How tech startups and conservationists became unexpected allies

With the help of technology, lobster fishers can now monitor what they catch via tablets
© Randy Olson

To innovate and rapidly scale new solutions to the planet’s biggest challenges, environmentalists are looking towards Silicon Valley

By Brian McPeek, President, The Nature Conservancy

At the start of each new year, many of us wake up ready and determined to take on a list of resolutions ranging from learning new languages to finally cleaning out the garage. For conservationists the list of planet-sized resolutions seems to be growing exponentially, as 2018 delivered multiple, science-based reports outlining serious risks to nature and people, urging us to make significant and rapid changes to avoid a grim future. So where do we even begin as we look towards 2019? Is it even possible to turn things around?

A major body of research led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) shows it is still possible to achieve a sustainable future for people and nature, but only if we make significant progress on the path to sustainability over the next 10 years. For this to be attainable there are a lot of variables and “resolutions” that need to be made, and at the top of my list for 2019 is empowering strong and innovative leadership in sustainability, and not just from the usual suspects. Accelerating progress will require some unexpected characters to work side-by-side with traditional conservationists. Now more than ever, we need an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Lobster divers in Belize. What they catch will then be logged and recorded using tech from one of the startups that participated in The Nature Conservancy and Techstars' Sustainability Accelerator. © Randy Olson

Who are these unexpected characters? A few weeks ago, TNC posted this list of 10 groups who can change the world in 2019. If you read it, you might be surprised to see that Silicon Valley made the list, among other unexpected cohorts (you’ll have to read it to find out). These are exactly the kinds of new champions that the planet needs. To rapidly increase progress in the field of sustainability we need an entire ecosystem of support. We need technologists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and investors working together to design and scale smart, new solutions on a short timeline.

It was with this idea, the notion that there is a need for an intersection between tech and nature, that I first sat down with Techstars co-founder Brad Feld and TNC’s CEO Mark Tercek back in 2017 to envision how the tech sector could accelerate our efforts. From there, we created the first Techstars Sustainability Accelerator, which graduated the inaugural class of start-up entrepreneurs in 2018.

The first class to go through Techstars and The Nature Conservancy's Sustainability Accelerator on stage during Demo DayT© Ben Duke

In just one year of the Sustainability Accelerator we’ve already seen smart solutions to tackle pressing challenges, like making fisheries more sustainable, quantifying the economic benefits of nature, creating better software to support battery storage for renewable energy, and harnessing the power of data to improve water quality and quantity. TNC has also initiated projects with several of the start-ups from the first class of the Sustainability Accelerator.

We’re collaborating with StormSensor, for example, to create smart urban watersheds, using their sensors to establish baseline flow conditions and measure the impact of green infrastructure. This solution provides information needed to track, predict and prevent stormwater pollution and flooding in real time, allowing cities to better manage water resources.

We’re also working with FlyWire, a company that is addressing seafood traceability by working with fishers to provide at-sea verification of sustainable fishing efforts. FlyWire has developed a low-cost electronic monitoring system that can record HD video, is linked to GPS, and can obtain quality data where there is currently no data collection. The innovation and speed of development are impressive coming from these technologists, making it very evident that we must continue to create more partnerships and bridge the gap between the tech and social sectors.

Erin K. Rothman, CEO and co-founder of StormSensor, presents at the Sustainability Accelerator Demo Day© Randy Olson

In 2019, I’m eager to meet even more tech entrepreneurs who can play a pivotal role in helping solve the great challenges facing our planet, and I encourage all entrepreneurs with commercially viable sustainable technologies to apply to our next Techstars Sustainability Accelerator class for the sake of our land, water, climate and cities. For the sake of our planet’s future.

How tech startups and conservationists became unexpected allies
The Nature Conservancy teams-up with Techstars and Tech start-ups to rapidly scale new solutions to the planet’s biggest challenges

Related Content on Treehugger.com