Origin Story Interview W/ Topher White, Rainforest Connection & Squibbon

Origin Story Interview W/ Topher White, Rainforest Connection & Squibbon

Brighter Future

 / 

Mar 22, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #usingtechtoprotect #savetherainforest #wildlifeconservation #protectnature #rainforestcx #RainforestConnection #ConservationTech #DeforestationPrevention #BiodiversityProtection #WildlifeConservation #ClimateInnovation

Brighter Future

We’re joined by Topher White, who will be telling us about his journey as founder of Rainforest Connection, a non-profit dedicated to helping to protect and preserve forests and their biodiversity.

Thank you so much for being with us, Topher. Do you think you could tell us a little more about Rainforest Connection?

Rainforest Connection is a non-profit tech startup founded in San Francisco in 2012, where we’re still headquartered. Our mission is to build technology to help local groups worldwide protect their areas from illegal logging, poaching, and other threats. We also aim to study remote ecosystems using sound, with devices called “guardians,” placed in treetops, that capture the sounds of a given part of a forest 24 hours per day. The sounds are either processed on-site or streamed to the cloud for analysis. If we hear anything suspicious, we send alerts to local groups to intervene and stop any illegal activity. We rely on three fundamental approaches: technology that can function in remote and rugged areas, strong relationships with local NGOs and tribes, and a strong science team that can extract valuable information about ecosystems based on sound and other indices.

That’s extremely interesting. Where is Rainforest Connection active?

We’re a global organisation, and we’ve deployed in over 34 countries. In the past year alone, we have expanded to 19 new sites. In some countries, we have only one project; in others, we have a dozen or more. The size of the areas we work on can range from small reserves of several hundred hectares to tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of hectares.

Initially, we thought starting an organisation in Silicon Valley would be the best place for a tech startup, but we've found that the best people are based worldwide. For a long time, a lot of our work required us to go to these places and work with local groups, but increasingly we're able to hand off a lot of that deployment and work to local people on the ground.

What led to the creation of Rainforest Connection, and where did the initial idea originate?

Rainforest Connection started because I volunteered at a gibbon reserve in Indonesia. I met a French guy there nicknamed Chanee (which means “gibbon” in Thai) who had become one of the world's most amazing gibbon conservationists. He’d moved to Indonesia to take care of gibbons and run a reserve in Borneo to try and rehabilitate them.

While I was in the reserve one day, I stumbled upon illegal logging just a short walk from a ranger station. Rainforests are flooded with sound— it fills your experience— and lower-level sounds travel well through the forest, so it gave me the idea to build a device that could detect illegal logging using sound. In a natural context, the transmissibility of lower-frequency sound helps animals communicate through vast distances, but for our purposes, I thought we could listen to the noise of machinery. I pitched the idea to Chanee, who ran the reserve, and he encouraged me to build it.

Developing the software took about a year, because I was drawn away from the project to help with a new startup. Our first test of the technology was in 2013, and after about six or eight months of dedicated development, we were ready to build a team and scale.

As time passed, I discovered that the greater use of my technology was in slowing climate change by stopping deforestation, rather than just supporting law enforcement.

What impact did slowing climate change in your business culture have, and did it affect how you approach business?

I always wanted to make a meaningful impact on climate change, and this felt like the right time to focus on it. In the beginning, it's always a challenge to figure out the significance of your actions— not just for yourself, but for a startup. At first, every startup is a mix of trying to build something useful and making people care about it. Focusing on climate change is a great way to do that.

And deforestation was shockingly serious for climate change. The numbers all added up in ways that didn't even seem possible. None of our collective work on electric cars and clean mass-transit counteracts the carbon released from deforestation. Even worse, it turned out that most deforestation was caused by illegal logging.

These facts may have been concerning, but they were encouraging as a clear indicator that our startup had a role to play, and that it would have a real impact. Every startup looks for a reason to exist and make a difference on a larger scale.

All that said, it's important to note that tackling global issues such as deforestation is a messy and long-term process. Startups are certainly happy for positive attention and traction, but it takes years of work to make a real difference on a large scale. The attention we received may have helped get us started, but it took us years to figure out how to make a real impact.

What led to your decision to start a business, and what past experiences gave you the confidence to pursue it?

