By Claire Zhang
SilviaTerra, a forest management technology startup that participated in YEI’s 2010 Fellowship, has enjoyed its share of success. It won the $25K Sabin Environmental Business Plan Prize at Yale and was named “Most Promising Green Tech Company of the Year” in 2010 by the Connecticut Technology Council as part of their Innovation Pipeline Awards. Max Uhlenhuth (YC ’12), one of the founders of the company has been featured in Forbes as an “All-Star Entrepreneur.” Cofounder Zack Parisa (Forestry ’09) has been profiled in Bloomberg.
Along with Chad Oliver (Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale), Max and Zack are the cofounders of SilviaTerra, a startup whose “mission is to develop technology to enable superior forest management.” The company offers technology like “Timber Scout,” which uses satellite imagery and ground lots to accurately measure forest inventories, and “Plot Hound,” cruise software that runs on smartphones which allows users to navigate and collect data about forests in the field.
Max describes himself as “incurably optimistic,” and it comes through, even over Skype. He modestly notes that the company has made “a significant amount of money” adding that he thinks “for any startup, making any dollars is a good sign of success.
According to the Forbes article, this significant amount of money totaled more than $200,000 in August 2012, and was expected to reach $1 million by the end of the year, and to triple next year. SilviaTerra is also getting ready to hire their first employee, a large step for any company.
A “MANUALLY INTENSIVE” START
The significance of the business opportunity developed organically over time. Max came across the idea when he responded to a random email call for lab workers in the School of Forestry as an undergraduate. One of the graduate students in the lab had figured out a method of using satellites to determine species of trees in forest.
“He was going to publish this in his master’s thesis, and I said, whoa slow down a sec. We started running the numbers and stuff, and it looked like it could really be a business,” he said.
This student was Zack. Thus, Max, Zack, and Chad, the professor running the lab, decided to start SilviaTerra and create a product based on Zack’s idea.
“The product we came out with worked, but it wasn’t as efficient as it could be, scalable as it could be, as accurate as it could be. It was accurate enough, but we’re always trying to push the limits,” said Max.
He emphasizes that the product was “not some magical wondrous fully-formed thing,” noting that entrepreneurship is hard. The beginning of SilviaTerra “was a manually intensive process,” requiring a month or two to set up the remote sensing technology for each new area. “A lot of people think you can just put yourself in a garage for a year and build an amazing product and put it on the shelves and it’ll fly off – and that never happens.”
One of the biggest challenges that SilviaTerra currently faces is an industry that uneasily embraces change – after all, “trees aren’t going anywhere.” Max and Zack confronted the challenge by meeting with their customers individually to better understand their needs.
Max told the story of their “great southern road trip”: “Zack and I got into this tiny Ford Ranger truck and decided ‘We’re going to go meet anyone in the south who has more than 10,000 acres’. We had no plan besides getting in this truck. We would call people and ask if we could meet with them. We had really good meeting with all these guys, but we were ultra ultra low budget. We would stay in the most disgusting places, like the 30 dollar a night motels. It was just sometimes cleaner to not take a shower. It was a good time. We’re hoping to not ever have to do that ever again.”
STARTING A MOVEMENT
SilviaTerra is a company built on data. “Our word is our business,” Max said, promising to never overpromise and under-deliver. Max passionately believes in the strength of his product, and it is increasingly evident as the company continues to grow.
Max sees SilviaTerra as pioneering quantitative environmental management of renewable resources. Industries like oil, coal, and gas are extremely quantitatively sophisticated, but that level of rigor has - until now - been impossible for messy, vibrant, complicated things like forestry, biodiversity, and erosion control. “If you can change the way we interact with complex natural systems, that’s a huge thing for sustainability, and it’s a better quality of life for everybody,” he said. “Right now, we can give you better, next level data, and we can make more decisions with this better data.
“There was never really doubt in my mind that it wasn’t going to work,” he said. “The thing that’s different about this is that it’s a super real problem that people will pay dollars for right now. It’s just a categorically better solution that solves a real problem – it’s very tangible.”
SOLVING REAL PROBLEMS
This theme of solving real problems runs through Max’s experience in entrepreneurship. He points out that there is much more freedom in a startup to solve problems one is interested in, as opposed to trying to turn the “cruise ship” of a large corporation. In entrepreneurship, one can work hard to solve problems that matter, instead of working hard to make someone else rich.
For new entrepreneurs, Max encourages them to seek out older people with operating experience in industry and have them show you the challenges they're facing. It's a great way to find real, tangible problems that other young entrepreneurs are never even aware of.
“Most startups that come out of college are limited by people’s experience as students,” he pointed out. “A lot of the startups are some sort of app, some sort of online food delivery service, some sort of dating thing. They’re all very first world problems. For another thing, every other student in the world is thinking about those kinds of companies.”
His advice to would-be changemakers? “Go out there, scout some random unconventional problems, and solve them.”