Marshall is the co-founder and Managing Director at Upstream Tech, a public benefit corporation that partners with nonprofit and for-profit organizations working towards ecological restoration, supply chain sustainability, and energy efficiency improvements goals, among others. Upstream Tech’s goal is to help translate data into better, faster resource use decisions. They use satellite data, sophisticated data processing, and easy-to-use applications to supercharge their customer’s conservation impact.
Marshall oversees the product development, growth and partnerships at Upstream Tech. Prior to co-founding Upstream Tech, he worked in a number of early- and late-stage technical companies that have collectively raised over $100M USD in venture capital. He was awarded Forbes 30 Under 30 in Energy and has served on panels for the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Marshall holds a BA in Computer Science from Tufts University.
In today’s episode we discuss:
Upstream Tech overview and history
Marshall’s background prior to Upstream Tech, including what led him to care about climate, how he went about making the transition, and what led him to this opportunity specifically
Some projects they have worked on
Upstream Tech’s acquisition by Natel Energy and what the combined entity can do together
What are some other levers in the climate fight beyond Upstream Tech
Marshall’s advice for anyone looking to make a similar transition
Links to topics discussed in today’s episode:
Marshall twitter: https://twitter.com/marsh?lang=en
Marshall Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marshallmoutenot/
Upstream Tech: https://upstream.tech/
Natel Energy: https://www.natelenergy.com/
I hope you enjoy the show!
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change, and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone. Jason here. Today's guest is Marshall Moutenot, the co-founder of Upstream Tech. Upstream Tech is a public benefit corporation that partners with nonprofit and for profit organizations working towards ecological restoration, supply chain sustainability, and energy efficiency improvement goals, among other things. Marshall's got an interesting story because he worked as a software engineer at several startups and was longing to work on something more purposeful, and a few years ago decided to switch gears and focus on climate change, and specifically focus on water problems.
Jason Jacobs: We talked about a number of things in this episode, including Marshall's background, how he was feeling that led him to make this transition, how he went about the transition, what led him to choose this problem out of all the other places he could go, and then we talked about the company formation process, what kinds of work they're doing, their acquisition by Natel Energy, and they types of things they're doing today. We also spent some time talking about if Marshall wasn't focused on this area, what other areas are high impact on the climate fight, as well as his advice for anyone out there who's looking to follow down a similar path. I thought we had a great chat, and I hope you enjoy it. Marshall, welcome to the show.
Marshall M.: Thank you. Glad to be hear.
Jason Jacobs: I'm psyched to have you. It's funny. Your perspective is different than what we've had on the podcast so far, and I think it's a super important one because you were a software engineer working in startups that weren't climate focused, but you care about climate change and were feeling this misalignment between the work that you were doing and your concern about this problem. You not only made the transition, but have done it quite effectively, and there's this sea of people coming behind you that are feeling like you're feeling, but that don't know where to start or how to go about that transition, meaning that this episode content, which is just your story, but super important.
Marshall M.: Awesome. Yeah, I think ... In the intro, you talk about people having big bats for this problem. I hope that I can lend a perspective about having a small bat, but looking for those big balls to hit in climate, moving the needle. Even if your interest is in technology, you make websites. How can I impact climate? I think that's something I have found a nice path for, and hopefully I can lend some advice to other people.
Jason Jacobs: Actually, now that you brought that up, I recorded that seven or eight weeks ago when I was just getting going. My world view is still evolving, but it does seem like there are no silver bullets, there's no one magic pill, and that we need all the help we can get. Ultimately, we need big, we need small, we need everything in between. Yeah, my perspective is still in flux, but it's fair to say that it might be evolving from when I initially recorded that, now that you mention it.
Marshall M.: Cool. That's good to hear. Yeah. I think it's reflected in the questions in your episode. It's not just about managing a ton of money. You can be in this fight for climate, for improving our understanding of climate, or getting the word out with a broad range of skills. I think it's exciting, and I think that needs to be communicated to everyone. You can do this no matter what your background is. Just like technology touches so many different aspects. Like if I work in tech, I could work in tech that is music, or I could work in tech that is fitness. Right? You can marry two interests to find something that works for you. I think in climate, climate is just as broad of a problem, and so no matter what your skillset is, or your interests are, you can find that niche within climate in a way that you can make a difference, I think.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, that's been my assessment thus far, as well, which is exciting. So, I'd love to get into some of that history, but before we do, what is Upstream Tech?
