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Environmental Fieldwork Is Slow and Tedious, So A Scientist and Tech Founder Are Digitizing It

by Holly Beilin

Often, even before a real estate developer or construction work moves the first piece of dirt on a property, they must conduct extensive environmental assessments to make sure that building on that land won’t have detrimental effects on the local environment. To do this work, environmental services companies dispatch scientists to the site to walk around, collect data on things like soil, water, the local ecology, wildlife and more.

Currently, Lee Lance says these data points are collected in a tedious pen-and-paper process, and then aggregated in a long form for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It takes up so much of the scientists’ time, says Lance, that “it would be as if you love your job and what you do… but two days out of every week you had to do your personal taxes. It’s that bad.”

Lance, a technology development veteran, first heard about the problem from fellow Asheville, North Carolina resident Jeremy Schewe, an ecologist, botanist, and environmental consultant who had conducted these field assessments for 15 years. They teamed up to find a solution.

Ecobot sounds like a relatively obvious answer — the app-based platform allows scientists to digitize their observations while in the field and provides a turnkey report to send to regulatory agencies. However, Lance, now CEO of the startup, says that for this industry — it’s revolutionary.

“There are tools that do individual parts of this, can help you collect data on a phone, but we have a grander vision,” he says. The iOS app, accessible on an iPhone or tablet, also allows scientists to look up specific vegetation or soils and see their ecological status, allowing them to leave behind the large, heavy binders they used to carry into the field.

Eventually, Lance says it will speed up the RFP process for ecological assessment firms, help with pre-fieldwork planning and mapping, and more. The company claims that in its current version, the app cuts time spent on each project by 40-50 percent.

“[We want to] create operational efficiencies using technology from the beginning of any project through to completion,” he says.

The team, made up of Lance, Schewe (now President and Chief Scientific Officer), and two engineers, had been bootstrapping the development of the platform and technology until last week, when they closed a $450,000 seed round raised from North Carolina-based Cofounders Capital and local angel investors.

Given the wide range of environmental factors, the startup has focused the platform’s capabilities thus far on wetland field data and reporting. Within the next year, Lance says they’ll branch out to additional areas, such as stream assessments, air quality monitoring, groundwater monitoring, or threatened and endangered species.

They’re in an early adoption testing phase right now, with a dozen commercial clients. The seed funding will allow them to expand those pilots to additional companies and commercialize the subscription software within the first part of 2019.

“At Cofounders, we look for great technologies that provide undisputable ROI for customers in industries starving for innovation,” said Cofounder Capital Partner Tim McLoughlin in a statement. “Ecobot customers will see immediate and significant lift to their bottom line when compared to pen and paper or home-grown solutions.”

Lance says the company has no plans to leave Asheville, sometimes known as “Climate City.” Their office is in The Collider, an innovation hub focused on climate science and entrepreneurship. Asheville is also home to the federal government’s National Centers for Environmental Information, which houses the world’s largest collection of climate data.

Lance calls it “a natural place” for the new startup’s headquarters — and he isn’t even trying to be punny.

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