ImageTree: From Forest Inventory Analysis to Serving the CIA

By Adena Schutzberg

imagetree2 It is exciting to talk to people involved with forestry. They are typically very passionate and “get geospatial” in a deep, almost visceral way.

Mark Redlus, CEO, ImageTreeImageTree’s CEO Mark Redlus is one of those people. While not the technical brains behind the company, he does get excited about the unique offering. And, he is very excited about the recent news that ImageTree signed a strategic investment and technology development agreement with In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital fund. Based on my conversation with Redlus, the 25-person, four-year-old company fits right in among other well-known In-Q-Tel-funded geospatial players including Keyhole (Google), MetaCarta and TerraGo. Like each of these companies, there’s one technology concept that separates ImageTree from other players. That’s the first thing Redlus will explain to an interested journalist.

ImageTree is a platform technology company. It pulls together technologies and uses them to fuel data creation. The output from that platform for most customers is a detailed forest inventory analysis for their holdings.

Redlus describes the platform as a three-legged stool with remote sensing at one corner, field work at a second and biometrics at the third. Remote sensing provides one key fused set of data for the area of interest, typically developed from color infrared imagery and LiDAR. Field work is actual boots-in-the mud ground truthing of selected plots within the area. Field crews identify all the vegetation in the randomly selected plots along with accurate GPS locations for each tree. Unlike other companies that provide similar services, which require some 25,000-50,000 field plots to be visited for a 1⁄4-million-acre area, ImageTree needs just 200-500. The final corner, biometrics, takes the remote-sensing data and the field data and creates predictive algorithms (a proprietary process on which the company holds several patents) to predict the landcover situation for the entire area of interest. Redlus charmingly calls that final dataset an “unbroken carpet of data.” The accuracy of the prediction is impressive and makes an impact on customers. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why In-Q-Tel would be interested in these techniques.

What interested me most about this young company is its early success in well-entrenched commercial business. Redlus described two key markets that depend on the company’s expertise: forestry management and climate change/carbon management. ImageTree serves two types of owners/buyers who manage forest lands. First, there are timber investment management organizations (TIMOs), which serve private investors by managing forest resources. Second, there are timber real estate investment trusts (REITs) that own and manage income-producing timberlands. REITs may lease the land to paper companies or conservation groups.

The climate change and carbon “marketplace” is heating up (sorry!) as the new U.S. administration plans out a strategy to combat global warming. To monitor and manage degraded forests (where selective cutting is done) and deforestation (where large chunks of forests are removed or clear cut) you need accurate, detailed data. And, since emissions from deforestation and degradation are estimated to account for about 18-25% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, attending to the forests is serious business (and serious money).

The company sees the infusion of funds from In-Q-Tel as a resource to fund further research and development, even as it grows the existing clients in the commercial space. Redlus was clear that he and his colleagues are still figuring out the best way ahead in these challenging times. It sure looks like ImageTree has found itself in the right business with the right investors in 2009.

Published Friday, May 15th, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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