Marshall M.: Upstream Tech is a group of 20 brilliant interdisciplinary people, and we are working on solving problems at the water, energy, food nexus. What that means is looking at all of the problems centered around the connectivity of water, energy, and food. Those things are really the crux of climate and climate change. What we do is we take tons of environmental data from satellites, weather forecasts, [inaudible 00:04:35] measurements like the flow throw a river, and we use machine learning to uncover interesting patterns that help monitor change and also plan projects that would have impact.
Jason Jacobs: When did you start the company?
Marshall M.: I think it's been about three years, maybe three and a half years.
Jason Jacobs: How the heck did you get there?
Marshall M.: Working in traditional tech roles early in my career ... and my co-founder Alden, we went through every step of our early career together. We both worked at-
Jason Jacobs: Same company?
Marshall M.: Same companies, same college, even. We were optimizing for learning. We wanted to build the skillsets we needed, just learn as much as possible. We got to a point where we were realizing okay, we've been optimizing for learning, and now we want to optimize for something else, and that something else was purpose, or impact, you can call it a million different things. After a number of long runs ... We ran together, too. We spent a lot of time together. We ran through a bunch of things that meant a lot to us. One of those things was the environment, kind of more broadly.
Jason Jacobs: How old were you at this time?
Marshall M.: I think we were 23, 24.
Jason Jacobs: And was it always part of the plan that you would shift gears from learning to purpose, or was it one of your long runs you just got struck by a bolt of lightning?
Marshall M.: Definitely runner's high probably had something to do with it. But it wasn't part of a longterm plan. It was looking day to day and being like, what am I optimizing for today? I want to just learn as much as possible about how to build distributed systems, or how to find product market fit. I just want to totally be engrossed in those things. But there got to be a point where ... When you're spending 40, 50, 60 hours a week working on things where the underlying purpose doesn't resonate with you, I think you start to lose that energy. There's a tank of energy that's being depleted. Whereas, if you're working on something that does resonate with you, your tank is filling up.
Jason Jacobs: Did you know that going in?
Marshall M.: I didn't know going in. But I can tell you, after spending years of working, just a few years, but working on those problems-
Jason Jacobs: [crosstalk 00:06:44] At the grand old age of 23.
Marshall M.: After spending a couple years working on those problems, I felt my tank depleted, and I could no longer give it the energy that I entered those jobs with. Alden was in the same place. Alden is my co-founder at Upstream. So we were like, how do we refill our tanks? How do we find that purpose? We landed on environment as something we thought we could make a difference in. That came about by, similar to you, just talking to as many people as we could, and then talking to all the people they introduced us to.
Jason Jacobs: When you first started talking to them, you were focused on finding purpose, but it wasn't climate that was driving you at that time.
Marshall M.: Yeah. We had narrowed it down to the environment, broadly. That at least helped us talk to the right professors, talk to friends who were doing maybe environmental engineering. They all continually drove us towards freshwater as this problem that was unsolved, or underserved by technology.
Jason Jacobs: Were you talking to freshwater people, or were these people from a wide range of backgrounds? Because nobody, for example, has sent me to freshwater so far. And I've probably talked to 300 people. Wide range of people.
Marshall M.: And climate people, too. Because if you think about it, climate change is largely water change. On one side, you either have too little water from a changing climate, and you have drought, you have famine, you have extreme heat. On the other side, you have too much water. You have flooding, you have rising sea levels, you have coastal disasters. Right? And so, in my mind, and I think a lot of people think about it this way, climate change is really water change. It's an impact on how our water is moving through these systems.
Jason Jacobs: Now, when we talk about longterm with overshoot of one and a half degrees, or two degrees, and Paris Agreement, and all of that, and we also talk about catastrophic tipping points, which is like some unknown thing that we might trigger that compounds things from different angles, that leads to who knows what, right? But water, it seems like ... I have not gotten very far in my own personal investigation, but the way I've heard people talk about it, water is something that may actually be the nearest term thing of any of those. Is that true?
