Climb By VSC: Episode 5

Published November 2nd, 2022

In our latest episode of CLIMB by VSC, I’m thrilled to be joined by our friend Allison Wolff, co-founder and CEO of Vibrant Planet, a startup that leverages data-driven science and cloud technology to help make communities and ecosystems more resilient in the face of climate change.

The "Move Fast and Break Things" Approach Doesn't Always Work In Climate Tech

Jay Kapoor: Welcome to climb by VSC. Each week we interview innovative founders category experts and the most active climate investors about their perspectives, lessons, and best practices for company building and climate tech. Today, I'm thrilled to be joined by our friend Allison Wolff, co-founder and CEO of Vibrant Planet, a startup that leverages data-driven science and cloud technology to help make communities and ecosystems more resilient in the face of climate change. I'm excited to dig into how all of those are being used to help shape the future of climate resilience. Alison, thank you so much for joining me.

Allison Wolff: Thank you so much for having me. Excited for the conversation!

JK: I'd like to kick things off where you know, we ended that little intro you've had quite an interesting journey into developing technologies. Can you share a bit about your background across Netflix, Google, Facebook, and what brought you to this unique problem with Vibrant Planet?

AW: I did start my tech career at Netflix. I had come out of the branding world, doing a lot of things for brands like Nike and Sky Vodka and creating brand experiences and was hired to to run brands and marketing at Netflix, by default. There were not very many of us. And so I ended up running user experience design and really digging into product and how people use a digital product back when we and Amazon and Google were really just getting started in the late 90s After Netflix. I went into consulting first at a firm called SY Partners and then out on my own really focused for about 20 years on really how to tilt some of these massive tech platforms towards good. And so that was really what I spent 20 years doing with eBay, Google and Facebook helping with foundational sustainability strategies, partnerships, narratives and programs, building things like public health strategies, data for good launches. We had the paradise fire. Then we had the car fire and 2018 became the worst season anyone could have ever imagined in a state like California. So I started talking to people about what does the future look like? And started to understand the intersection of climate change and land management practices for the last 150 years, and how these two things are coming together in sort of a perfect storm way to create what we are seeing in the western US and Europe and Australia, more and more in places like boreal and started to see what the future looks like and it is not ready. But I also saw that there is a solution that is scalable, but that technology and science coming together was the only way that we were able to solve this problem.

JK: So you know before we get into that, group of rock stars because you do have a phenomenal team around you. Talk us through the stakeholders in this world and who Vibrant Planet is, serving maybe just give us an overview of what Vibrant Planet does today.

AW: Vibrant Planet the big gap we are filling now, really working collaboratively to develop a vision for a landscape that fundamentally changes wildfire behavior and fundamentally increases forest resilience and all the great things that come from that in terms of you know, ecosystem services like carbon water, biodiversity, recreation, you know, our lifestyle in the West is very dependent on forests and other ecotypes existing. So we really fundamentally solved for collaborative scenario planning to prioritize resources in a way that works best for most people in a landscape. But it also helps even national level. Where should the inflation Reduction Act funding get deployed at a national scale? Where can the federal government get the most bang for its buck to eliminate risk to communities and to increase forest resilience? So being able to actually track and report on that, if you if you can believe it does not happen today. And same thing, you know, up to Congress. So the USDA Forest Service has to report back to Congress was the spend for the insulation reduction Reduction Act effective? Are we kind of winning in this in this issue on you know, climate-friendly forest management and on changing wildfire behavior, so less damage is done to ecosystem services and communities.

JK: Really, really appreciate that context especially the part about actually reporting to the local communities because I feel like they're the ones that maybe, you know, get least talked about in this you know, the government and politicians obviously, are allocating dollars towards this and expect some some return but the local communities are the ones that get overlooked. What have you learned about working with these government agencies with local conservancies? As I think they're going to start to become bigger players, as we have, you know, enterprise-level climate change conversations, what have you learned by working with them?

AW: Embracing bureaucracy is needed to protect lands. It's really just a matter of using technology to increase transparency to improve communication. Yeah, a lot of it is really learning how agencies like the forest service work today, meeting them where they are, and making sure we're not disruptive in what we're creating. But we're really helping to augment or facilitate what they're trying to do anyway. But with more science, more information, and easier-to-use workflows and communication tools.

JK: The challenge I think I often see with the UN and you've been in the Silicon Valley world for many years, the “move fast and break things” approach kind of hits a brick wall when you start dealing with government. What do you think are some of the mistakes or you know biggest challenges that startups such as yourself face when they are working to serve these government constituencies?

AW: Yeah, I think the biggest issue is trust. So there have been private companies in the past who have been accused of profiting off of publicly funded data, or who are opaque and not transparent about how they are using publicly funded data to help in emergency services for example, or carbon markets. So the more open and transparent you know companies can be especially when dealing with public agencies, the more trust can be built to a partnership. So we have been especially thoughtful and working very hard to make mission and impact and sort of gift to the public sector for the public good, a big part of what we're doing.

