Interview with Dr. Gesa Biermann, Co-founder & CEO of Pina Earth

Dr. Gesa Biermann is a co-founder and the CEO of Pina Earth, a startup with a mission to protect the world’s forests through the quantification and reward of sustainable forestry. Pina Earth accomplishes this through the deployment of artificial intelligence coupled with other technologies. This interview will lend us further insight into the motivation, founding, work, and vision of Pina Earth’s team, as led by Dr. Gesa Biermann–highlighting why we, at The Good AI, are incredibly proud to count Pina Earth as a community member. 

Dr. Gesa Biermann

8 Questions:

Michelle Diaz: Tell me about yourself, and your background. To be more precise, how did you link your academic background with tech? What was the motivation behind Pina Earth’s founding?

Dr. Gesa Biermann: After my Bachelor’s degree in communication studies and economics, I pivoted to environmental science. I wanted to understand how our planet functions and how we – humans – impact the planet’s climate and ecosystems. I pursued a Master’s in Sustainable Resource Management at the Technical University of Munich with a focus on agriculture, soil science, and water management. I loved the hands-on style of the program: We did excursions to local forests, dug holes to figure out soil profiles, and visited farmers. Still, I did not want to lose the connection to the industry. During various internships, the scalability of technology always fascinated me. After my studies, I joined the Management Team at the Center for Digital Technology and Management (CDTM), which is a joint research and educational institute by the two leading Munich universities (TU Munich and LMU). During my four years there I pursued a Ph.D. in Sustainability Science and increasingly focused on the question of how to tackle core social and environmental problems, in a scalable way. My favorite things about CDTM: the group of smart, curious, and highly motivated people I got to meet. Amongst them, I also met my co-founder team. 

Now to Pina Earth: Our digital service helps European forest owners get certified to sell carbon credits. The initial idea for Pina Earth did not come about in the romanticized “eureka moment” that some might imagine. For us, the start was the team and the consensus that we want to have a positive impact on society with our careers. In sum, you dedicate approximately 80,000 hours to your career. It should really mean something. After a structured ideation process and evaluating around 150 diverse social and environmental problems, we landed on carbon markets and the opportunities they offer to align economic and environmental goals. We further learned how difficult it is for smaller forest owners to access this market. That is when we realized that this problem is exactly what we want to solve.

Michelle Diaz: Can you briefly explain the concept of carbon markets and how Pina Earth ties into it? And how what Pina Earth does lends more credibility to the quality and use of carbon credits to fight climate change.

Dr. Gesa Biermann: The voluntary carbon market offers organizations a way to contribute to climate action. To do so, companies can buy carbon credits to support climate projects. A carbon credit is equivalent to 1 metric ton of CO2e. The projects aim to reduce carbon emissions (e.g. by avoiding deforestation) or remove carbon from the atmosphere (e.g. through reforestation projects). While market access is comparatively easy for companies that want to buy carbon credits, it is difficult for landowners to start climate projects and get certified to issue carbon credits. This process takes time, effort, and knowledge of bureaucratic procedures. This is where Pina Earth comes into play: we act as a digital project developer to help landowners finance their forest adaptation measures. 

Now we understand the market side, but why is forest adaptation important? Climate change increases the severity and frequency of storms, pests, and droughts in forests. Our regional forests largely consist of monocultures, which are dominated by tree species that find it increasingly difficult to withstand these challenges. The solution is to turn monoculture forests into mixed forests. The mixture of different tree species with different strengths promotes the resilience of the forest to climate change. This is important because our forests are crucial carbon sinks, absorbing about a third of our global carbon emissions. They also cover 31% of the world’s land surface; in Europe even 45%. By converting monocultures into climate-resilient mixed forests, we ensure that this gigantic carbon sink is preserved and even expanded. Our job at Pina Earth is to quantify this additional carbon sequestration potential and generate carbon credits. 

What makes our approach unique is the focus on turning monocultures into biodiverse mixed forests and digitalizing the manual certification process, to allow smaller forest owners to participate in the voluntary carbon market. We ensure the credibility of our high-quality carbon credits in three ways: First, we work together with renowned third-party auditors, such as TÜV NORD CERT, that are accredited to evaluate climate projects. Second, we develop our projects regionally, which enables us and our partners to track the projects right in front of our doorstep, so to say. Third, our methodology combines high-resolution forest data, AI-based modeling, and the latest scientific research to predict forest growth under climate change. In this way, we internalize climate risk into carbon projects, meaning we can incentivize risk reduction efforts.

Michelle Diaz: On your website, it’s outlined that one of the eligibility requirements for a project with Pina must be that the forest is owned privately or corporately. Is there a reason why governments / public property forests are not addressed? Is there no future plan to coordinate with local and national governments eventually? 

Dr. Gesa Biermann: Currently, we focus on forests that are owned privately or by companies. The reason for this is simple: to stay focused on our initial service offering as a startup. In the future, we plan to work with local and national governments. To understand our focus, it is important to look at the ownership structure of forests. Approximately 50% of German forests are privately owned by many small- and medium-sized forest owners. Of these private landowners, another 50% own less than 20 hectares of forest. And this is not only true for Germany. The average private EU forest area is approximately 13 hectares. We, therefore, have fragmented ownership that sums up to a very large area of forest. If we want to make EU forests climate resilient, smaller landowners need to be part of the equation. With our digital service, we lower market entry barriers specifically for small- and medium-sized forest owners. Next to expanding to publicly owned forests, we also plan to expand to other European countries, as they face similar challenges. 