Marshall M.: I think so. I think we came at this idea of climate change from the opposite direction that I would expect. A lot of people come at it from what is the thing causing it, and now how do I reduce that input that's causing the accelerated climate change. So how do I reduce carbon, decarbonize, change to renewables. We came at it from the opposite direction via these people we met and the people they introduced us to, which was what are the impacts of climate change. The climate has changed. There are going to be ramifications of that, and those ramifications are going to be immediately seen through freshwater.
Jason Jacobs: Is it fair to say that your focus is more in the adaptation bucket?
Marshall M.: Yeah. Adaptation, mitigation. It certainly started there. And so where it's now come to clean energy and reducing carbon, and decarbonization, has been also through freshwater, which is freshwater as an energy source through hydropower. That really connected the whole thing from mitigation. How do we monitor agriculture? How do we understand how to improve the cultivation of those crops to reduce the impacts on the freshwater ecosystems? How do we look at coastal communities and understand flooding or rising sea levels, and how do we help plan projects that make them more resilient? Now it's connected all the way back to ... Okay, now that we're understanding how freshwater is being consumed, either by agriculture, or for restoration, or what have you, we can also start to understand how it can be used to generate electricity through hydropower.
Jason Jacobs: When you and Alden tripped over this freshwater problem of increasing streams, and increasing streams will lead to droughts in some places and flooding in others, and unpredictability, and so on, I guess, walk me through that progression. Because it's been a few years now since you started the company, but you're having those discussions. What'd you do next? How'd you begin to connect those dots?
Marshall M.: I should back up a little bit. We didn't just talk to a couple people and then, all right, here are the things we need to build to solve these problems. We talked to a bunch of people and saw a very small problem that we can solve. That problem was, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has a really cool program in the Pacific Northwest where in years of drought, they pay farmers to leave their water rights ... and I'm not going to get into water rights because it's a whole mess of complicated context. But they would leave their water rights in the stream to provide enough freshwater for freshwater species that would otherwise not have enough water to spawn.
Jason Jacobs: When you say leave their water rights in the stream, what ... and I know you don't want to get into water rights, but I don't know what that means.
Marshall M.: Yeah, yeah. So basically ... I'll give the really quick overview. It differs everywhere, but water rights, in a very broad sense, is the right to use water. So largely, if I own a farm, I also own a water right. That water right means every year I can withdraw a certain amount for a certain purpose. If I have a farm from the 1800s, I have a senior water right, which means I am first in line to withdraw my acre feet of water, my 100 acre feet, or whatever it is. Those can be traded in some places.
Jason Jacobs: Is this a domestic thing or a global thing?
Marshall M.: In most places that have water scarcity. So you see it in the U.S. West, you don't see it in the U.S. East. You see it in Australia.
Jason Jacobs: Same frameworks. It works the same way from place to place?
Marshall M.: Yeah, largely. There are a lot of nuances. Australia even has this digital marketplace that's quite advanced, where in the U.S. we do not have something like that. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation was leasing or buying these water rights to use for environmental purposes. But in order to monitor that program, to make sure it was working and to make sure the water is actually not being used for farming, they would drive hundreds of miles to these farms very frequently throughout the season, to get out of their car, look at the ground, and say, "Okay, it's brown. They're not using it for farming." And then they would get back in their car and drive. It was just this massive cost, this massive amount of driving, that we were able to replace with satellites and machine learning.
Jason Jacobs: How'd you uncover that?
Marshall M.: That was through a conversation with, I think, one of Alden's friends who went to a school specializing in water rights and water law in the west, who was like, "This is a huge problem."
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So the first thing that you saw is that the adherence monitoring was incredibly inefficient.
Marshall M.: Exactly. And we were able to streamline that with technology and skills that we already had. What that meant was more money in this program could be allocated to actually going out and doing these project rather than into monitoring them.
Jason Jacobs: And so, it was the National Fish and Wildlife that was doing that monitoring.
