Under the Canopy: Why We Funded Trefo

Dorm Room Fund is excited to announce our investment in Trefo, a robotic forestry startup founded by Penn Ph.D. student Steven Chen and CMU Ph.D. graduate Dr. Michael Shomin. Trefo tackles the age-old, yet critical, problem of forest surveying — an essential metric for landowners, governments, and private institutions looking to manage forests, track carbon emissions, and fight climate change. Trefo leverages autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and computer vision to extract forest metrics with pinpoint accuracy and precision. 

Forest surveying: a decades old technology

Forest surveys are both critical and necessary for timberland landowners to manage their forests. Beyond inventory management, forest surveys also play a key part in the fight against climate change — helping quantify carbon emissions, wildfire statistics, and other tangibles. 

But how are forest surveys conducted? The current state of the art involves people walking and measuring trees by hand. In fact, for the past 50 years, this manual data collection process has been the industry standard. Recently, above-canopy sensing technologies have tried to tackle these inefficiencies, but have been unable to reach manual levels of precision.

Developing a fast and efficient forest survey technology has never been more important. As evidenced by the multi-billion dollar climate innovation initiatives announced this year by both Microsoft and Jeff Bezos, more and more businesses are looking towards forest surveys to quantify carbon offsets in efforts to become carbon neutral and negative. On the other front, increasingly dire trends in large wildfire disasters (such as the Australian wildfires) have prompted government organizations to search for innovative forest fire management tools. New forest and carbon monitoring technologies are a key requirement in tackling all of these huge societal and economic challenges. 

In 2015, Steven joined Penn’s general robotics, automation, and sensing (GRASP) laboratory, and led the initial research to come up with a more efficient survey technology. 4 years later, Trefo was born. 

Trefo’s solution: UAV-based fly-bys 

Pictured is a dense 3D-map generated by a Trefo drone. Trefo uses such scans to accurately calculate timber volume and counts.

Trefo builds autonomous UAVs and sophisticated machine learning technologies to capture forest and carbon data at large scale. Trefo UAVs break through a critical hurdle in forest survey technology by flying under the forest canopy. Obtaining measurements at this level offers higher precision than above-the-canopy alternatives (e.g. satellite imagery). Their systems capture and process high-resolution data — building dense 3D maps to measure timber volume with unprecedented precision, accuracy, and scale. 

Trefo provides forest stakeholders with an end-to-end means to acquire and analyze any and all forest data, saving them significant amounts of money and time.

Why Dorm Room Fund Invested

Investment Thesis

We believe Trefo has potential to become the defacto standard data provider for the $500 billion global forestry industry with its novel UAV-based approach to surveying. 

A technical team with niche expertise

Trefo’s high-tech product requires a founding team with the vision and technical skillset to pull it off. Steven and Michael check all of the boxes. Prior to founding Trefo, Steven received his BA in Math and Economics from Northwestern University, after which he left to pursue a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the UPenn GRASP Laboratory. CTO Dr. Michael Shomin received his Ph.D at the CMU Robotics Institute and worked at Qualcomm developing autonomous UAV systems and advanced lidar perception algorithms. Both Steven and Michael helped pioneer the foundational research to make UAV-based forest surveys possible, giving them an incredible competitive edge. The co-founder duo has the unique combination of technical and business expertise to put Trefo in the position to rapidly iterate, launch, and scale their autonomous UAVs.

A “no-brainer” for the industry and clear economies of scale

Trefo data capture is significantly cheaper, faster, and more accurate than the status quo. Surveying 100 acres, or about 20,000 trees, is currently a day’s work for a standalone human surveyor. However, the same surveyor powered by Trefo technology can cover that area in a single hour. Additionally, while these current methods are limited to extrapolating volume from a small sample of tree measurements, Trefo technology unlocks the ability for a 100% census survey, measuring all 20,000 trees with centimeter-level precision. This census survey, previously unheard of due to the astronomically high costs associated with traditional survey techniques, is a game-changer for the industry. Just like supermarket managers keeping tabs on every item on their shelves, forest managers using Trefo technology will know about every tree in their forests. Automating these survey operations simply makes sense for experienced forest managers, as they can receive a premium product at a lower price point.

Long term vision and capitalization opportunity 

Trefo understands that their business isn’t limited to commercial forestry. Demand for forest monitoring will explode in coming years, meaning Trefo will be able to provide forest and carbon monitoring to private industries, government, and individual entities that need this data for other critical issues such as carbon offset trading and wildfire management. With state-of-the-art robotic systems and machine learning algorithms, Trefo will be able to provide vastly improved efficiency, safety, and comfort to all interested in forestry data. Robotics is the core technology that’ll enable forestry to grow to modern scale, but foresight for what’s ahead is what’ll enable Trefo to be at the head of the movement. 

Written by Daniel Bessonov, Dorm Room Fund Partner (Philly). Photo by David Vig on Unsplash.

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