Vibrant Planet — which is creating an “operating system for forest restoration” — comes as a pleasant surprise, and not one I expected.
Climate tech, while relatively new, has settled into two camps: hardware and software. And while Vibrant Planet is definitely a software play — from its cloud focus to its per-seat licenses, it’s SaaS through and through — its end goal is different from many others.
The startup, which this week announced a $17 million seed round, isn’t just trading carbon credits or providing carbon accounting software. It’s trying to tackle a very real and very hard problem — how to first save, then restore, the world’s damaged forests.
Having been trained as a landscape ecologist, I’ve grown somewhat cynical that forest conservation and the free market can exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. From a markets-first perspective, forests tend to be either exploited or forgotten.
Yet Vibrant Planet clearly thinks there’s an opportunity in helping the world manage a multitrillion-dollar asset.
A landmark paper from 1997 estimated that forests provide $4.7 trillion worth of annual economic benefits worldwide, including fresh water, lumber, nutrient cycling, erosion control, and climate regulation. While there’s no truly global way to adjust the dollar figure for inflation, it’s basically equivalent to 15% of global GDP.
When it comes to moving the transportation sector over to EVs, commercial fleets are probably some of the lowest hanging fruit. More often than not, they have consistent routes, reserved off-hour parking, and cost a lot less to drive and maintain.
But for many commercial operators, EVs are still a wildcard. Gagan Dhillon and Andrew Blejde co-founded Synop to minimize the unknowns and accelerate the adoption of EVs in commercial fleets. In an exclusive with TechCrunch, the company today announced a $10 million seed round led by Obvious Ventures and joined by Wireframe Ventures, Congruent and Better Ventures.
“The electrification of transportation is a massive undertaking, especially with companies operating large fleets,” said Andrew Beebe, managing director at Obvious Ventures. “Synop is addressing the biggest, hidden infrastructural barriers for companies looking to make and manage that transition seamlessly.”
Fleet operators, Dhillon and Blejde found, have a lot of questions that need answering before they’ll jump to EVs. “How do you prolong the life of this vehicle, of this asset? And then how do you operationalize the day-to-day of that asset? Where does it need to be? What time does it need to charge? How long does it need to charge for and on the back end?” Dhillon said. “All of that is orchestrated through the Synop platform.”
One of the company’s first customers is Highland, an electric school bus fleet provider based in Beverly, Massachusetts, that raised a $253 million Series A round in early 2021. The company offers bus fleets through a subscription model that includes charging infrastructure, operating electricity and maintenance. Synop is working with Highland to optimize charging and routing.
But it won’t be just school buses on Synop’s platform. Dhillon and Blejde are designing their software to work with virtually any vehicle type and manufacturer. “We want to build something that’s vehicle class-agnostic, so from Class 2 to 8 on the commercial vehicle side,” Dhillon said. “We also want to build something that’s use case-agnostic. You can bring an electric semi to Synop for drayage use cases — we’re having folks bring electric garbage trucks, which is really surprising.”
The company is also working on a feature to manage vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, connections. EVs have long been viewed as a potential asset for grid managers, one that they might pay handsomely to access. EV batteries plugged into the grid could help stabilize the flow of electricity in instances of equipment failure or downed power lines, giving grid managers time to respond with more durable fixes. They can also help offset peaks in demand. All of this gives fleet operators an opportunity to monetize their assets when they’re not in use.
But no one who owns an EV — especially fleet managers — wants to wake up to find their vehicle’s battery depleted at the moment they need it most. “Our software is going to help you as a fleet operator optimize when to push [electricity] back [to the grid] because you don’t want to discharge your battery at 4 a.m. and then not have any state of charge for a route that you’re supposed to run at 7 a.m.,” Dhillon said.
Blejde said that Synop is collecting and analyzing data to help optimize EV usage across different fleets. But it’ll also keep a customer’s data separate if they request it.
Synop can also help fleet managers decide which routes are ripe for electrification. “Give me 100 of your routes, and then let’s figure out the road map for electrifying them,” Blejde said. “We ingest the data, we look at the route, we can give a confidence interval for how electrifiable it is, and then give that answer to customers [to] get their vehicles on board and help them operationalize them.”
The goal, Dhillon said, is to help electrify and manage commercial fleets so that operators can realize all the potential cost savings that electrification can offer.
“Most of the competition today is building a very vertical approach where they want to go into it with just their products and not have support for interoperability,” he said. “We ultimately feel like the big opportunity in this space is for somebody to create sort of this neutral software layer for commercial electric vehicles and chargers.”
“We’re trying to position ourselves as you know, for lack of a better term, the plumbing of this industry,” Dhillon said.