Marshall M.: It was a bunch of different entities within this program run by them.
Jason Jacobs: And it cost them money to do that, and so you went to them and said, "We can save you a bunch of money and time."
Marshall M.: Right. Instead of spending all this money on driving to these places or hiring people to drive to these places, you can instead just do more work, do more projects. Right? You can spend more money for these water rights to be left in the stream. That's really important in years of drought because we have so many freshwater ecosystems and species that are threatened by these now vast swings in water availability. They're going to go extinct if they can't spawn.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so you uncovered this problem and you went to them and said that you're doing this inefficiently, and we can do it for you more efficiently, and save you money and time. Then did you build a product, did you get a contract? How'd you navigate that chicken and egg?
Marshall M.: At the very first, we did a pilot with them. We built a product that would pull in satellite imagery and classify the field as irrigated or not. A very simple problem to solve. We provided them with a nice dashboard, and sent them log-in credentials, and would generate reports. It was this MVP that solved the problem for them. What we realized as we were doing this is okay, this is not a problem constrained to this type of project, this type of project where you're leaving water in streaming and leasing a water right. Monitoring in general, especially these larger landscapes, is a problem across most climate mitigation, across most project implementation. Monitoring is usually a line item in a budget that's either massive or just omitted entirely. For us to accelerate mitigation projects, we need to know what is and is not working, and we can only do that through monitoring.
Jason Jacobs: When you initially approached this, you saw this problem that this one agency had, but I guess, how big of a problem was in terms of how much were they paying, and how much would they be willing to pay, and how many entities are there like that where this similar monitoring could be applied? Did you do any of that math up front, or did you just get going?
Marshall M.: We've definitely done that math now. But I think early on we were kind of like ... Honestly, to talk a little bit about our goals, we were not trying to start a traditional startup. Alden and I's goal out of the gate was how do we just get to a financial place of equilibrium where we can work on this for a long time, maybe the rest of our lives, give or take. Our goal was not to raise money. We were just like, let's find some people we can help that could pay us enough to live. Let's do that for the rest of our lives.
Jason Jacobs: So you did that. And then what happened next?
Marshall M.: We talked to groups across the western U.S., and everyone was like, "Hey, we could use something like that."
Jason Jacobs: Groups that are all focused on similar monitoring for adherence?
Marshall M.: At that point, it was mostly conservation groups who were doing some type of program across a landscape, and they were either doing the monitoring for that program in person, or they weren't doing the monitoring at all. We were able to adapt this thing that was primarily for farm fields to other types of use cases, like wetlands, or a conservation easement, and streamline the monitoring for that in the same way.
Jason Jacobs: Were these groups paying you?
Marshall M.: Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Did you achieve your aim in terms of that equilibrium that you aspired for, or did you end up raising money for the company?
Marshall M.: We never raised money. We got a grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which, if you live in Massachusetts and you're interested in innovation or finding some way to work on this problem, they are an absolutely incredible resource. They gave us a $65,000 non dilutive grant. It was incredible.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, I'd love to talk to someone over there.
Marshall M.: Yeah, well we hired the person who gave us that grant three years later. She is now on our team. She believed so much in what we were doing that now she is leading a lot of the work we do with conservation groups.
Jason Jacobs: What does the team look like today?
Marshall M.: The team has evolved. For a while it was just Alden and I. Then we hired Amadou, who was one of our first software engineers besides us. Since then, we've grown into this interdisciplinary team. Some folks come from a background in environmental engineering. We have one woman, Abby, who graduated from the Yale School of Forestry. What it's become is this interdisciplinary team that can connect not just product market fit to product, but we're building stuff and actually connecting it to how it's going to be used on the ground, and working with people who aren't used to advanced technology to put it to use.
Marshall M.: Basically, we found this, and you've probably seen this in your conversations. Climate, and conservation, and water, they're extremely context rich areas of interest. There's so much context. You have to understand the local politics of why certain energy is not used, or why conservation is important, or why agriculture reigns supreme. And you have to connect that to why decisions are being made. If you want to move the needle in some place, you have to understand all of those things. We really focused on hiring people who could connect all of those dots. I think where the team has really ended up is a place where the software engineers are now experts in hydrology, or they understand how to model the output of any hydro turbine. It's kind of like these software engineers and these environmental engineers now becoming experts across-
Jason Jacobs: So the environmental engineers can also write a bunch of iOS code, right?