Michelle Diaz: Explain the intersection between machine learning and satellite imagery, and how these technologies are used in the field of forestry. 

Dr. Gesa Biermann: Satellite and other remote-sensing data (from drones or aircraft) are increasingly used in the field of forestry to complete forest inventories as well as monitor forest conditions and timber use. Depending on the specific job to be done, a variety of machine learning (ML) setups are applicable: For example, extracting tree parameters such as height, crown width, or even trunk measurements is done using different ML approaches. Classifying species is a task, where deep learning approaches yield very promising results. Zooming in on ML and statistics alone, central use cases in forestry are ML-based forest growth models, which predict the future development of single trees depending on various parameters (e.g. site and light conditions) as well as ML-based survival models to predict the risk of different tree species under climate change. Various researchers and companies at the intersection of forest, climate, and computer science drive innovation. At Pina Earth, we contribute to and benefit from breakthroughs in this emerging field with our daily work to bring more transparency and accuracy to forest carbon projects.

Michelle Diaz: Are there any other ventures that are similar to Pina Earth, in other parts of the world? What sets Pina Earth apart from other emerging players?

Dr. Gesa Biermann: There are successful US-based ventures focusing on forest carbon markets, which shows us that we are on the right track, pushing for the same in Europe. Where we differentiate is the type of forest project. Most emerging players focus on forest conservation, afforestation, or reforestation. However, these project types do not try to save the forest that we (still) have from climate change. It’s like building a new single-family home (afforestation – expensive and smaller areas) or leaving swaying old skyscrapers to their own devices (conservation of at-risk monocultures) instead of refurbishing them (forest adaptation).

The approach needs to fit the geography as well: Large-scale forest protection is hardly applicable in Germany, as there is limited deforestation. While afforestation is an important lever to fight climate change, many European countries have high population densities and not many areas available for large new forests. Meanwhile, improved forest management is highly important, as 25% of the forest (3 million hectares) needs to be adapted in Germany alone. Turning endangered monocultures into climate-resilient, biodiverse forests is an urgent task and our focus at Pina Earth. Being a first mover in the European market gives us a significant competitive and time advantage.

Michelle Diaz: Can you explain how the technology you’ve outlined is used not just to combat climate change, but to predict the effect of climate change on forestry at large? 

Dr. Gesa Biermann: Our ambition to counteract climate change through forest adaptation translates into high impact but also higher technological complexity (e.g. forest growth and yield simulation). We incorporate scientific findings from forestry and climate modeling. Using peer-reviewed models, we predict the effect of climate change on tree survival, specific to the area and tree species composition of each of our climate projects. Depending on the tree species and further characteristics of the specific forest area (such as age, species composition of the stand, precipitation, and temperature), we calculate how the forest will evolve over the project lifetime. Because mixed forests consist of diverse tree species and different height structures, their climate resilience and overall survival rate are higher than for monocultures. Thus, they are able to store additional carbon in the long-run.

Michelle Diaz: The carbon credits produced by the sales via Pina are sold primarily to what types of customers? What is the typical profile of the customer? Are there instances of private customers?

Dr. Gesa Biermann: The voluntary carbon market in which Pina Earth operates is growing rapidly. The demand for regional carbon credits in particular is high and continues to grow as companies increasingly aim to invest in climate projects close to the origin of emissions. 

Our current end-customer focus is on sustainability-oriented companies that fund climate projects to achieve their sustainability goals. It is important that investing in carbon credits is a measure that comes in addition to reduction efforts, not instead of them. Additionally, we have a buyer code of conduct in place that describes sectors we exclude from purchasing carbon credits to increase the trustworthiness and integrity of the carbon market. We increasingly see clients with science-based targets (SBT), which is a positive sign for the professionalization of climate commitments. But we also welcome climate action by companies just starting out on their climate journey. What is important is to take action as soon as possible. 

Pina Earth Team

Michelle Diaz: What kind of profiles do you look for during recruiting, outside of technical expertise, what is the common denominator of your employees? 

Dr. Gesa Biermann: What we all share at Pina Earth is that we want to do something purposeful with our careers. We’re proud of our core purpose – to leverage the power of technology for effective climate action. With now 15 employees, we can see that this is also what drives applicants to us. Apart from this strong initial motivation, we also have common values that connect us as a team. These values include a general curiosity to learn, a ‘just do it’ mindset, being kind, managing our resources mindfully, and not taking ourselves too seriously. 

As a climate-tech company, a positive environmental impact is at our core. However, this does not exclude us from having social goals for Pina Earth as well. These goals include an inclusive workforce and investors emphasizing underrepresented groups, employee wellbeing, involvement in company decision-making, and encouraging lifelong learning. We believe that sharing our mission and values as well as being excited about the role is more important than fulfilling a list of fixed requirements. Everyone has a story to tell, and we’re excited to hear it.

Opportunities at Pina Earth

In case you or someone you know is interested in working for Pina Earth, you can check out their current vacancies in The Good AI’s Job Board — there are full-time & internship positions available. It takes a village to work toward a more sustainable world, but we are confident that with companies like Pina Earth, sustainability is well within our reach. 

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