How Flash Forest secured a $1.3-million contract to plant a million trees

Name, Title of Company

Founded: 2019
Sector: Cleantech
Program: Mission from MaRS
Services: Advisory support, network connections

Toronto startup Flash Forest has refined a novel approach to reforestation: drones. Its fleets of machines are able to reach hard-to-access areas — including post-burn sites — and deposit specially formulated seed pods into the ground. And this method is proving faster, cheaper and safer than traditional tree-planting methods.

With catastrophic wildfires increasing in frequency and intensity, post-wildfire planting is an unfulfilled market, says co-founder and CEO Bryce Jones. “It’s where our clients want us to plant and where technology is needed as well, as it’s too dangerous to send tree planters in there.”

But despite the urgent need for replanting solutions, the company was facing some key hurdles in scaling. This is where MaRS stepped in. Flash Forest was one of 10 climate ventures accepted into the Mission from MaRS: Climate Impact Challenge in 2021, a bold initiative working to accelerate the adoption of promising cleantech solutions.

The Challenge: One of Flash Forest’s early challenges was meeting the criteria to apply for larger-scale RFPs. Specifically, its technology disqualified them from bidding on contracts through the federal government’s 2 Billion Trees Program, which had stipulated that only seedlings counted toward the goal.

Overly prescriptive government RFPs are a common barrier for entrepreneurs, explains Tyler Hamilton, senior climate director at MaRS who oversees the Mission from MaRS program. “The way in which they are structured precludes learning about potential innovations, but you’re never going to hear about what could help unless you put out a call that’s open enough for innovation.”

The strategy: The MaRS team engaged directly with the head of the 2 Billion Trees Program so the department could learn about the effectiveness of Flash Forest’s approach. The MaRS team also assembled a curated coalition of experts to build a community of support. This is where MaRS provides a unique advantage, says Angelique Ahlström, Flash Forest’s co-founder and head of global forestry initiatives. “MaRS has a lot of doors that they can help open,” she says. “In our coalition, we had One Tree Planted, University of Guelph, the Nature Conservancy Canada, HSBC Asset Management and the federal government — what better expertise to discuss some of our key barriers to commercial scaling adoption?”

The impact: This relationship-building and expert advice helped the company secure a $1.3-million contract from the federal government to plant a million trees over two years in 2022.

It’s a win-win, says Hamilton. Flash Forest gets the business, and the Canadian government supports domestic innovation. “At the same time,” he adds, “they’re showing leadership by trying new approaches to achieve these ambitious goals and setting an example for other countries as well.”

For the Flash Forest team, MaRS also helped elevate the company’s mission. “No one has really ever done drone reforestation in Canada,” notes Ahlström. “Governments are traditionally risk averse. MaRS can help transition the adoption of new technology, help legitimize and temper its gradual adoption into the greater market in Canada. And that was really a great way to help.”

Flash Forest’s coalition experience shows just how powerful bringing different voices together can be. After closing a $11.4-million Series A round, the company is expanding its services into new verticals, such as reclamation for mining and forestry. It has two projects this spring in Saskatchewan and Quebec and is gearing up to start its first project across the Atlantic.

For Jones, the target of planting a billion trees by 2028 is just the beginning. “I envision the company planting on six continents — everywhere where our technology is needed.”

Mission from MaRS seeks out companies with scalable high-impact solutions, pairing these innovators with ecosystem leaders to help adopt and commercialize these innovations. Find out here.