Marshall M.: Not quite, but they are looking at satellite imagery and saying, "You know what? I think we should do this type of analysis on it in order to get this result." They can talk about all of the different satellites we use. They're experts now, not just in environmental engineering, but also in satellites.
Jason Jacobs: What type of legal entity is this?
Marshall M.: We originally incorporated as a public benefit corporation. So it's kind of an in between of a for profit company, but you have this mission that guides you. Our mission was to create technology that drove environmental conservation.
Jason Jacobs: Were you acquired, or was it a merger? Tell me about Natel and how that relationship came about, and what is that relationship.
Marshall M.: Natel Energy is an incredible company. It's this low head distributed hydropower company. What that means is they're building hydropower that exists in this new realm. It's largely environmentally friendly. It has fish passage. Which, as you can imagine, traditional hydro is usually not great for fish. But at Natel, they had that as a first order objective, let's develop hydropower that coexists with fish and actually has uplift for freshwater ecosystems. It actually came about through Matthew Norton, who was a previous guest on this show. He introduced me to Gia Schneider, who is the CEO of Natel.
Jason Jacobs: Is Natel also a public benefit corporation?
Marshall M.: I think at heart they are. They have a mission that sits along profit. They have a mission to create this world changing, carbon reducing hydropower. But I think at the time that they incorporated, public benefit was not largely an option as it is now.
Jason Jacobs: So, Matthew Norton introduced them, and?
Marshall M.: Gia Schneider saw what we were doing and saw that it connected to her work in hydropower, basically, for any sort of distributed hydropower. You're not building one mega dam. You're building dozens of very small hydropower installations. When you're doing anything at that scale, you need some sort of automation to help find where to do that, and then monitor the outcomes that you expect. Gia saw this interrelationship between what we were doing and what her company was doing, and what they endeavored to do. I wouldn't call it an acquisition. I think it was a very natural partnership between us. Her funders, being largely impact focused capital, were really excited to work with us and fund what we're doing.
Jason Jacobs: But, are you still run as an independent entity, or did you merge onto their cap table?
Marshall M.: Structurally, we did merge into their cap table. I think operationally, we've operated fairly independently. I think Gia obviously helps a lot, and we're finding more and more of this blurry barrier, especially as we work more into hydropower. I could talk about that a little bit too, because I think it's pretty interesting. But it's been a pretty incredible relationship. We've been able to grow this team and this culture in a way that we wouldn't be able to do on our own.
Jason Jacobs: How do you think about profits today?
Marshall M.: We place things into a couple different buckets. We have this entire set of products that are all about conservation. How do we make conservation more effective? We look at that as we want to charge the right amount. We want to charge an amount that reflects the value we're giving. We're not going to IPO based on the revenues from that. It's still core to this mission of we want to just have as much impact as possible. I think on the hydropower side, these entities, these utilities, are dealing in massive energy markets, and it really is this game changing technology for them to be able to operate more efficiently and trade in energy markets more effectively. That translates to real dollars. So I think that area is going to be where we focus in terms of revenue and profits, and it all shares the same technology. The conservation arm is going to continue to [inaudible 00:23:07] maximize for impact.
Jason Jacobs: Given that the bigger company that you build if you're doing a mission driven business like this, then the bigger impact you can have, presumably, and so does that increase your ambition to actually build a big, profitable company? How do you think about that in terms of longterm goals?
Marshall M.: Profitability is a huge goal for us, and we've been growing pretty aggressively. We're now at 20 people, and I think two years we were three. I think in our realm that's a pretty fast growth. I've been part of other companies that have gone from two to 100 in the same amount of time, but that has felt like a lot of growth for us. I think our goal now is to get to that level of profitability where we can just keep doing this for the longterm. That actually leads to one concern I've heard a lot, one misconception. I hear a lot of time from people that are in traditional tech that there's this massive competition for their interest via compensation, that if I switch to working on climate, there's a massive financial downside to doing that. How do I justify that when I'm getting all of this-
Jason Jacobs: Especially the way your story began. I think anyone hearing the way your story began would just be nodding as if it's validation for all the concerns that they had about entering this space.
