Founder’s Story: Single.Earth
How two founders foresaw a vision where the blockchain can help save the planet
Hackathons can be great places to build businesses — but they’re also places to broker connections. And the two founders of a growing new start-up trying to revolutionise the future of nature by linking it to crypto tokens first met two days before an Estonian hackathon.
“Merit was on maternity leave, and I had my decomposing previous startup on my hands, together with a job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers consulting companies about intelligent technology,” says Andrus Aaslaid.
“It all started from a very local problem,” says Merit Valdsalu, co-founder of Single.Earth. In their native Estonia, Valdsalu and co-founder Aaslaid had seen the destruction of the country’s vast woodlands. It was a debate that dominated the news agenda, and spurred on Valdsalu and Aaslaid to do something about it. At a hackathon event about the future of wood in 2019, the pair tried to solve the problem. “We said wood should be valued as it’s growing in a forest as a tree,” says Valdsalu. It was a mindblowing concept at the hackathon, where most other participants tried to tackle the problem facing the forest after it had already been felled.
The duo won the hackathon. “We got this huge boost from the community that this was a very exciting thing,” says Valdsalu. So she and Aaslaid kept working on the project, working through different accelerators and programmes that enabled them to build the company and refine the business model for nine months. The pair raised a pre-seed investment from Finland’s Icebreaker.vc fund.
“They were the first ones to start to push us to think bigger,” says Valdsalu. They quizzed the duo about how to make it scalable, and to become the fastest-growing land portfolio in the world.
The pair began thinking, and came up with a concept: “We decided we’re going to describe how the entire world works,” says Valdsalu. “We pre-assess the entire ecological value of the world’s nature. And by that, we can scale faster than anybody else in the carbon markets these days.” Single.Earth could do that not by estimating how much a single forest sequesters by hand, project by project — as was done in the dark old days — but instead by harnessing the power of the thousands of satellites orbiting around the Earth.
Using that data allows Single.Earth to tokenise land with the help of landowners by understanding how much carbon can be sequestered based on the rate of biodiversity in an individual parcel of land. At its heart, Single.Earth decouples carbon and biodiversity credits from the sale of natural objects like forests — which can be damaging to those forests — and instead links them to crypto tokens.
Although Single.Earth talks plenty about carbon, their goal is subtly different: to protect nature. “We understood some of the carbon offset projects today actually are not good for nature,” says Valdsalu. “Even tree planting initiatives, some of these projects actually start from cutting down the forest and replanting a new one.”
Instead, Single.Earth mints MERIT tokens for every 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide sequestered in an area of greenery. The goal of MERITs is to become a nature-backed currency that people use as their regular money to make their everyday payments. As MERITs are rolled out to consumers, they can also be bought and held as an investment instrument, or used to compensate for one’s ecological footprint by companies as well as individuals. It’s the first step for crypto involvement in a market for carbon credits expected to reach $50 billion by 2030.
“Merit had an incredibly bold vision to fix what is broken with today’s carbon market,” says Sandra Malmberg, Principal at EQT Ventures, which led a $7.9 million seed funding round in support of the company, which aims to tokenise nature. EQT was alerted to the company by its artificial intelligence platform Motherbrain, and met the co-founders. “We kind of fell in love with each other on that first call,” says Malmberg. “You’re not incentivised to keep forests as they are today. You’re only incentivised to cut them down. The idea to change that was very inspiring.”
The investment allowed Valdsalu and Aaslaid to scale up the business to meet the size of their aspirations. At the time, the company was seven full-time staff, and lacked scientific knowledge. Now they comprise 60 full-time staff and have 20 scientists building the digital twins of forestry and land in the blockchain. It includes eight PhDs, data scientists, ecology and climate scientists working to support the project. “This has been a big validation for us,” says Valdsalu. “Scientists say what we do is important and they’re willing to give up their academic life to join us.”
But it’s not just the cash that has helped Single.Earth. “They have been helping us a lot, both in terms of understanding the complexity of the land issues and pushing us to think more about the nature side, but also how to market it to make it easy and engaging for everyone to consume,” says Valdsalu.
Single.Earth just onboarded the first landowners to the platform to start minting MERITs into their wallets. As the next step, people can buy the tokens directly from landowners. By that, the company enables everyone to pay landowners for protecting nature, and invest in a nature-backed future. Once Single.Earth has rolled out its nature-backed currency to consumers and businesses, it starts to shift towards a fully sustainable economy, where the amount of money in circulation is always capped by how much nature can sustain. “We’re not just inviting them to start buying them,” says Valdsalu. “For the early adopters, we have a limited amount of tokens we’ll give them for free.” These early adopters of MERITs have gathered in the Single.Earth’s Discord community. It’s an open community for people who care about the environment and want to be a part of the journey.
The goal is to change the world. “Let me put it this way,” says Aaslaid. “The world had about half the people it has today when I was born. It had around four times less people when the current president of the United States was born. People who are making decisions come from the universe where Earth had three to four times less people than they have today. We have to provide tools and goals. We have to be good guardians of this planet for our children.”