JK: I think that the topic of trust is becoming more and more important, especially as we look at carbon credit markets, which have really come into currently, you know, front page review, and not in a good way when it comes to the practices when it comes to the attribution. What do you think is missing? Where's that credibility gap when it comes to carbon credit markets? And how is Vibrant Planet helping to solve that?

AW: Yeah, tricky question. So we Vibrant Planet are really focused on the carbon market, but as it relates to getting that restoration work funded. So it's very purposeful. We aren't just in it for the carbon offset. We're going to create a pathway for restorative work to happen and that happens not just once you don't restore the forest once you have to tend it over time. So I guess the difference between us and others is rather than coming at it from the carbon market side and we see trees that are super valuable and we want to monetize those. We're really tying it directly to actions that have to happen on the ground and financing those actions. So very different than providing a new source of revenue in a commercial tree farm context for example, for landowners, really different kinds of action happening on the ground for that carbon finance.

JK: Staying on this topic for a minute, given how many enterprises are using these credits to achieve in heavy air quotes for the audio medium, their net zero goals you know, are you seeing the winds change from a, you know, like a regulatory standpoint or, you know, like even a rating agency equivalent than the way we have in the financial markets, for there to be a mutually agreed upon arbiter of the quality of these carbon credits because right now it really does feel like the Wild West.

AW: Yeah, it very much is and you know, there are emerging players like a Silveira that is starting to step in to play that role. Mostly the carbon market has been focused on either the commercial tree farm space, and basically incentivizing landowners to keep trees for a longer period of time and paying them for the carbon benefit. So that's where it's a complicated story that we are taking on. But we have to link the carbon market to ultimately getting the fire back on fire-adapted landscapes and again, that is most forests in the world.

JK: When we talk about storytelling and narrative building. That's where you have spent a lot of your career. It's obviously what VSC does with our clients and our portfolio companies. How do you take an idea that is counterintuitive like this? I think there are quite a few counterintuitive things. When we talk about climate innovation. Things have just been done for so long to try to convince people that fire is good fire. As you know, 100% suppression policy is not actually positive. What are the tactics that you use to convince people that this is the right path forward?

AW: It's a really wild narrative challenge, the hardest I've ever had in my career. On Fire alone, we're at a point a little bit like climate change where we can choose which kind of fire you want. Do you want controlled burns and low-intensity wildland fire because we've removed fuels and the forest is healthy, or do you want catastrophic fire that burns through your town and on the way it burns up? Valuable carbon sinks and destroys water sources and biodiversity and the trails that we like to ride our bikes on. I mean it's really quite scary with the next few decades look like out here. So that's one twist right is and one of the key ways we can fight catastrophic fire is with fire. With good fire and getting people's heads around loving fire when we you know, we hate smoke we you know, it's it's not pleasant, but we have to get our heads around the fact that the fire was here first. So it's very hard when we're dealing with what's happening in the Amazon where we absolutely do not want to cut any trees we need to leave the Amazon intact. Leave it alone. It's a completely different eco-type. But we have to put trees in much of the temperate forests across North America, certainly in many places in Europe and Australia. It's very hard when you have a deforestation narrative in tropical forests to help people understand. We have to remove trees in order to save forests; then people fight it right. Understandably. So yeah, there are a bunch of odd twists in this story from a communication perspective.

JK: Yeah, I do think that what is really interesting and gives me a lot of optimism is how many people from general tech from some of the companies that you started your career at or worked with over your career are now flocking to climate innovation companies. So, talk to me a little bit about how you've built your team. And what are things that CEOs that are building in climate innovation can do to entice top talent to come and work with them on these important challenges?

AW: Yeah, it's been very interesting building this team the last few years on both sides actually. I think a lot of people have spent time in government working on these problems, and they're frustrated by how slow things move and really see the need to work inside the private sector, especially from a technology perspective to get more done faster and have more impact with things that can you know, help with these communication problems and you know, through data visualizations and the things that we're building, so it's been really interesting, people are coming into Vibrant Planet and I imagine other climate tech companies from these different sectors for different reasons.

JK: As a society as you build a company that has these two sides of the world, right folks coming in from the tech world, folks coming in from land management and agencies and conservancies. How do you manage the, culture clash may be too strong of a word, but the different vibes of these people and where they come from, how do you make sure that you're building a culture where we're sort of both sides are held, you know, climate and tech work side by side?

AW: It's been really interesting to watch the teams come to just things like shared language, even acronyms. that we use for things that we're building together. In it has not come without struggle. What's been really interesting is over the last six months, especially it's really been at this as a broader team and now 33 People for the last six months and so now that we've really got the cadence of work in the workflows established, the team is is is humming along and have worked through some of the conflicts. And now it is truly magic to watch what they are building together across science and tech. It's hard to describe but even just watching our Slack channel, with our engineers and scientists working through problems, it is literally magical to watch.

JK: Are there other challenges or other differences that you have seen coming from having worked in regular tech to now working in climate tech that you're finding that maybe you didn't realize before you got into working in climate innovation?