Marshall M.: And that's fair, but I do think what our goal is actually to do is to ... First, we pay people well, but we're not planning an exit as Upstream. The way we're going to go about that is through profit sharing. I think there are interesting models to explore when you want to work on something that's focused on impact, that you can create the same reward mechanisms for incredible team performance. And so our goal once we get to profitability is to start having a profit sharing pool for our team.
Jason Jacobs: If you take off your Upstream hat for a second and you just look at innovation more broadly in climate, how much of the approach that you've taken do you feel like is just a personal decision because of you and your values versus the right way, for example, for someone to think about innovation and climate?
Marshall M.: I think there are a lot of ways to go about it, and I don't think that my way is ... Of course it's not the only way. But I think the first thing I would look at in order of operations is, for example, one of the big four tech companies. I think you could probably have more impact by working within that framework to improve that company's climate standing, their expenditure. I have a friend who I worked with at Twitter who now works at another one of those big four tech companies. Their goal, their mission ... and they actually wrote a blog post that got me interested in this in the early days, is to reduce the amount of energy that the data centers at that company used, and now to use this massive machine learning resource at that company to help forecast wind turbine production.
Jason Jacobs: Does it rhyme with coogle?
Marshall M.: It could rhyme with ... Yes. Basically, if you work at Google, there's a massive opportunity for you to impact climate change because there's an immense amount of resources behind you.
Jason Jacobs: So I'm a 23, 25, 30 year old software engineer. Right? And I'm working at an ad network, for sake of argument. I've got this climate change thing hanging over my head, but I've got some concerns. So let's just do a little role playing here. You're Marshall who's been working in climate for several years now, who's now made this transition, so let me just try a few different concerns out on you, and I'm curious to see what you'll say. Yeah. So, Marshall, gosh, I really want to help. But I just can't take the hit, man. I've got bills to pay.
Marshall M.: I would first look and see if your company has any sort of relationship with a certain data center, or if you run your data centers yourself. Because often within data centers there's a massive opportunity to optimize operations, to make sure that carbon is properly offset. A lot of the cloud service providers now all say that it's zero carbon, but they have a long way to go to actually get there.
Jason Jacobs: Are there venture scale opportunities in climate that can also be high impact on the problem?
Marshall M.: Absolutely. That's something that I think your podcast has done a great job showing, too. Put it this way. Yes, they're higher risk, but they're not necessarily lower return. Right? I do think there is a place for companies that are going to focus not as intensely on the returns. But I think that across the board, especially in energy, you can build a company that has the same returns as any other company.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, let me try another one. So, Marshall, look. I mean, I've been in software my whole career, and I want to come over and focus on climate change. But the software opportunities are few and far between, and the software opportunities that I've found so far feel like green washing. They don't feel like they're really making impact. Is it possible to do something in software that's high impact on the problem?
Marshall M.: That is a question I get all the time. In some cases, I end up hiring that person. In other cases, I think we need to do a better job connecting those people with the opportunities. I hear a lot of time, "Man, I wish there was a job board where I could see really cool climate related companies at the intersection of tech and climate." It's something I heard so much that I am in the process of creating a climate focused job board. I need some help. If anyone listening wants to help me create this job board-
Jason Jacobs: What skills do you need help with?
Marshall M.: Honestly, just product management, marketing. I think getting the word out is a really important piece that I haven't had the resources to do. Doing research to find these companies, and then soliciting their job postings, I think that's a piece of it. Those are pieces I could use help with. One thing that was inspired by this podcast is actually this idea where we can highlight people who have made the jump, maybe everyday software engineers. I am now working in climate. How did I make that switch and what am I doing now? And highlight those people as well, little stories on the site. There's a whole range of things I could use help with there.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, that was another one that I had for you, which is just hey, I want to do this, but man, I've been looking for a while and I can't even find any companies that are focused on this. Where should I look? Obviously, your job board is one. But let's say your job board didn't exist. Where should people go? What should they do? How should they go about it?
