Martin Tengler ’12 can picture a time when aerial drones fan out to map vast reaches of deforested land, and then plant thousands of seed pods that will turn wasteland into new forest.
In fact, he can show you the video.
Tengler is part of a startup called BioCarbon Engineering, the brainchild of a team that formed last year at Oxford University, where he was earning his master’s degree in global governance and diplomacy.
In February BioCarbon took third place among 800 entries in an international competition, Drones for Good, sponsored by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. The contest offered a $1-million first prize. Third place and the associated publicity, Tengler and his colleagues hope, will be effective in raising money from other sources.
Raised in a small forest town in the Czech Republic, Tengler was a United World College scholar who majored in international studies, learned Japanese, explored computer science at Colby—and became involved in the Entrepreneurial Alliance. Four years spent being, as he puts it, “all over the place” academically served him well, as he was admitted to a master’s program in international business at Tufts, deferred to work for a year (at the beverage company ABV), then went to Oxford to study international diplomacy and on to Tokyo University’s master’s program in economics.
Tengler completed his Oxford degree last year and is in his second semester at Tokyo, honing his quantitative skills. “That’s why I’m here,” he said. “So I can add this into my skill set.”
It’s quite a set already, as Tengler has seen his Colby and Oxford studies put to good entrepreneurial use. He is the policy and publicity person on the BioCarbon team, which includes a former NASA engineer, an investment banker, an environmental geographer, and biomedical engineers.
“We get that a lot, that it’s too futuristic. ‘You’re too early with this.’ Well, Facebook, Google—they came along at the right time. We’re hoping that now is not too early. That now is the right time.”
—Martin Tengler ’12
The Oxford team shares entrepreneurial drive and a desire to improve the environment. “We are going to counter industrial scale deforestation using industrial scale reforestation,” says the company’s mission statement.
Part of Tengler’s job has been to help determine where the drone-forestation project might fly—no simple task given the politics surrounding the emerging technology. He used his policy and research experience to determine which regions and countries would be best suited to BioCarbon services. The top two: Brazil and South Africa.
The Skoll Foundation, which supports a center for social entrepreneurship at Oxford, last year awarded the startup its first substantial funding. “Finally, we broke through,” Tengler said.
That money enabled the team to buy several drones and to begin design of the planting mechanism. A prototype arrived just before BioCarbon was to compete in the finals of the UAE Drones for Good Award.
“It’s not just the first prize,” Tengler said, just before the competition. “There should be a lot of interested parties—investors, developers. In terms of connecting with the right people, it’s the right place to go.”
He hopes what seems like a futuristic idea will soon become reality. “We get that a lot,” he said, “that it’s too futuristic. ‘You’re too early with this.’ Well, Facebook, Google—they came along at the right time. We’re hoping that now is not too early. That now is the right time.”
Watch: From the UK: Drones for Planting One Billion Trees a Year