AW: For us? I think for anyone in the nature-based climate solution space, the timelines of working with the government are difficult and regulated. I think there's a ton of opportunity to bring technology policy and land management together. And I think that's true throughout the nature of these climate solutions, space and then just figuring out how to engage with the government. We really do need to be thoughtful about how we're approaching these problems, especially when the government is involved.

JK: Yeah. So as you've been building Vibrant Planet, you recently announced a $17 million capital raise that you did. There's obviously a lot of investor interest. In climate innovation, a lot of VCs are actively putting their hand up and saying they want to build climate-only funds. What are the things that you look for an investor and what was your hierarchy? What was important to you when you chose VCs for your business?

AW: The most important thing for us is as you can tell from our story, today we are dealing with a very complex topic. It is not a quick get. It is not an easy business. So what we've tried to look for is funders that understand that if we're successful, we will have a very big sticky business that is solving a fundamental problem that unlocks lots of downstream markets that we can participate in to get the shareholder returns that are expected by venture funders, but aren't necessarily done on the back of government back to the trust issue. And so we work to try to find the folks that really understand the problems on the ground.

JK: Yeah, one of the things that we do on the show is speak to other VC investors and I often ask them the question you know, given how long some of these climate solutions really take to get off the ground and to make meaningful change, is it is a 10-year life for a fund enough? You know, do we need to have longer fund cycles to really just take some of these companies at the level that they need? To be invested in? Most funds, I think, have not done that, they sort of stick to that 10-year model. But I'm curious from your perspective when raising capital, where do patience and sort of investors that understand these long sales cycles, where does that fit into your consideration of choosing an investor?

AW: It’s such a true statement, and we aren't sure yet how fast we become what would be a typically venerable business. And so we look for investors that understand the mission, want to ultimately have the impact that we're trying to have and also understand that if we are successful, this becomes a very big sticky business with a lot of downstream market opportunity. So we really look for investors that are you know, definitely looking at the Climate Change space. And luckily we found them.

JK: I guess where we'll start to close out, you know, the current economic slowdown if that's what we can call it, the future economic environment is on everybody's mind. Where do you think that has an impact on climate tech or maybe does it have an impact on climate tech?

AW: Yeah, it's been interesting to go through this wobbly market. We had a brief hesitation soon after our last round. Luckily, we had our run closed in May and then the market really crashed in June. And just talking to current and investors sort of surrounding us. I did feel a bit of a like, let's step back and everybody take a breath here. But it does feel to me at least and some of the investors that I talked to about this question that climate tech in particular, and especially nature based solutions has sort of bounced back and people are moving full steam ahead. Our theory of change is starting to play out, I guess, is the point.

JK: Well, you kind of led me into my final question where I'd like to close with a lot of our guests, I think, obviously unclimbed. We want to inject our conversations with that sense of urgency, but what I feel is often missing is that sense of optimism. So Allison, what is something whether it's around what Viral Planet is doing, or you're just belief in climate innovation generally? What is something that gives you a lot of optimism about climate tech and climate innovation today.

AW: This space that we're specifically in, the nature-based space, we obviously have to have a gunshot approach on everything we need. Continued innovation on moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the inflation Reduction Act is giving one more great big shove to that final transition, which is what I'm so thrilled about. So I think in our space, what drives me every day is we know what to do. The solution is powerful. It can happen right now if we move fast enough, and we can improve life on earth if we keep these systems intact, and technologies mature enough that it can actually be applied to the problem in a meaningful way to make sure we can increase the pace and scale of these restorative and protective solutions. So I just encourage more and more people to jump into the space and I feel like we just need to get this done.

JK: I love that and that is the exact kind of energy that we love to leave the show with. You've been so gracious with your time today. I think the two biggest takeaways for me is that one, a lot of the work that climate innovation climate tech companies are doing will seem counterintuitive. And so the more that you lean into it and the more that you're able to build a narrative and story around it, the more you're able to actually enact the changes that need to be done right and you position it correctly. You can either have controlled fire, or you can have catastrophic fire, you're gonna have one of those two. So pick the one that is actually beneficial. And the second lesson I think, was too many companies for too long, especially in general tech, have run away from the government and run away from government agencies and the involvement of the government, because it just slows things down. And I think there's a collective realization that some of us have had and some of us are having that that can't happen. This is change at the level that it has to happen. Can't happen without government involvement. So we're really grateful that the companies such as Vibrant Planet are here and leading the way and making that change. Thank you so much for joining us on Climb. Where can folks find out more about Vibrant Planet and the amazing work that you guys are doing?

AW: Yeah, you can go to Vibrant Then there's a contact form there. We actually answer it every day. So yeah, please get in touch if you're interested in what we're up to. And we will reach back out.

Thank you so much for reading our latest update from VSC Ventures Fund I. We're in the early days of our long and healthy partnership with all of you, so please reach out to us with additional questions on anything above. Thank you again for your support for our vision and our fund!

Vijay Chattha & Jay Kapoor

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