Marshall M.: I think one area, and this is slightly biased because it's the area that we exist in, but geospatial science is an area that often sits at the intersection of software and climate. There are an immense amount of companies that are just looking at satellite data, that are doing analysis on it. They're understanding how oceans are changing, or they're looking at how crop yields are changing globally. I think that those companies often have a really good opportunity to get into this in a pretty natural way because they're structured as software companies. Some examples of those are Descartes Labs, or Planet Labs. Planet actually even flies their own [inaudible 00:30:10], hundreds of these. There's a company called Development Seed. They're doing incredible work. This is actually a good opportunity to point out that I think when it comes to climate, companies or organizations that would typically be competitive are now just collaborative. We don't have time or energy to divert from just solving these problems to compete and to argue for business.
Marshall M.: We met a company, an incredible company, Salo AI. They are both ex PhDs that did tropical forest research, and now they've started a company that uses satellites and machine learning to understand the niche of forests as it relates to climate change and fire risk. Naturally, you would view that and say okay, they're our competition because it's monitoring, it's satellites, it's machine learning. But there are so many problems to solve and so little time to solve them, honestly, that we now work together. They see someone who wants to monitor something about water or plan a project related to wetlands, they send them our way. We see something about forests, and we send them their way. It's just this collaborative environment, and probably one you've seen as you've met people. Right? People just want to connect, and connect, and connect.
Jason Jacobs: Yes and no. Certainly there's that spirit widely. But for example, if you look at the NGO world just as one example, when you have 18 foundations doing 80% of climate giving, and climate giving is a tiny sliver of what it should be, then you have people, just by necessity, they're competing over scraps. So it does get competitive. If you look at some of the religious wars around different pet technologies, I think it gets competitive. Certainly from a political landscape, it's not everybody working arm in arm, singing kumbaya. So, to some degree I think that's true, and certainly people have been very generous of their time as I've made the rounds, which I greatly appreciate. But at the end of the day, I think there's also just a human element, that people are people.
Marshall M.: That's fair. Well, I guess maybe I should reframe that. I hope it can become as collaborative an environment, and especially in our early conversations we would meet people at NASA doing work that overlapped ours. They just wanted to help. They wanted to teach us. Now one of those early people works with us part-time. It's just this world where we have these urgent problems, and I think people, in some realms, have recognized that we've just got to work together to solve it.
Jason Jacobs: Let me see if I can get on my phone. We'll try something new, and I'll see if I can pick up a few of these questions that I got on Twitter prior to us getting going. So here's one from [Rishi Tapiria 00:32:57], whose Twitter handle is Taps, at T-A-P-S. He said, "What APIs should exist but don't? What are the biggest software needs in the industry? What did you find when you started this journey and say, 'You do that how?'"
Marshall M.: I think I'll start with the APIs that need to exist. When we started, ingesting satellite data was non trivial. This is kind of a story of what now does exist in a pretty incredible way. Then I'll talk about what I wish existed. I think groups like Google, and NASA, and Planet, and Descartes have developed these APIs to make ingesting and using satellite imagery more accessible. I think that was a huge barrier because you're dealing with this massive scale of data, you're having to screen for clouds, all of this really nasty stuff like correcting the geometries and the projections, and just endless problems. I think when we started, that was a problem that wasn't solved and was quite hard.
Marshall M.: What I think needs to exist more ... Basically, a lot of these organizations have been told for a decade, gather data, collect data, store that data. So there are these massive warehouses of environmental data collected by NGOs, by private organizations, by growers. It is totally siloed and often protected viciously because they've been told that this data is valuable for years. They don't know exactly how to unlock the value from that data yet. But they've been told it's valuable. So I think it's not quite an API, but helping someone who's trying to solve a problem tap into that data to prove that something is feasible. That's a massive barrier because it involves building trust with that organization. It involves meeting the right people.