I was excited, at least in part, for the chance to make a difference personally. I’d worked in a large lab where my contributions didn’t seem to matter very much, so it meant a lot to me to go to Silicon Valley and see how these little ragtag groups could build things using cloud computing and open-source technology.

Developing companies with cloud and open-source technology made it possible for many more startups to get going, so there was excitement around that. The great thing about open-source technology is that it makes it possible to take a bunch of available tools and mix them right out of the box, instead of building your own tools from scratch. I felt I had an opportunity to attack a significant problem with great technology and make a huge difference, which was inspiring.

Rainforest Connection is ten years old, but you now have another project in mind.

Building Rainforest Connection over the past few years has been very successful for the communities and scientists who have used it as a kind of lab for various experiments. But now we want to introduce public audiences to our platform and allow them to experience the beauty and challenges of the rainforest, and connect with that for themselves.

Toward that end, we created the Rainforest Connection® Player, which binds any user to the forest by live streaming the sounds directly to their home, office, or any location.

But it hasn’t seemed to catch on. The Rainforest Connection® Player hasn’t effectively built the personal connection that would encourage our listeners to change their habits related to climate change. In light of that we created Squibbon, a more focused startup that aims to engage people in climate change using our technology. Its mission is to help people understand why nature matters, not only from a scientific perspective but in a more creative and relatable way, such as through pop culture and art.

Getting people to understand the value of nature, especially if they’ve maybe not been exposed to it very much, is extremely valuable. What would you say is the most fulfilling thing in your work?

While building Rainforest Connection, I spent four years trying to set up the infrastructure and partnerships to make it happen.

Working with the local people on the ground was hard, but extremely fulfilling. We were serving indigenous groups, NGOs, and local communities, trying to fight off things that were sometimes very dangerous and harrowing, such as assassinations and kidnappings.

As we added to Rainforest Connection, we had what felt like a great chance to use our technology to discover new worlds in the rainforest and share them with scientists and the public. A friend of mine, Dr Andy Whitworth, compared our technology to the invention of the telescope which allowed people to see the biological and physical world much more deeply. Similarly, Rainforest Connect opened up the world of the forest to many people.

That’s fantastic. Do you think you could talk about any business failures you may have experienced?

Failure, even minor, is a part of any startup. But in our case, those failures might involve the destruction of the forest, a partner being harmed, killed, kidnapped, or even just us let down in our partnership. It reminds me how much this work truly matters to me. It’s the knowledge that we’re there to serve a purpose.

Ultimately, every nonprofit, especially us, has to find what we’re good at. It wasn't going to large funders and trying to get them to support us; it was based on project revenue, marketing our story, and understanding that we had access to things that no one else did.

Our strongest funding partners were often corporate donors and the general public, as they recognised the true value we provided. Without their support, we may not have been able to continue our operations.

Discussing what you do is crucial for getting feedback. However, the more you talk about your work, the more you may lose motivation to do it. Communicating about your work and receiving positive or negative feedback can create a psychological effect that makes you less motivated to continue building it. I'm not suggesting that startups should focus solely on selling themselves, but rather that they should focus on demonstrating their work rather than just talking about it.

With Rainforest Connection, have you ever changed direction in planning the company's future?

When we started Rainforest Connection with Kickstarter, we tried to find a narrative that resonated with people. We sold the idea by saying that Rainforest Connection was a combination of smartphones and trees. It was a great way to quickly convey what we do, but it wasn’t perfectly precise— it could’ve been more accurate.

By 2020 we’d moved away from using smartphones and trees in our work, but the public still largely associated us with that. From the outside, it may have seemed like a significant pivot, but it was just an evolution of our technology. We regret the narrative, in retrospect; our marketing team still has to deal with people asking about smartphones and trees on a daily basis.

Using new and untested technology in the rainforest is risky and expensive, and can have severe consequences for protecting people and the environment. While we initially believed that the rainforest would be a good laboratory for new technology, we quickly realised it was not practical. So instead, we shifted the focus to developing through reliable technology, even if it's less exciting or innovative. It allowed Rainforest Connection to have a more significant impact and to focus on serving its partners.

As a founder, it’s crucial to understand that the company cannot always be everything you want. While it’s important to be stubborn and push for what you believe in, you have to be able to recognise when something isn’t working.

