Bigger Than Us #107: Interconnectedness & Forest Carbon Credits
An interview with Diego Saez Gil of Pachama
Diego is the founder and CEO of Pachama, a Y Combinator-backed startup working to accelerate the flow of capital to carbon capturing projects starting with forests biomass projects. Pachama harnesses satellite images and machine learning to verify the carbon storage on forests and then connects directly project developers with carbon credits buyers in an open marketplace.
Prior to Pachama, Diego co-founded Bluesmart, an IoT company that raised $20M in venture capital in Silicon Valley and China and was acquired by industry leader TravelPro. Diego also co-founded WeHostels, a pioneering online travel marketplace which was acquired by StudentUniverse. Diego was awarded with the MIT 35 Innovators under 35 and was selected as High-impact Entrepreneur by Endeavor Global.
Bigger Than Us Episode 107
This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.
Host Raj Daniels 02:47
If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?
Diego Saez Gil 03:00
I grew up in the north of Argentina. I am a descendant of both European immigrants that came to Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century, and indigenous people of South America. I left Argentina 13 years ago, with a big curiosity to discover the world. And I moved to Europe first, then I came to the US, then I moved to China, then I came back to South America, and finally ended up settling here in California. And I think that all that exploration of the world led me to, in one hand, appreciate how beautiful and diverse is our world, how we are one humanity, and also how much we are destroying our planet. And the importance of taking care of this only home we have, which is planet Earth. So I guess that’s a little bit about me.
Host Raj Daniels 04:14
That is very interesting. Where did you spend the most time when you were traveling?
Diego Saez Gil 04:20
I lived for two years in Europe and I backpacked, visiting over 24 countries in Europe. And in Asia, I was living in Hong Kong. And I wanted to visit a lot of cities in China and other countries in Southeast Asia. And in South America, also visited many countries and spend some time in the Amazon rainforest. Today, I spent most time in the United States actually, in the last 10 years. But always, those trips inform a lot about my standing today. Yeah.
Host Raj Daniels 05:08
You know, speaking specifically of Asia, so I’m from London originally, but specifically Asia, I have family that’s in India and then coming across East Africa in London, what I find that surprises people when they visit us in America, and also vice versa when I’ve been over there is that I’m going to pick one specific appliance, the size of a refrigerator. Here in America, we have huge refrigerators, a lot of families I know have two refrigerators. But when you travel overseas, Europe included, you’re just surprised at how people are able to, like, maintain or keep families with a refrigerator that’s so small. And
Diego Saez Gil 05:45
Yes, everything is bigger in America, for sure.
Host Raj Daniels 05:49
Yes, it is. So earlier, you mentioned saving the world, which I think is a great way to segue to your current company, Pachama, can you give an overview of Pachama?
Diego Saez Gil 05:59
Pachama is a technology company that has the mission of helping restore nature to solve climate change. And the way we are doing it today is by harnessing the latest on satellite images, and artificial intelligence and the Internet to bring more transparency and efficiency to the world of forest carbon credits, which is a mechanism by which companies, governments, and individuals can support reforestation projects or forest conservation projects around the world as a way to compensate their current emissions. This is something that is super important that we do today. Because, of course, we need to move away from fossil fuels. That’s the number one task to address climate change. But we also need to start removing the CO2 that we put in the sphere. And there’s another the most effective way that we have today is by protecting and restoring forest. These mechanisms could drive billions of dollars that are needed urgently to start his movement in the next two decades are key to address climate change. And we want to help assure that forest would play an important role on that cost.
Host Raj Daniels 07:24
So you mentioned satellite, internet and other technologies. And feel free to get as technical as you need to without obviously giving away any trade secrets. Give an example of how it works.
Diego Saez Gil 07:37
Today, this market exists by which companies are looking to support reforestation and forest conservation projects around the world to compensate their emissions. But it’s been difficult until recently, for these companies to know the quality of these projects and whether they are fulfilling their promises, which is planting trees or conserving forest, and whether the measurements of how much carbon is first captured are correct or not. So what we do is we combine satellite images coming from different constellations, NASA’s Landsat, the European Space Agency Sentinelle, and then private satellite companies that we purchase images from. We combine that with LiDAR captures of the forest collected by airplanes. And then we use algorithms, computer vision algorithms to determine how much carbon is there on that forest and how that carbon has changed over time as a result of deforestation, or reforestation. And then we can monitor the progress of this project over time with new images that are coming on an ongoing basis.
