This first part of the extended conversation with Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed, is mostly about how he and the company arrived at the point where they fly swarms of 8-foot diameter drones precision planting 60 pounds of carefully packaged seeds over multiple fire-scorched acres faster and sooner than other programs permit.
Canary’s history involves education in LA, followed by Turin, Italy, followed by Bogota and rural regions of Colombia. It includes time spent growing insects for animal feed and working globally for the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer. And he recommends one of my favorite books, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Sustainability is the thread that binds this diverse life together, along with things that have wings. A high-school teacher led Canary to climate change and environmentalism. Canary decided to devote his life to the highest orders of problems to work on. From his perspective, none of the people working on other major problems will have more time on the clock if we fail to address climate change.
His first degree was an undergraduate in sociology, but this didn’t lead in an obvious direction. Canary went to Torino, Italy for a fascinating educational program at the Politecnico di Torino, Italy’s oldest polytechnic school, one established in 1859. The program featured a week each with multiple scientists, stepping through every presentation that they’d made in the mode of Socratic dialogue. Subjects included integrated aquaponics, recycling t-shirts, and bio-digester experiences from around the world. This led to Canary working hard to get into a good project, and JP Morgan was involved in major carbon credits efforts. Then the Colombian Las Gaviotas project called. It was a major reforestation program under way in areas formerly occupied by FARC guerrillas, but they wanted to turn the pilot into something scaled by a factor of 10. Canary worked on the economics of how much would it cost to put 20,000 people in the region for months, it was proposed, and then the president of the country rejected it as it would cost so much as to likely destabilize the economy.
Canary stayed in Colombia, finishing his MSc Engineering at Universidad de La Sabana, and founding a company. His Spanish wasn’t strong, and he’s still humble about it, but he finished an advanced degree with all lectures in Spanish.
His startup, Biosystems, spent three years learning how to effectively feed food waste from grocery stores and the like to black soldier flies, whose larval stage is high in proteins and fats, then cook them and turn it into animal feed. The insight was that a lot of oceanic calories was turned into fish meal for the process and their modeling suggested it could rise from $600 per ton to $2,500 per ton, making insect-based protein a commercially viable product. In fact, it did reach over $2,000 per ton. The firm stood up a factory with Vietnamese equipment and four research teams from the university, and published an influential blog of its findings and process. At one point, every major player in the industry was referencing Canary’s blog and findings, leading to a Canadian firm, Enterra, eventually acquiring Biosystems.
After Canary’s time integrating Biosystems into Enterra, he shifted gears and went differently global with Vestas. A three-day, zero-sum game hiring process was taxing, but he cleared the hurdle with 34 other hires into the program. They sent the new people all over the world on 8-month rotations. Canary started out in Portland, Oregon in the sales team, an easy slide into the program. The next stop, however, was Beijing under the VP of construction, where he was responsible for clearing out a storage yard with a massive collection of surplus unused wind turbine components, a legacy of the often challenging and incomplete key performance indicators of China’s transformation. He was rotated out before the Olympics and its massive air clean up measures, so he experienced the full extent of China’s coal-fired air quality programs, something he credits with giving him a head start on understanding the variance in climate impacts globally.
He was enthused about China’s tree planting program, something covering an area size of France with over 38 billion trees by 2018. It had been started to reforest areas stripped of trees by Mao-era policies, and to assist in cleansing northern China’s air. Canary considers it to be absolutely what the world needs, and as for its downsides of monoculture and other challenges, his mantra is “Don’t talk smack about anything people are doing to solve climate change.” He thinks that the repurposing of 60,000 of China’s army as tree planters is the kind of thing the US should be considering, with the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers likely more useful as a climate change adaptation force than many of the things that they do today. His perspective includes not only China’s Great Green Wall, but a similar project in Africa, and the Great Plains Shelter Belts during the Dust Bowl in the US in the 1930s, a Roosevelt initiative. And he’s concerned that some of those lessons from the US’ past are being lost as massive farming organizations maximize acreage at the expense of trees.
But despite running a tree planting company, and having worked on a massive tree planting program in Colombia for JP Morgan, Canary doesn’t claim to be an expert on trees. In his words, DroneSeed, and hence Canary himself, are good at integrating the expertise of a lot of people from different areas. This includes military drone experts, people with PhDs in silviculture, people with masters degrees in post-fire ecology, people from the nursery sector, and of course people from the software sector. DroneSeed knits together a lot of expertise to put the right seeds in the right places with the right protection as quickly and efficiently as possible, and Canary defers to the experts in his organization.
The conversation shifted to how he decided on megadrones dropping seeds. The Art of the Start is another book Canary recommends. He spent a bunch of time crafting ideas rapidly and putting them in front of people. Time after time he was shot down, and told not to waste the next five years of his life on the subject. Finally, there was the inevitable conversation with a friend in a bar where they told him that he was going to end up as a dirty hippy, planting trees.
A light bulb went off, and he started exploring the world of tree planting in the United States. Colombia had a much more developed program than any in the US, but the ground was flat. In Canada, it’s students who plant trees. In the US, it’s H1B visa entrants from south of the border. Tree planting wasn’t an easily automatable process even a decade ago.
Early efforts involved dumping seeds from helicopters or bombing areas with one- to two-year-old seedlings dropped out of C17s, both of which involved massive wastage and lost seeds. As Canary asks, how do you prevent it from being a big squirrel buffet? Seed is a valuable resource, and there isn’t enough of it. Fires are destroying trees faster than seedlings can be grown in the US right now. Canary talked to many technical innovators who had tried everything over the preceding decades, including a 1970s seedling machine gun prototype.
The problem statement that DroneSeed has solved is how to avoid shocks to the seeds or seedlings, how to avoid predation, how to get them in the right place, how to get them there quickly, and how to keep them from drying out. Hence, precision agriculture from drones.
And hence the first check from the a small group of angel VCs who shared Canary’s vision.
In the second half of the discussion, Canary and I talk a lot more about the drones, the process and the challenges, along with the unique FAA certification DroneSeed has to fly swarms of 8′ diameter hexacopters weighing over 100 pounds out of line-of-site of the two operators. Stay tuned.