​​Forests are a multitrillion-dollar asset. Vibrant Planet bets SaaS can save them

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.

EV fleet management startup Synop steers its way to $10M seed round

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.

FDA orders Juul to stop selling its vaping products in the US

The axe has fallen for e-cigarette maker Juul.

The FDA ordered the company to stop selling and distributing its ubiquitous vaping devices in the U.S. Thursday, a dramatic end for a company that dominated the e-cigarette market and was valued at $38 billion at the top of its game.

Juul will no longer be able to sell its vapes nor its 5% or 3% tobacco and menthol-flavored pods in the U.S. without “risk[ing] enforcement action” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retailers will also be prohibited from stocking Juul products in the U.S.

The FDA’s ban against Juul come after the company failed to provide consistent evidence about the safety of its vapes and tobacco pods.

“As with all manufacturers, JUUL had the opportunity to provide evidence demonstrating that the marketing of their products meets these standards,” Acting Director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products Michele Mital said. “However, the company did not provide that evidence and instead left us with significant questions.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Juul’s Chief Regulatory Officer Joe Murillo said that the company would pursue a stay and is exploring its other options to counter the FDA’s ban on its products. The company pushed back against the FDA’s characterization of the information it provided to the regulatory agency.

“In our applications, which we submitted over two years ago, we believe that we appropriately characterized the toxicological profile of JUUL products, including comparisons to combustible cigarettes and other vapor products, and believe this data, along with the totality of the evidence, meets the statutory standard of being ‘appropriate for the protection of the public health,’” Murillo said.

The FDA clarifies that its actions don’t directly restrict individual possession or use of Juul products, though obtaining the company’s vapes and pods is about to be much more difficult for U.S.-based users.

Regulatory woes had already cut deeply into the company’s valuation, but the FDA’s actions spell outright doom for its U.S. operations. Juul competitors Reynolds American and NJOY Holdings previously received authorization and will be allowed to continue selling their own products, though the FDA maintains that tobacco is harmful and addictive even when vaped.

Vibrant Planet raises $17M seed round to grow forest restoration SaaS

For Allison Wolff, the 2018 wildfire season in California marked a turning point. During that record-breaking year, she started asking a lot of questions.

“We were in the middle of the 2018 wildfire season, with the Carr Fire, and what I thought at the time was the worst season ever,” Wolff said. “I started asking lots and lots of people — climate scientists I’d worked with, land managers, utility leaders, insurance leaders — why is this happening so catastrophically? What does the future look like? And what can be done about it?”

Out of those discussions was born Vibrant Planet, a public-benefit startup that is developing Land Tender. It’s basically SaaS for forest management, something the company calls an “operating system for forest restoration.”

As wildfire season once again takes hold in the American West, Vibrant Planet told TechCrunch exclusively that it has raised a $17 million seed round led by Ecosystem Integrity Fund and The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

“I quickly realized this is a climate-related issue,” Wolff said. “Land management is a big part of the problem, of course, because even if the climate stayed stable, we’d still be losing a lot of forest. But climate change is definitely exacerbating it big time,” she said.

“We just need to do this — we need to restore forests faster, and they might make it through climate change, and they might help us survive climate change.”

Valia Ventures, Earthshot Ventures — backed by Laurene Powell Jobs and Tom Steyer — Cisco Foundation, Halogen Ventures, and Day One Ventures also participated in the round. The startup’s previous backers include Meta chief product officer Chris Cox and Netflix’s former chief product officer, Neil Hunt, who later joined Vibrant Planet in the same role.

Vibrant Planet offers access to a range of datasets, with the centerpiece being a lidar map of the state of California. Lidar is incredibly helpful when it comes to mapping forests in 3D and determining their fire risk, but it’s not a panacea. Dense forests, which often represent the greatest fire risk, are hard to map from top to bottom, so the team has trained a machine-learning algorithm to fill in any gaps.

And since lidar is expensive to fly, the company uses another AI tool to keep it updated using cheaper satellite imagery. (All of this comes with the caveat that the data generated by the AI tools is speculative — you can’t “enhance” with 100% accuracy, no matter what police procedurals say.)

The company sells Land Tender via per-seat licenses aimed primarily at land managers who work for federal agencies — think Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and so on — as well as stakeholders who have interests in the lands they oversee. Those stakeholders might include fire chiefs, land conservation groups or nongovernmental organizations that advocate for wildlife preservation.

The platform, which is focused on wildfire-adapted forests, will be available for users across California by the end of the year and in other Western states where demand materializes throughout next year. The company said it can add additional regions or countries depending on the availability of lidar data.

Within the platform, users can prioritize their objectives, like fire risk, endangered species conservation or water quality. They can then run analyses to determine how different landscape treatments — say, mechanical thinning or a specific regimen of prescribed burns — will affect their priorities.