So we know that we are aiming to validate, monitoring and give trust to these projects that are doing really good jobs, but in the majority of the cases, because they’re in faraway countries, like Brazil, and Peru, and Congo and Indonesia, sometimes have a hard time getting the funding that they need to continue to work.
Host Raj Daniels 09:20
So you mentioned LiDAR in there, I’m familiar with LiDAR, but can you share it to the audience what LiDAR is and my question is, do you actually pay for the planes to fly over and collect that data with LiDAR?
Diego Saez Gil 09:34
LIDAR is a technology, that similar to radar, can scan by sending a signal which in this case is a laser beam from a device towards an environment and receive that laser back, and in doing so you can reconstruct three-dimensionally the shape of an environment with a cloud of points. This cloud of points in which the laser reflector. Now, this is a technology that’s been making great progress, thanks to self-driving cars, self-driving cars, the majority of self-driving cars use LiDAR to scan and recognize the surroundings of the car. Right. And today, these devices are smaller and cheaper and more efficient. So you can attach one of these devices to an airplane or to a drone. And then you can fly over that airplane over a forest and get a three-dimension scan of the forest in which you have the height of the trees and the shape of the trees.
And to your question to your second question, we have access to some publicly available LiDAR data forest around the world. But then in some cases, we do purchase data from companies that are flying airplanes about forest in some cases, we have contracted companies to fly over a forest, which is expensive to do. But you know, it’s the way that we have to, to make our algorithms more precise, and to calibrate the accuracy of our algorithms.
Host Raj Daniels 11:21
I appreciate you sharing that. So if I’m understanding correctly, is Pachama like a marketplace, but a verified marketplace. Correct?
Diego Saez Gil 11:30
Yes. So we connect the parties, we connect these companies that are seeking for projects and projects that are seeking for funding. And we use all that data to verify and you trust to the parties. But you’re doing it, yes, we are also a marketplace, in that sense, facilitating the connections between the parties,
Host Raj Daniels 11:53
And what kind of companies use your service?
Diego Saez Gil 11:59
We are working with all sorts of companies. We started with technology companies in Silicon Valley, such as Microsoft and Shopify, and Flexport. But we are talking that we’re working with companies such as airlines and energy companies, as well. And eventually, we think that every single company will have to have some plan to achieve net-zero or current neutrality. And we’re ready to help companies in any industry.
Host Raj Daniels 12:29
And for those of you that might be interested, I will put a link to your website in the show notes. And I encourage the audience to check it out. The logos that are on there, most of you will recognize. So tell me, what are some of the challenges in starting this company?
Diego Saez Gil 12:44
Yeah, let’s see, at the beginning, one of the challenges was to demonstrate that this was going to be a big market and that we can create a scalable business model. And that we’re not just a nonprofit trying to protect trees. And so to make a strong business case, was a challenge that I had to put a lot of thought on because I figured that if we were able to create a strong business model, like the marketplace and the verification technologies, if we could make the case for a strong business model, then this could become a company that could have way more impact than if we didn’t have a business model and we were just a nonprofit. So even though the company is a mission-driven company, we figured that this would take a better shape as a for-profit organization. So the challenge was to come up with a business model that could be scalable and yet aligned with our mission of restoring nature to solve climate change. And then, you know, as we continue growing the company, always the challenge for new organizations to find product-market fit is to make a product that really addresses the needs of your customers.
It’s also a challenge always to create a strong culture within your team to make sure that you have the right team members at the right time, and that the team members work together well. And now we are a remote company, like almost everyone else with COVID. So the challenge is, you know, how do we make sure that we can work effectively and have a good time doing it? So these are all the challenges of building this company.
Host Raj Daniels 14:45
Well, speaking of team members, I think your your webpage with all your teammates on it, the great one, especially the gentleman, David with the dog on the shoulder, I think.
