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Single.Earth makes money grow on trees, (almost) literally

The Estonian deep tech startup Single.Earth is here to disrupt corporate climate action by building a new financial system that monetises nature for just being there. The CEO of Single.Earth, Merit Valdsalu, tells us more.

Merit, you are a founder of a company that turned the idea of making money off of nature totally upside down – landowners can earn from not destroying their forests. How did you come up with that?

Currently, the amount of money we have in the world is constantly increasing, but it mainly comes from exploiting nature. We value nature only as raw material and nature continues to be destroyed around us. We have all these ecosystem “services” around us like air and water that we take for granted. But these services actually do have a price, just no one has put a price tag on it yet.

Our idea is to have as much money around us as nature can sustain and offer people financial benefits from protecting nature.

Single.Earth evolved from the idea I had when entering the Garage48 hackathon “Future of Wood” in 2019. I was introduced to a “mad scientist”, now the co-founder of Single.Earth, Andrus Aaslaid, because my boss from Pipedrive, Ragnar Sass suggested that Andrus is exactly the person I need to partner up. So we met up, started brainstorming with Andrus and went to the hackathon. It is also a little miracle that we “clicked” instantly although we are such different people. I am so grateful to him, because he is really the one behind making sense of it all and finding the solutions to make the idea of Single.Earth become reality.

So, after the hackathon we took part in different incubators and started iterating on the idea. Andrus had a very clear focus from the beginning to use blockchain for building our product. But as it was kind of a “cryptowinter” at that time, we didn’t talk about our crypto-idea at all for a year. Until recently we understood that we have to use all the possibilities Web3 space is offering and we have to build our company around it.

What is the ultimate goal for Single.Earth?

To build a nature backed economy. Today our economy is growing while nature around us is decreasing, they are going in completely different directions. But we can describe how much nature can sustain our activities and we want to reconnect the paths. We do it by issuing a new currency which is backed by nature. Through Web3 solutions, we can create new cryptocurrency that differs from every single one existing in the market right now because it is backed by real assets. We mint the currency based on real nature and that is based on what nature does. Let’s take carbon sequestration for example – forests as they grow, store CO2 in themselves. So when 100kg of CO2 is captured, we emit a token for the landowner to keep the trees growing and keep capturing CO2. Eventually our goal is to have as many tokens in circulation as nature can sustain. It means that we basically can consume and grow the economy not more or faster than the nature can take.

So the landowners can earn tokens, but who will buy the tokens?

This is the most crucial point, indeed.

So far, different companies who want to go carbon neutral, fix it with offsetting. The problem is that carbon offsetting has a limit of how much a company can pay for each ton and it is not the same amount that landowners need to protect nature. So, instead of focusing on companies, we want to empower people, individuals to have control over protecting nature. So they can be the ones who can switch from their current currency to a nature backed currency. We have already built a mechanism in the system so the value and the price of the tokens stays relatively stable, because it doesn’t make sense if our currency rallies like other cryptos if we want to use it for our everyday purchases.

The reason we believe it’s important to start from consumers and not from governments or corporations, is because once we have all these people switching to nature-backed sustainable life, companies will follow. And if we have masses of people and companies backing the idea, governments must react to that too. I believe this is the right order of change to really make it work.

Single.Earth as a startup is still in its early stages and yet you have managed to raise 7.9 million dollars in the seed round in 2021. That’s impressive.

In the pre-seed round in 2020 our first investors were a Finnish VC fund and Ragnar Sass, one of the founders of Pipedrive. In the seed round, Martin Henk, also from Pipedrive and EQT Ventures joined. We’ve grown a lot with seed financing – from a team of ten to 70!

Yes, that is lot of money, but we’re also building a huge thing – it takes a lot to build a totally new financial system and it is good to see that there are so many VC funds and investors who believe in our idea. We have huge support from them because this is the world they like to see we’re heading toward.

I understand that you really “see eye to eye” with the people from fund? How did you find each other?, but also other investors, have one thing in common – they are not only financial investors but constantly helping us and pushing us to think bigger. They give us confidence to “go crazy” and they always have your back. They are not afraid of the craziest ideas, because behind the big risks are big gains. And we want to go there, because… what if we succeed? What if we can actually change the world to a more sustainable and better one? invests in people who understand that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. And if you have the right people, eventually you figure it out. So they give you the money to have the time to figure it out in addition to their knowledge and experience accumulated from previous investments. Possibly the best advice from them has been not to think about how things have been done before, because it is not working, obviously.