At $3,500 per seat, Vibrant Planet’s offering ranges from being competitive with annual pricing for ArcGIS, the industry-standard geographic information system, to less expensive depending on the types of ArcGIS extensions a group might spec to meet their needs. The main difference, though, is that the company includes a host of data that ArcGIS users would otherwise have to find on their own, plus what sound like some clever collaboration tools. For some groups, that might not add value, but for others, it’ll offer significant time savings.

Land Tender grew out of Vibrant Planet’s consulting for the North Yuba Forest Partnership, a group of nine organizations that was developing a forest management plan for a 275,000-acre watershed northwest of Lake Tahoe. The startup then tested an early version with the Truckee River Watershed Council, which is currently planning resilience projects across the 330,000-acre Middle Truckee River watershed that runs out of Lake Tahoe down to Reno and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Reservation. By August, Vibrant Planet said Land Tender will be used across all of the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Tahoe National Forest.

The second plank of the startup’s business model is to provide data and analysis to develop carbon credits — also known as carbon offsets — but Wolff wasn’t ready to reveal much about that yet.

Vibrant Planet has recruited heavily from the ranks of universities and government agencies, building a team of about a dozen ecologists, foresters and geospatial experts. It has also drawn engineering talent from a range of Big Tech companies, including Facebook, Lyft and Netflix.

For Wolff, that was all part of the plan. “I had many people in my kind of listening tour tell me, ‘How do we rally people in Silicon Valley? How do we get the best technical people that are helping sell ads on Facebook focused on building solutions for climate?’” she said.

At the time, fires were raging throughout the West, so the issue was on the top of many people’s minds. Plus, having Hunt on board with his decades of experience didn’t hurt when it came time to pitch them. “It’s been pretty easy to recruit top Silicon Valley talent,” Wolff said.

Einride to operate its cab-less autonomous pods on U.S. public roads

Einride, the Swedish startup that wants to electrify the autonomous freight industry, will begin operating its purpose-built, self-driving pods on public roads in the U.S. this year as part of an existing partnership with General Electric Appliances (GEA).

Einride’s pods are built without a front cabin for a human safety operator, which the company says required approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) in order to operate on public roads.

“Other companies are retrofitting existing trucks to become autonomous, but we are doing the opposite,” Robert Falck, CEO and founder at Einride, told TechCrunch. “We are building a brand new way to do autonomous shipping from the ground up which results in this new type of vehicle design and functionality.”

While there are a number of autonomous trucking companies running freight in the U.S. today, it’s true that all of them are currently based on existing trucks, and almost none of them are electric.

Einride says this milestone marks the first time a purpose-built autonomous electric truck has received permission to operate on public roads, however, it is reminiscent of autonomous vehicle company Nuro’s 2020 request for a temporary exemption from certain low-speed vehicle standard requirements. Nuro’s vehicles, which deliver food and groceries using public roads, are also built without space for a driver or passengers. The company therefore needed NHTSA approval to use a new type of vehicle that isn’t built with certain human-centered features, like mirrors or a windshield. Presumably, Einride’s approval is similar in nature, but the company would not confirm with TechCrunch. NHTSA also was unable to confirm this to TechCrunch, despite multiple attempts to reach out.

Einride did say that the approval is conditional upon the company adhering to a set location and timing – Einride’s pod will be operating on a mixed traffic, mile-long stretch of road between a GEA factory and a warehouse in Selmer, Tennessee beginning in the third quarter of 2022. Einride has been piloting its pods with GEA since November 2021 at the company’s fenced warehouse in Louisville, during which time Einride tested the metal of its technology in a closed facility with predetermined routes and a controlled environment.

“This new pilot will take us out onto public roads for the first time in the U.S., allowing short shipments on routes that utilize public roads as well as fenced areas,” said Falck, noting that the pod will operate between a fenced warehouse and public roads. “What we’re building with these various pilots is a clear business case of how our Einride Pods can support commercialization for customers, in a variety of environments.”

During the initial two-week pilot, the pod will carry cargo and coordinate with teams at the warehouses for loading and unloading. A remote pod operator, which Einride says is a key to helping the company’s business model become scalable in the future, will monitor operations and assist or guide when needed during critical, low-speed operations, according to the company. For example, the remote operator might assist the vehicle in backing up to a dock or waiting for workers to unload the pod. Einride says the vehicle can operate autonomously in most other situations.

It’s not clear how many runs the pod will do each day, but per the limits of its approval with NHTSA, Einride’s pod will only operate during daylight hours on weekdays, and it will avoid adverse weather and road conditions like heavy rain, snow, fog, hail or temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The pod has the ability, however, to operate in such conditions due to lidar and cameras, the company said.

Einride is also growing its footprint in the U.S. through its partnership with oat-based milk company Oatly. The two expanded their partnership earlier this month to electrify Oatly’s North American fleet with five of Einride’s connected electric Class 8 trucks. In February, Einride reportedly ordered 200 electric trucks from BYD to be used in the U.S.