Marshall M.: I'll just use an example. Say you wanted to near cast solar production, which is something I know a group is doing right now. I would wager that there are a number of datasets of where solar has been installed. What are the rooftops that have that solar? What are the exact [inaudible 00:35:09]? I bet a lot of those datasets are not publicly available at all. I think they are closed off. If this group had access to those datasets, if there was some way to figure out, okay, what are the biggest questions, how do we unlock those datasets for people with curious minds to play with and see if something is feasible, I think that is the biggest problem. Not exactly an API, but.
Jason Jacobs: And Pete Skomoroch, who is @PeteSkomoroch as well, S-K-O-M-O-R-O-C-H, he asked a similar question. He said, "What datasets don't exist that would make your work easier, and is there any government data that you use that's hard to work with, that should be improved?"
Marshall M.: I think I answered the first part. The second part, the government doesn't get enough credit in this realm. But I think NASA and NOAA have done a really incredible job in the USGS stream flow data. I think they've done an incredible job creating accessible APIs that work in a way that a software engineer would expect. They probably don't get enough credit for that, to be fair. I think an area that sits at a public/private intersection is in grid data. I've tried to find power line location information before to help understand vegetal encroachment, which leads to fire risk. Man, that's hard to find. Stuff like that I think is just ... You've got to know someone at the utility, or you have to buy an $80,000 dataset that someone had mapped out that's now out of date or something. Those types of datasets, I think software engineers could really play with and unlock some interesting insights. But they're difficult to find.
Jason Jacobs: This is back to a question from me. But when you think about the broad scope of climate change and all the different ways that it could be attacked, what are some of the other high leverage angles, either on the innovation front or otherwise, that get you most excited, just in terms of ability to have an impact on the problem?
Marshall M.: I think there's a lot of opportunity in forecasting power generation. We're entering this new era of a grid where power is going to be generated in this distributed fashion. A lot of marketing is like, natural gas will be the thing that fills in the gaps with solar and wind, or the hydro industry is like, hydro is going to be the thing that fills in the gaps. I think figuring out how those gaps will be filled, and with incredible forecasting for solar production, for wind production, for hydro production, I think that is really going to make this transition more seamless, and there's a massive amount of work to be done in that realm, especially when you're not just looking at how much will this hydro plant produce next week, or over the season, or how much will this solar panel produce with weather forecasts, but looking at them as an interconnected system is a massive and very interesting problem.
Jason Jacobs: Similarly related question, but if you had a big pot of money, say a hundred billion dollars, and you could put it towards anything you wanted to have maximum impact on the climate fight, where would it go, how would you allocate it?
Marshall M.: Partially, I would continue what I'm doing now, which is try to ... at a much larger scale, which is try to employ as many brilliant people as possible to be thinking about this in a full time manner. I think a lot of people are doing it after hours or as a side project, and to be able to just be like, this is now your job, to think about this all day, that, I think, is the best use of a large amount of money like that.
Marshall M.: I think second to that is to put projects in the ground, especially clean energy projects, when you're looking ... And I'm biased, right, now that I'm working with Gia. But she's shown me this path where we have so many non powered dams across the world. These dams that are just sitting there with potential energy. You could retrofit those with some energy producing turbine. There's a massive amount of energy to be had there. I think deploying projects would be where that money would go.
Jason Jacobs: And last is, a bunch of ... not all of them, but a bunch of listeners on the show look like you did before you made this transition. So, if you will, speak for a moment to them, and as they're listening to this, what message do you have for them?
Marshall M.: As software engineers, we are a privileged group of people. We work in a really supportive industry, we are well compensated for that work. I think that privilege allows us to take risks. And I think it is possible if you want to dip your toe in, to actually just jump in and take a year to try to work on this problem. Switch to a job that maybe doesn't pay quite as much, but you can live an incredible quality of life and work on something that matters. I think climate change is not something that you can be on the sidelines for if you have the luxury not to be.
Jason Jacobs: Well, Marshall, thank you for all the hard work that you're doing, and thanks so much for coming on the show as well. You've been a great guest.
Marshall M.: It's my pleasure. I love the podcast.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone. Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at MyClimateJourney.co. Note, that is dot C-O, not dot com. Someday we'll get the dot com, but right now, dot C-O. You can also find me on Twitter at @jjacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.