Diego Saez Gil 14:54
Yeah, we’re still a small team. We are 13 team members now but but yeah, trying to keep it keep it informal and and include everyone.
Host Raj Daniels 15:05
So, you know, you mentioned mission-driven earlier, which leads nicely to my next question is the why behind what you’re doing. And the reason I’m asking is because while I was researching you, I came across some of your other endeavors that you started, which are fantastic ideas. But why Pachama? Why now? What drives you? What keeps you going?
Diego Saez Gil 15:27
Pachama is my first startup. And during my second building my second startup, I realized, you know, this is so hard, it takes so much work to build a company, and to do anything of impact in the world, that it’s only worth it, if you do it for something way beyond yourself. Way beyond money, or success or recognition. You have to be driven by a higher purpose, that hopefully is to contribute to others, to society, to future generations, to the planet at large. So I spent a lot of time thinking, okay, what are the missions, the purposes that I want to contribute way beyond myself and something that will motivate me to, to give my all for the rest of my life? And, and then yeah, I decided, or I came out, I came with a conclusion that protecting our planet, protecting nature, making sure that we can navigate the climate crisis in the best possible way. That was a mission I wanted to contribute to. And yeah, that’s what the why behind what we’re doing.
Host Raj Daniels 16:51
So as an interview, it’s my job to push a little bit harder. You said contribute to others, and you mentioned the word contribute many times. Where does that come from? Where does that desire to contribute come from?
Diego Saez Gil 17:04
Yeah, I think that that is what we are all meant to do. And it turns out that it’s actually the most satisfying thing, you know, when you’re working for others, you get more satisfaction than if you’re just working for yourself, for your own ego. I don’t know, I think in my case, it came from really stopping at some point and reflecting deeply about life, about what makes a good life, and how to live up to the highest possible values that felt true inside of myself. And I think that you know, we all win when we help others, we all experience a great sense of satisfaction. And so I think that is what we are all meant to do.
…it takes so much work to build a company, and to do anything of impact in the world, that it’s only worth it if you do it for something way beyond yourself. Way beyond money, or success or recognition. You have to be driven by a higher purpose, that hopefully is to contribute to others, to society, to future generations, to the planet at large.
Host Raj Daniels 18:06
So this could be a dead end question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. How much do you think your travel played into ultimately starting Pachama?
Diego Saez Gil 18:18
I think that’s traveling, definitely open my perspectives, and made me realize that we’re all interconnected. And it made me fall in love with the world, with the planet. And it also helped me gained self-confidence that I could go out to the world and, and build things, right? Yeah, definitely. I wouldn’t probably be here in Silicon Valley, building a company, if I hadn’t had this experience of being on my own in a faraway country and having to figure it out. So yeah, it was a big part.
Host Raj Daniels 19:04
You know, I think that’s very interesting. Regarding travel, building confidence. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some other guests also that have traveled widely. And the part about interconnectedness. Absolutely, you know, they bring it back to when they once they realize that when they go out into the world, how people essentially around the world all have the same dreams, aspirations, hopes, you know, we’re all like you mentioned, interconnected. We share, we share more in common than we don’t, you know, common denominators. We all want good for our families. But that part about confidence, I think, is very interesting and important. And one of the ideas I’ve been kind of floating here locally is the idea of, perhaps putting together an opportunity for and I’m gonna say high school children to be able to travel to experience the world. Number one, obviously, to experience the interconnectedness that you mentioned, but also that building confidence. I think it’s a very, very important point that you brought up.
Diego Saez Gil 19:56
Yeah, those were the purposes or the missions of my previous companies, which were in the travel space was to help people or encourage people to travel more to get these types of experiences. Now, it turns out that now, we are realizing the climate impact of travel. Right. So I also think that we have to travel consciously, we had to travel probably less and more meaningfully than we were traveling. We were traveling very easily and you know, to do sometimes shallow vacationing and tourism. And I think that right, and that probably is better to yes, you said, send or encourage young people to go and have more experiential travel in which you go to a place, culture is very different to yours, and you spend some good time there, humbly learning the ways of other people. And I think that definitely can be great for future generations.