Innovation and high-stakes implementation in the field can sometimes go poorly together, and it is essential to prioritise what is best for the company and its mission. It may mean some of your ideas or goals for the company may have to be put on hold for a while, but it’s important to make decisions that will ultimately benefit the company and its mission in the long run.

What was the biggest “Aha!” moment in your life?

The Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, and my move to France to work on climate change issues, made me realise the narrative of activism. My “Aha!” moment was feeling that future generations will not judge us as harshly for our mistakes that affect them, as long as there are no catastrophic mistakes like nuclear war. The slow-moving changes that we are facing now, while still important, may not be seen as such a significant part of our history in the long run. Instead, future generations will judge us more on our expressions and creations rather than our mistakes.

We need to work on things like climate change and human rights, not because we fear being judged but because we believe them to be the best expression of our capabilities.

The way to solve our problems is to invent more things that give access and elevate people who don't have the same access.

For example, we want to fight climate change. A lot of Einstein-level geniuses can’t reach their full potential because they’re stuck in poverty and unable to move beyond day-to-day survival. Instead of fearing what we are losing, let's focus on what we can create right now.

That’s pretty powerful. We might be much further along today if the brilliant people in the world’s disadvantaged places had the safety and security to achieve their visions. When you set up Rainforest Connection, what were your biggest challenges?

Starting a nonprofit and building technology to address a cause, such as deforestation, comes with a unique set of challenges. In our case, we had to figure out if the technology we were building would work, and if it would address the problem we were trying to fix.

This included solving practical issues like building a device that could withstand being placed in the forest, creating a device that did not need constant power, and being able to process data on the device rather than relying on the cloud.

Once we were able to meet these technical challenges, we had to ensure that the data we were collecting was being used effectively. It included making sure that alerts were reaching the right people on the ground and that there was a predictable response to the data. We have found that while technology plays a vital role in addressing deforestation, the difference maker is ultimately in how the data is used, which often comes down to the actions of individuals.

That’s such an interesting problem. Were there any other problems you’d like to talk about? Did anything go wrong in the process of building your company?

In many ways, everything was a failure for a long time. The situation on the ground was already dire and dangerous, and our technology needed to be more developed to solve the problem entirely. Additionally, the people who used our technology could only handle a few different iterations of the technology itself, so it was hard to improve the technology through trial and error.

But there were moments of success. When we successfully deployed our technology, it proved itself able to stop illegal logging. Despite that, it took us years to recreate this success and impact, and our constant challenge has been replicating this success everywhere we’re active.

In terms of specific failures, there have been many mistakes along the way, including needing to fully understand the context in which we were operating, having the right partnerships in place, and requiring the right technology or resources to address the problem entirely.

It is important to hire and choose the people you work with carefully, as how you spend time early determines how much time you have left to accomplish your goals.

Creative ideas are also needed when determining the market fit, or how to make a product work. You want people who can align and give energy to the team rather than having different sides pull in different directions.

Our entire technology stack is built upon mistakes. We discovered that streaming audio out of the forest was not the most efficient way to accomplish our goals, but by making it that way, it became the basis for the entire organisation's activities and was leveraged to achieve more— working to solve the problem of illegal logging, for example.

What drove you to embark upon this entrepreneurial journey? Did any media or people influence your path?

An entrepreneurial journey combines thrilling and humbling experiences, with maybe more humbling moments than thrilling ones. In Silicon Valley, many people are talking about startups, but what sets startups apart is their ability to look at things differently and adapt.

The co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, who is known for his anti-establishment views, often says that every great startup is based on a secret that others might not see or think is a dumb idea but that the founders believe can be made to work. The best secrets are often the ones that are right in front of everyone but are overlooked by others.

Our secret was that we were streaming audio from the field and using artificial intelligence to make our startup stand out. We improved and diversified our product offerings by constantly listening to and gathering data. This unique approach allowed us to gain a competitive advantage in the market.

What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you made to get to where you are today?

Our testing ground was often in remote areas of the rainforest, where we learned that people cared a lot about and wanted our product, but the question was, did it work reliably enough to solve the problem we were trying to solve?

It required us to build a team, sell the product, and spend a significant amount of time in the forest, often 11 months out of the year and in different countries every two weeks, trying to get things to work and pull them together.

