former Y Combinator chief who served as Reddit CEO for eight days after Wong resigned in 2014. "Yishan is a bold leader. Plant more trees and let's get out of this mess.” Other participants in the round included several institutional investors and nearly 100 angel investors, such as Sundeep Ahuja, Lachy Groom, Sahil Lavingia, Joe Lonsdale, Susan Wu, and OVN Cap.
Terraformation seeks to generate revenue and help organizations offset their own carbon emissions by assisting in financing, technology, project planning, training and consulting. The company says it has so far developed partnerships with local organizations in Uganda, Tanzania, Ecuador, and Haiti, which aim to restore a total 20,000 acres. But up to a trillion trees are needed to effect real change, according to the ETH Zurich which inspired Wong. And his is not the only startup promising to grow forests to counter carbon emissions.
Ecosia, a not-for-profit search engine that uses most of its ad revenue to fund tree planting efforts in countries like Brazil and Burkina Faso, has recently launched a service that will help businesses plant trees at a cost of $1 per plant. But botanists know that badly managed reforestation efforts can do more harm than good to the environment. This is the expertise Terraformation offers.
“People would be wasting money, if they think they can just drop a seed and hope for the best. There's a lot of care required,” Paul Smith, Secretary General at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, tells Forbes. Smith is one of the authors of a research paper published earlier this year in the Global Change Biology journal that warned of the consequences of badly managed reforestation efforts and set out 10 best practices for those working in that space.
Native trees like those that Wong’s Terraformation seeks to replant can be rare to find, and therefore expensive. But seed availability isn’t the only factor that goes into pricing reforestation efforts, and Wong thinks that these have often been underpriced. “It hasn’t actually properly priced the full cost of not just planting, but monitoring and caring for the tree to ensure it reaches maturity,” he says.
While efforts are underway to properly price trees as carbon offsets, another element that Smith thinks deserves more attention is biodiversity as trees that get favored in forestry efforts tend to be those that bear fruits, and commercial opportunities. Native species won’t always deliver those short-term rewards, but bring other long-term benefits, such as avoiding soil erosion. “Unless biodiversity is monetized in some form, and that could be through governments, or that corporates who want to do something for biodiversity as well, I don't think we're going to win this this battle,” Smith warns, “We're going to continually be be planting exotics that do nothing for biodiversity can be damaging to water availability to erosion.”
Wong’s advice to corporates looking to invest in tree planting is this: “If you’re looking to purchase trees as carbon offsets, make sure that is what you’re purchasing. You can always have someone selling you something that is really low cost but isn’t actually delivering, in which case you sort of have been scammed and the world has been hurt, so that’s really bad. Make sure that the price is correct.”