Host Raj Daniels 21:07
You know, I love the idea of traveling consciously. Just as I’d like to get your opinion, do you think maybe in the future, there might be an opportunity for an, let’s say, an airline company to create, you know, perhaps conscious travel?
Diego Saez Gil 21:21
Yes, absolutely. I think that that would be great. If it doesn’t exist already. Yes, conscious travel that is trying to minimize the carbon impact of the trip itself. And then that is, instead of just going trying to have, again, a commercialized version of a trip to have a more experiential experience that is designed to expand your consciousness. actually, they want to talk about that is Alain de Botton, the philosopher, he talks about traveling as a way to expand your consciousness.
Host Raj Daniels 21:58
Are you a fan of philosophy?
Diego Saez Gil 22:00
I like philosophy a lot. Yes.
Host Raj Daniels 22:03
That doesn’t surprise me. So you mentioned this is your third startup, and traveling around the world. What are some of the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?
Diego Saez Gil 22:16
Yeah, I mean, I think that, again, I learned that I am interconnected to everyone else, and to everything else. I learned that we think that we know so much. And that’s really an illusion, we know so little. We know so little of how life in this planet works. We know so little about the true unfoldings of history, we know so little about the universe, we know so little about consciousness and the inner worlds that we inhabit. So I think that traveling gives you a sense of humbleness. And then I also learned that people are good that in most places, everywhere I went, I received a lot of help, always. So there’s nothing to be afraid of. This idea that the, you know, fear sometimes lead us to think that other people are good, or that there’s danger out there. And actually, the opposite is true. You know, I had many experiences of breaking wheels in the middle of the countryside in Mexico. And anyway, you have thought, well, that’s dangerous. And then people randomly helping me, you know, total strangers helping me. Similar situations, again in China, in Europe, in Africa, everywhere.
Host Raj Daniels 23:57
So you mentioned confidence earlier. And you talked about fear just now, let’s talk about the other side of fear. Let’s talk about courage. You know, you’ve been courageous to start three startups. Now. This one is a, we would call it you know, a big, huge, audacious goal. It’s huge. Speak to courage for a moment what gives you courage and how do you find that?
Diego Saez Gil 24:16
I was reflecting on the word courage this week because a friend asks, what is the meaning of courage?And turns out that theologically, courage comes from core which is heart in Latin. So courage. The theological definition is to act with heart. Act from the heart. So I think that usually, that is what gave me courage in the past and what gives me courage in the present is to say, if I am to act from my heart if I am to live up to my values, what should I do? And then sometimes that is not the easiest path. Sometimes it’s the hardest path or the riskiest path. But how do I come from that place? And when you act with heart and when you act in accordance to your values, even if you fail is going to be fine, right? Because, well at least you tried to do something, something good with good intentions, right. So, I think that is also kind of like a safety net is to know that you can fail. And yes, some people might criticize you. But you will know, inside yourself that you did for the right reasons.
We know so little of how life in this planet works. We know so little about the true unfoldings of history, we know so little about the universe, we know so little about consciousness and the inner worlds that we inhabit. So I think that traveling gives you a sense of humbleness.
Host Raj Daniels 25:40
If you don’t mind me asking, why was your friend asking you about courage?
Diego Saez Gil 25:44
I don’t know. I think he probably was reflecting on his own his own actions, and how to go about it.
Host Raj Daniels 25:55
Interesting, I think we’re all doing some reflection right now, especially after this year, I think it’s been a very tumultuous year. I’ve been telling my friends and my peer group, I feel like, there’s this malaise, if you will, kind of all sitting over us. And we’re all trying to reflect if you will, and trying to find a way out of it.
Diego Saez Gil 26:12
Yeah, it does feel like a wake-up year, in which everything is going on in politics in the environment in, you know, social justice. It’s a wake-up call for everyone. And it’s good. That’s the way that we evolve, by having to face the shadows of what we have, you know, in this case, or societal issues. And yes, I do hope that more people reflect on how each of us are contributing to the realities that we are part of.