These learnings and lessons were necessary for us to build an understanding of the problem and how technology should or shouldn't work. But it also meant that we had to give up a lot— not just in time, but also in our personal lives and relationships.

It's important to feel good about the time spent working on something, but it can often take three to five times longer than you’d expect.

It's hard to find work worth great sacrifices, but when you stumble upon a problem worth giving everything up to address, it's a special experience. As a repeat entrepreneur, these thoughts often come to mind. It's not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it's definitely a special one.

With Rainforest Connection and your new project Squibbon, what future are you envisioning, or hoping to help create? What are you hoping to help build with these projects?

There is a growing global awareness of what is happening on Earth and the impact of human actions on the environment. Despite advancements in AI and technology, we still have a limited understanding of the lives and behaviours of other species. Biomimicry has been successful in using the lessons of nature in hardware design.

Still, we need to focus our attention next on eco-mimicry, which involves understanding the relationships between organisms and the impact of human society on the environment.

Rainforest Connection has done a good job of using sound to understand and address sociological issues in the forest, and the same AI technology can be used to study the interactions of animals beyond humans. Even better, sound is a powerful tool in combination with AI. It lets us pick out details that our senses can’t detect.

But even with these advancements, we still need to move faster to address the pressing ecological issues of our time. The next 10 to 30 years are potentially the most important and interesting from an environmental standpoint since humans have existed on Earth. We must capture and study this unique moment in history. The pressure on biodiversity and wildlife is unprecedented, and new and unexpected behaviours emerge during times of change and stress.

Because your work is so concentrated on preserving the biosphere, how do you feel about our species’ attempts to combat climate change? And how did you feel about COP 27?

The idea of everyone coming together to solve the problem is an appealing narrative, but progress is made through messy and creative individual efforts. The United Nations has conducted an interesting exercise where they bring together a group of people and ask them how love relates to solving climate change. The responses often involve the idea that love will help us work together and create revolutions, but this is different from how problems are usually solved.

Instead, solutions come from a variety of sources and evolve. People are worried and scared about climate change and may push for top-down solutions— but it’s not necessary for every country in the world to work together to address this issue.

Every country should be able to address climate change independently, and many already are. There will be no single hero or group of heroes that will solve the crisis of climate change. Instead, a cultural shift in society will be uncomfortable but ultimately necessary for survival.

Is there any advice you might like to give to young entrepreneurs just starting a climate startup, or people who are considering building a business in the climate space?

The climate space is particularly tricky when addressing issues and finding solutions. It's important to focus on building and solving a problem that is close to you and is something you can understand and relate to. However, climate change can be more complicated because our lives intersect with climate change in many ways, such as energy and transportation.

It's important to remember that others will be disproportionately affected by climate change but have more power to address it than we do. We should try to help them by understanding their issues and working with them.

It means finding the people who can make the most difference in climate tech and trying to solve their problems, realising that these issues may change over time.

Climate change is a complex issue involving both state and corporate actors. It's easy to point fingers and ask who is responsible for causing it and who has the power to stop it. But solutions to address climate change are not likely to come from a single source— they’ll probably be messy, and could involve many different approaches, like a combination of renewable energy, nuclear power, and conservation efforts.

Ultimately, addressing climate change will require a cultural shift among humanity towards adaptation and understanding of how to live differently. This change will be messy and may not have a clear outcome, but it will be necessary for the survival of our planet.

Instead of debating over what is the right or wrong solution, it's important to allow for a diversity of approaches. Climate change solutions don't have to be grand or large; they can also be local and small. For example, a single family protecting 1000 hectares of forest can have a greater impact than a team of six at a clean tech company. It's important to remember that only some solutions need validation or recognition to make a difference. Every solution counts, and we should give them a shot.

The most important thing is to focus on creating something that can be seen and understood in the future, something that future generations will appreciate or envy. We don't need to overthink or over-engineer everything; sometimes, the best ideas come when we are open and receptive to inspiration.

It's important to take the time to listen and realise that what we say doesn't matter as much as what we create. That is the true meaning of being alive.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about your projects. We hope Rainforest Connection will continue to safeguard people and places in the Earth’s rainforests, and we wish you the greatest success in your future endeavours with it, as well as with Squibbon!

If you would like to find out more about Topher and the Rainforest Connection, you can find them at www.rfcx.org

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