For a long time, biodiversity was just seen as nature. But over the past few years it has started to be seen as a critical part of the climate crisis — and something businesses should invest in.
On Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast, we chatted to Kat Bruce, founder of NatureMetrics, a startup working on DNA sampling tech to track the species present in different locations (and which has just raised £10m), about why biodiversity is important and how startups like hers can help conservation groups, governments and corporates meet their goals. The interview below was edited for clarity.
Why are more companies focusing on biodiversity?
We realised that to deliver on the Paris Agreement, we're going to need about 30% of that to come from natural ecosystems. So we have to invest in protecting and restoring our natural ecosystems at huge scales, so that's why we're seeing a lot more money going into it, a very fast evolving policy and regulations space and businesses realising that actually, this isn't a tick box exercise, it's something that's really material to them and to their own long term sustainability.
How does NatureMetrics work?
We help organisations of all sorts to monitor their impact on nature and biodiversity. At the very practical level, we send out really easy to use sampling kits so our clients in the field can collect samples of water or soil — even of air we're starting to work on. All of those samples contain traces of DNA of the species present, right the way from the microbiome involved in the functioning of ecosystems up to your charismatic wildlife, like whales and monkeys and badgers.
We take these samples and turn them into data by analysing the DNA traces. The data is at a scale where we can start to apply much more sophisticated analytics, because biodiversity is like your classic big data problem, where it's noisy, it's messy. There's thousands of different species in every place, but there are predictable signals within that which can tell us when ecosystems are improving or degrading.
The difficult thing is not how to apply those sorts of analytics, it's how you take nature and turn it into data at big enough scales to be able to apply it. That's the bit that we've cracked with DNA sequencing. And now what we're starting to work on a lot more is bringing in big data analytics and machine learning to get a more holistic understanding of how things are changing, to be able to translate all of that complexity into the really simple metrics that businesses can track to see easily whether things are getting better or worse, so that they can set targets and measure progress against them.
What kind of companies are you working with?
We're working with multinational corporations like Anglo American and Nestlé who have real impacts on the ground that they have to monitor. We're working with the World Bank and other sort of multinational development banks. And we're working with pretty much all of the international conservation organisations. We're working with governments from Scotland to Gabon, and we're working with some really exciting new companies who are working in the environmental market space, looking at bringing new financial flows into the restoration of ecosystems, but in order to do that, they have to pass the evidence base and the metrics and targets that they can work to.
What actions are you hoping or seeing companies take?
A lot of our clients will detect species at a site that are protected or important, which they either thought might be there but had never actually found or which they didn't think were there and then they found. So we're starting to see those companies and other organisations they work with putting in place proper species conservation plans to protect those spaces and to adapt the impact that they have.
This makes sense if I’m a conservation charity, but if I’m Nestlé, why do I care about this?
What we're seeing now is a massive focus on regenerative agriculture. So how can we produce foods and other produce in a way that is less depletive to nature? A lot of that is about adopting different practices for the way that we manage land and creating an evidence base.
With Nestle, for example, we're working with trying out new sorts of biostimulants. So using chemicals that come from kelp, which has been grown sustainably and put into the field to replace some of the more harmful chemicals that were previously being used. If we can build the evidence base to show yeah, this works, you can still grow the food but actually you end up with a healthier ecosystem that is more resilient.
Is regulation also pushing companies? Is there more coming?
It's coming really fast. At the end of last year, there was the biodiversity COP — you hear a lot about the climate COPs, but there's also parallel biodiversity COPs — and the whole world came together and basically agreed a very, very ambitious set of goals to holt and reverse the loss of nature, basically, within the next decade, and that's going to take everybody from the banks and the investors to the corporates, to the people on the ground, who actually know how to make the change. And so that international goal is now being translated by all the governments down into their regulations.
For a company like us, at the cutting edge of delivering solutions in this space, it's an incredibly exciting place to be here. But we have to be engage with all of those different stakeholders, make sure we're part of the conversation and that we remain a little bit adaptable, because everything is evolving so fast around us.
On this episode we also discussed: