Over the past 4.5 billion years (give or take a few hundred million), the Earth has cultivated many perfect examples of circular economy principles — including the natural patterns through which water is withdrawn from rivers, springs, streams, lakes (and so forth) through evaporation and returned through rainfalls both gentle and stormy.
Terraformation, a climate-tech startup fronted by a former CEO of Reddit, engineer Yishan Wong, is drawing on that model to create a new unique approach to a topic that’s all the rage with sustainability professionals, reforestation. Its moonshot idea: Turn desertified landscapes and degraded land into new forests, using water supplied by desalination processes powered by solar panels and native seeds that improve biodiversity.
Wong is a vocal advocate for the simplicity of mass reforestation as a way of drawing down excess carbon dioxide, but he recognizes there aren’t currently enough arable acres to reach that 1 trillion tree goal that the corporate world has passionately embraced.
"The previous consensus was that we have 1 billion to 1.5 billion acres that get enough natural rainfall to support this," Wong told me. Combining climate tech with Indigenous forestry practices could be a game-changer, he believes. "You can restore deserts, especially if they were in recent geological times a forest."
That idea helped the venture this week close a $30 million funding round led by Apollo Projects (the VC firm founded by brothers Sam and Max Altman) along with almost 100 angel investors and institutional investors, including Susan Wu, an adviser to companies including Twitter and a founding partner of Obvious Corp., parent company of Medium.
"Massive reforestation is one of the most robust and proven solutions for carbon sequestration, as well as a fundamental, incontrovertible building block to ensuring a future for humans on Earth," noted Wu in a statement about the investment. "We can all join forces to support Terraformation — whether it be through grassroots activism, local reforestation efforts, educating our communities or through equity investment."
The startup is proving its thesis on the Big Island of Hawaii, on roughly 45 acres that Wong owns north of Kawaihae — yes, the port city where Kevin Costner set the post-apocalyptic movie "Waterworld," an apt coincidence for this essay. This corner of the island is essentially a desert, buffeted by winds and overgrazed by cattle, but just 200 to 300 years ago, a sacred sandalwood forest blanketed the region all the way down to the ocean.
Terraformation’s first demonstration facility is in an off-grid place that’s currently uninhabited, with no water and no power, according to Wong. Brackish water is pumped to a desalination system using solar energy — the largest installation of its sort — and converted to irrigate the land. The company is working with specialists from state and federal agencies to prioritize the native seedlings that are nurtured in its greenhouses, including wiliwili.
The new infusion will go toward hiring both engineers and botanists, as Terraformation seeks to scale partnerships that will see its work expand to places in Ecuador, Haiti and Tanzania. Aside from the obvious potential benefits when it comes to carbon sequestration, Wong touts job creation scenarios, including those for botanists, solar and desalination engineers, nursery operations, forest managers and so forth.
How will projects of this nature crop up?
Wong envisions a range of models, including "reforestation in a box" — an approach that would place all the resources and technology needed, such as seed banks, in a container that could be licensed by a community or corporation along with services to get off the ground (or, more accurately, in the ground).
Businesses in these communities could earn revenue from the projects through a combination of agroforestry or carbon offsets. Another scenario could see a fund invest in multiple projects, bundled together and offered to businesses seeking to address carbon emissions reduction goals. "We want many, many of them, and we want them fast, in the next decade," he said.
Terraformation’s solution illustrates the power of borrowing from nature for innovation — the process of biomimicry is central to many emerging circular economy breakthroughs.