We’ve had plenty of reasons for grave pause in 2020, not least of which were the record-setting series of wildfires that ran ablaze in countries across the globe. The world witnessed countless examples of climate change exacerbating the intensity of this natural phenomenon: from the raging bushfires in Australia to the conflagrations that swept through California and blotted its skies in a Martian haze. Unlike other symptoms of climate change which remain abstract in the minds of many, the sheer intensity of this year’s fires served as a visceral reminder of the perils of a worsening climate.
The Ranch Fire burning in the hills of Azusa, Calif., east of Los Angeles in August. (PHOTO: Apu Gomes/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
One of the benefits of hosting MCJ’s Startup Series is the chance to get to know a wide range of founders and learn about the diverse climate startups they are building. Overstory is a great example of this. Its CEO & Co-Founder, Indra den Bakker, gave a wonderful presentation on the show about how his company is addressing the threat of wildfires by making electrical utility infrastructure more resilient. Having delved into the company’s mission, which holds the opportunity to avert catastrophes that threaten lives, communities, ecosystems and billions in infrastructure, we became convinced that Indra and his team were a company to back. In addition, the traction the company has made both commercially and in terms of executive talent has only bolstered our confidence in its future. Today, we’re pleased to announce our investment in Overstory.
Featured: Indra den Bakker, CEO & Co-Founder of Overstory
What is Overstory?
Based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Overstory addresses the risk of wildfires caused by defects in utilities’ electrical infrastructure. It does this by providing electrical utility companies with advanced satellite monitoring and AI-driven risk forecasting, enabling them to apply their vegetation management resources more effectively and efficiently. You can learn more about the company by viewing the MCJ Startup Series interview with Indra below.
Why Did We Invest?
From the moment we interviewed Indra on the Startup Series, it was clear he had a unique blend of technical competency, a deep understanding of the problems faced by utilities, and an elegant solution. With a background in business mathematics and informatics, Indra spent his early-career as a data scientist with a focus on predictive analytics and modeling. With his co-founders, Anniek and Roelof, he incubated the business at Techstars Lisbon, an accelerator with a cross-industry focus on sustainability. Since then, he and his team have served a long list of utility clients in Europe, secured financing for growth, and recruited experienced talent.
Addressing a Cause of Wildfires and a Major Liability for Utilities
As reported by the Yale School of Environment, over the past 35 years, wildfires in the U.S. have been increasing in frequency, severity (acres burned), and cost. While the causes of wildfires are many, there have been documented cases, including the 2018 Camp Fire, where faulty transmission equipment has been attributed to sparking the blaze. The Wall Street Journal reported that a worn metal support failed, causing power lines to drop and ignite the fire. As a result, PG&E, the state’s largest utility, set precedent by pleading guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and declaring the most substantial utility bankruptcy in U.S. history. Exemplifying the scope of the threat with this one provider, the California Public Utilities Commission has classified over half of PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area in Northern and Central California as having a high fire risk. In addition to the damages incurred by the utility, there were many towns that were destroyed and residents displaced or made homeless. The cost of containment and clean-up alone swelled into the billions of dollars.
An Efficient Solution to a Labor-Intensive Problem
To date, utilities rely on methods of vegetation inspection and management that are time and labor-intensive, costly, and ultimately inadequate. They have involved on-the-ground surveying, helicopters, and even drones; with each of these methods, human capital is required for months at a time.
Overstory provides continuous monitoring of forested lands by using satellite imagery and AI to reveal high-risk areas for fire. This information can be used to dispatch vegetation maintenance teams with precision and efficiency. The company can reduce inspection time from several years to, in some cases, days. Compared with existing methods, Overstory’s inspection cost, based on satellite data and AI, is a fraction of the cost of utilities flying and operating helicopters or drones. And because it enables frequent and precise monitoring, the company can deliver savings between 15 - 30% for overall vegetation management costs.
Recruiting Talent & Expanding
While it is based in Europe, Overstory understands the risk wildfires pose to utilities and surrounding communities is one not bound by international borders. As such, it has ambitiously expanded to supporting utility clients both in its home market as well as in the U.S. It has also attracted attention from forest management organizations who have applied its technology to monitor the health of forests. To facilitate market expansion, it has recruited top talent. One such hire is Fiona Spruill, Overstory’s Chief Product Officer, who formerly served as the COO of Meetup and prior to that as an editor at The New York Times.
We strongly believe that Overstory is well-positioned to mitigate the environmental threat wildfires pose to industry, ecosystems, and communities. For that reason, we’re excited to support the team as it tackles this destructive symptom of climate change.
The Wall Street Journal: “California Utilities Hope Drones, AI Will Lower Risk of Future Wildfires” (PDF)
Fiona Spruill: “Why I'm Joining Overstory”