Natural success: Forestry data startup moves to N.J. as it takes next steps in growth

The seed of Jerseyan Peter McHale’s forestry data startup was planted when he overheard a colleague, Matthew Carpenter, discussing his chess-playing robot.

Naturally, McHale was building one, too. The self-professed robotics geeks had their own visions for the best way to autonomously advance pieces on a chess board.

Today, they’ve got a singular game plan for a novel business model: The use of artificial intelligence tools similar to those used in self-driving vehicles to capture and process the data hidden in forest canopies. In their view, the idea could boost the timber industry’s bottom lines while also addressing climate change.

Their company, Gaia AI, which was spun out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently had its young operation move from Massachusetts to New Jersey. They’re bringing the backing of investors with them, after recently concluding a $3 million pre-seed funding round.

McHale, who during his interview with ROI-NJ was in Sweden, visiting with some of the largest timber companies in the world, said the industries rooted in the forestry sector are excited about what the now Newark-based startup has to offer.

“The key to the whole strategy for us is that we need to partner with large companies to make sure we’re building the right thing,” he said. “We don’t want to be those engineers alone in a room, doing what we think is cool — but, when we go out to sell it, no one cares and it’s not creating value. So, we’re taking an iterative approach with customers.”

What the company is actually deploying, as soon as next year in a pilot program, is a backpack — equipped with light detection and ranging technology, or LiDAR, which has come to be associated with autonomous vehicles — paired with a platform that McHale expects to one day be the world’s largest forestry data platform.

Along with those backpacks, drones and computer vision tools will be used to automatically collect data on forest life. Gaia AI’s web application can from there be used to analyze the equipment’s measurements.

“That’s automating for experts tasks like hugging a tree with a tape measure, which are just wasting time,” McHale said. “(The platform) also extracts out meaningful metrics and insights in a matter of hours, rather than weeks.”

The equipment itself can map out the kinds of trees in a forested area and their exact location. The startup’s leaders tout that this method offers both better measurements, as well as lower costs when compared to more traditional approaches to mapping forests.

Besides providing a way for timber companies to ascertain the potential timber content in an area, the company’s platform is marketed as helping in other decision-making. Some examples might be determining where there’s a benefit to thinning and where endangered forest life reside that might need protecting.

“We can also process out the insights needed to solve the most important problems in forestry right now, for example, the forest fires that are raging in the world,” McHale said. “That could include where there should be fire lines, where a line of (cut vegetation) is created to protect against fire spread, or where there should be controlled burns.”

There are other features of a changing climate those in forestry are monitoring, such as bark beetle populations that haven’t been dying down during warmer winter months in some areas, McHale said. Those insects are a major threat to pine and fir trees.

“So, really, we’re building something a timber company can optimize for more than their timber output,” McHale said. “Organizations can also use these tools to optimize for their carbon impact and make the forest that much healthier.”

McHale and Carpenter, Gaia AI’s co-founder and former member of the chess-automaton brain trust, are excited about that component of what their solution can do.

“We’re just really determined to have this be something great for customers and clients — and also the planet, too,” McHale said, adding that “the next year for us is going to be very critical, as we prove out that we’re a healthy company that can create a lot of value for an industry.”