So, how far along is Single.Earth with its development? When can we actually start buying tokens and support landowners?

We are building it block by block. The first version of our “digital twin” of the world’s nature is ready, which means that we have digitised the entire world’s forests based on forest intactness and its carbon sequestration potential. The reason we started from that end is because we wanted to make markets accessible and super easy for landowners.

Current carbon offsetting solutions are difficult for landowners to enter the market because they require a lot of bureaucracy, which is also very expensive.

The digital twin project is also why Single.Earth hired – in addition to the usual developers and engineers, etc – about 20 scientists who work on that. Teaming up with scientists are another thing that makes us really unique – often, in the early stages, startups focus on building the product, but we need to have a research base.  The first iteration is ready, so we know what the world’s forests are doing at all times. We’ll continue to improve the models and add other land types like wetlands and grasslands as we go.

Merit Valdsalu - photo by Alina Birjuk

Merit Valdsalu – photo by Alina Birjuk 

4 ways a forest owner can make money from their forests without clearcutting by joining Single.Earth

  1. Use the money you get from Single.Earth’s marketplace to cover your forest management expenses

Adding your land to Single.Earth will provide income (we kindly suggest you use it for sustainable options like continuous cover forestry) generated by the ability of your forest to sequester carbon. Meaning you are making money by helping save the planet!

  1. Get additional income from land that’s already making money

Even if you have something on your land generating revenue already (such as ecotourism), it’s likely you can still join Single.Earth.

  1. Accessibility problem: Entering the voluntary carbon market is expensive 

Joining Single.Earth is forest owner-friendly as there’s no joining fee, future commitments, nor limit to how small or big your forest has to be.

  1. Accessibility problem: Joining the voluntary carbon market takes a long time

Landowners can join Single.Earth quickly, no matter the size of their forest, and they don’t need to spend time getting to know the processes and certifications, waiting for approvals, etc.

Giving nature a digital value with MERIT tokens

By running each land plot through the automated assessment, we can extract and convert the information into values which are used to issue MERIT tokens.

In its essence, the MERIT token aims to assign a monetary value for nature’s features, such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and other ecosystem services. We prioritise each feature and compile our unique Valorisation Equation, which calculates the amount of MERIT tokens each land plot generates.

One of the most influential women in the European startup scene

Online portal EU-Startups picked Merit Valdsalu as one of the most influential women in the startup scene in Europe. In the recent Estonian Startup Awards, she was also given the Stereotype Crusher 2021 award. On the stage, Merit commented on it as follows: “Let’s make this the last time we have to crush the female stereotype in the Estonian startup ecosystem.“ Her speech got a lot of recognition and strong support. At the same time, she like everyone else, acknowledges that women in tech is still an issue that needs to be dealt with. She also emphasised it in her speech: “The award means a lot, especially from the perspective that more than 90% of investor funding still goes to male founders. But I really hope this recognition here is not only for being a female founder. That stereotype is really critical to crush for good.“

“We don’t want to be female founders; we want to be founders. And I hope one day, soon, it will be the most common thing to see more and more women in leading positions and in the startup sector in general. We see it every day in Single.Earth, how important it is to keep the diversity in work teams and not only on the male-female scale. People with different backgrounds and cultures bring in totally different contexts and views and also emphasise problems around the world that maybe we as Europeans couldn’t even come up with or have any idea about.“

Building a digital twin of planet Earth

The digital twin is a digital copy of nature on a global scale – a map with many layers. It represents nature in real life, in (almost) real time. We use data science and artificial intelligence to model environmental change and ecosystem services.

All the models are published as open-source in GitHub and continuously improved based on new scientific research, boots-on-the-ground data, and community feedback. Single.Earth plans to open the digital twin for collaboration to enable scientists around the world to contribute.

Do you wish to invest in an Estonian startup like Single.Earth or do business in Estonia? Just book a meeting with one of our advisors via e-Consulting and get started!

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