Yalies win prize for demystifying forests

Counting trees in a forest has never been easier.

SilviaTerra, a new environmental services startup founded by three Yale affiliates, has won the 2010 Sabin Environmental Venture Prize — awarded by the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale ­— for a new technology that collects forest data from outer space. The start-up’s founders said they hope the $25,000 prize will serve as a springboard to attract potential customers in the forestry industry.

“The SilviaTerra team hopes that the company can eventually provide accurate information about all of the world’s forests,” founder Max Uhlenhuth ’12 said.

The concept for SilviaTerra was born two years ago when founder Zack Parisa FES ’09 was participating in community reforestation in Armenia. Parisa said he needed better data about the forests in order to conduct his research.

“With developing countries, there is not a lot of available information on the state of resources,” he explained.

Parisa invented a satellite image analysis process, now being used by SilviaTerra, to collect forest data from outer space. Together with some on-the-ground measurements, the process requires less time and also utilizes less manpower than traditional methods, which typically involve people going out to measure ground plots. This technology appears to be more successful than light detection and ranging (LIDAR) methods — which uses lasers to construct a perfect model of every tree in a forest — for collecting forest data, said Uhlenhuth, who is in charge of the company’s business development.

“Due to the proximity of the trees, efforts [to use LIDAR] have proven unsuccessful,” he said. “SilviaTerra is on average much more accurate.”

A single analysis using SilviaTerra’s image analysis technology can cover up to 500,000 acres — an area slightly more than half the size of Rhode Island — providing information about the number of trees, the size of the trees and how many of each species there are. SilviaTerra does not analyze any spaces smaller than 10 acres.

The founders said they plan to use this money toward funding the business. SilviaTerra has worked closely with Jim Boyle GRD ’94, the director of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, who has assisted in writing of a business plan. Founder Chad Oliver GRD ’75, the Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has provided connections with key players in the forestry industry, Uhlenhuth said.

Uhlenhuth said the founders will be spending the next three to six months working on demonstrations for potential customers as the company continues to negotiate with the Yale Office of Cooperative Research to obtain a license to use its technology. Timber investors in the United States spend $100 million annually counting trees, Uhlenhuth said, and a more effective system for doing so could help them make better trading decisions.

The Sabin prize, which is funded by the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation and is managed by the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, has been awarded annually since 2009.

Clarification: Sept. 8, 2010

An earlier version of the headline for this article was changed to reflect more clearly the subject of the article.

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