Host Raj Daniels 26:57
I do too. And speaking of reflection, so it’s 2025. What is the future hold for Pachama?
Diego Saez Gil 27:04
Well, I feel that by 2025, we have already helped protect millions of hectares of forest, we have helped plant hundreds of millions of new trees. And we are on our way to have a meaningful impact on climate and conservation. And hopefully, still, day one for the company.
Host Raj Daniels 27:36
I like the idea of day one, for those that might not be familiar. Can you share with day one means?
Diego Saez Gil 27:41
Yeah, pick out the one who talks a lot about that is Jeff Bezos at Amazon, which is of not getting too comfortable on your past success and thinking that you’re just getting started and having this beginner’s mind, which allows you to continue to innovate and to and to have a hunger to go out and make it happen.
Host Raj Daniels 28:12
How do you maintain a day one mindset?
Diego Saez Gil 28:17
I meditate on a daily basis. And one of the things I tried to do in my meditations is to go back to the present moment. And to remember that the past and the future are fantasies in a way. And to say, well, I only have today, what am I going to do today? Right? I think that in a way, keeps you with a beginner’s mentality.
Host Raj Daniels 28:47
Well, I too, am a meditator. And that resonates very deeply with me, I have a very similar practice that I do almost every morning. And so I agree that does allow you to center your focus on right now and perhaps what’s important, what to prioritize. Last question is, if you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?
Diego Saez Gil 29:12
I think I will come back to this idea of interconnectedness, of interbeing. I think that the jump that I hope we all do, as humanity is to move beyond the ideas of individuality. Skin-bounded ego, thinking that we are these characters that we inhabit, and start identifying ourselves with humanity, with an interconnected network of beings we are part of, and then with planet Earth as well. We are not separate. Separation is an illusion. Same way that we are actually made of trillions of bacteria that inhabit our bodies. We are also cells into a network of beings, and we cannot exist in isolation. So, unless we start thinking of the forest and the fishes on the ocean, and humans in countries far away as we, of one single interconnected family if you want, we are not going to survive, to be honest, because that is what got us in so many traumas today, climate change, and you know, all the other crisis that we’re facing are part of acting from this illusion of separation. So, I think that is probably the biggest wisdom that I’m embracing and hoping to try and to share
Host Raj Daniels 30:57
That his beautiful wisdom. We were speaking offline, and you mentioned, perhaps people, ways for people to get involved in the movement. So if there are people on the fence right now thinking about how to get involved thinking about, okay, what can I do to experience this interconnectedness?
Diego Saez Gil 31:16
As I said, meditation, it’s been transformational for me. And then once you meditate, and you can go inside yourself and find that inner peace, then you can go out to the world and act in smaller, big ways. I think of, for example, one way is if you’re working for a company, you can try to, to steer your organization towards, you know, doing something positive for climate change. Right now, every organization can have a Climate Action Plan. It has to be part of the responsibility of every organization, companies, governments, nonprofits, and so forth. And then also, another thing I did is try to change my lifestyle, to be honest, to have a more conscious lifestyle. So for example, I became a vegetarian and I’m from Argentina. So meat is a part of my family’s diet, but I became a vegetarian. I sold my gas car, and I leased an electric car. And now I drive electric. I tried to purchase clothing only from companies that use organic sustainable practices on the product. And I tried to buy less, to be honest, I try to be minimalistic on my consumption. And so I think, yeah, all these are things that come to my mind.
We are not separate. Separation is an illusion. Same way that we are actually made of trillions of bacteria that inhabit our bodies. We are also cells into a network of beings, and we cannot exist in isolation.
Host Raj Daniels 32:57
Diego, thank you for sharing that. I’ve so enjoy speaking with you. Is there something that I should have asked you that I have not?
Diego Saez Gil 33:06
If anybody wants to help with Pachama’s mission, we’re a small team, but we’re gonna be hiring more people on our team. And so you know, feel free to go to our website. And also to send it to other friends who might be wanting to work on climate. If you want us to talk to your company, about how your company can become carbon neutral, and zero, we can help with that. And just in general, if you want to follow our journey, you can follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn. And stay tuned to our news.
Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.
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