First it was California, which experienced year after year of deadly wildfires. Then came Hawaii’s deadly firestorm this year. Camp, Dixie and Lahaina aren’t just three of the deadliest, most destructive wildfires in U.S. history, they were also all caused by downed power lines or faulty equipment owned by electric companies.
Utilities have long known about the hazards posed by trees growing close to power lines, but the successive disasters threw the issue into sharp relief.
Wildfire risk isn’t just a problem for utilities in California or Hawaii. It’s a concern anywhere there has historically been a strong fire regime, where climate patterns and evolution have created the right conditions. It’s also a growing issue in a range of ecosystems that are now threatened with the possibility of catastrophic fire thanks to climate change.
Three years ago, when it was becoming clear that wildfire risk was here to stay for utilities, Indra den Bakker and his colleagues at Overstory heard from a utility in Europe. At the time, Overstory specialized in identifying forest cover in satellite images and tracking how it changed over time. The idea for the company was borne out of a competition sponsored by Planet to see who could most accurately monitor deforestation in the Amazon.
“Our initial customer base was a little bit more horizontal with more data-as-a-service. We were serving the forest industry, an NGO, a bank as a customer,” said den Bakker, who is co-founder and CEO of the startup. After a few years, the company knew it was time to focus.
At the time, “one utility came to us and said, ‘You know a lot about trees. We have a big issue with trees.’ That was new to us,” he told TechCrunch+. “The moment we learned about the market, about their problems, I think the more strongly we felt like this is a problem we can help solve.”
Today, Overstory is entirely focused on the utility market, with 90% of its customers in North America. “It’s more about focus and where do we spend our time,” den Bakker said. That’s not surprising given that utilities on the continent have likely been spooked by PG&E’s bankruptcy, its billions in debt related to the fire, and the 84 counts of manslaughter it pleaded guilty to as a result of the Camp Fire that leveled the town of Paradise, Calif.
Overstory recently closed a $14 million Series A led by B Capital with participation from The Nature Conservancy, TechCrunch+ has exclusively learned.