College of Agricultural Sciences forest technology wins $10K pitch competition

RealForests developed method to help accurately measure, inventory mixed hardwood forest stands; becomes sixth in the college to obtain local startup funding

Brennan Holderman, left, leader of RealForests mapping venture, receives the $10,000 top prize from Bob Dornich, director of the TechCelerator at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Central & Northern Pennsylvania. RealForests is the sixth venture based on technology developed at the College of Agricultural Sciences to win startup funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners or Invent Penn State.  Credit: Ben Franklin Technology PartnersAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Innovators from Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences upheld a winning tradition recently at the TechCelerator pitch competition hosted by the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania. The team was awarded a $10,000 investment for their fledgling enterprise, RealForests. Their victory makes RealForests the sixth team from the college to win one of Penn State’s most prestigious pitch competitions.

RealForests adapted LiDAR, a mobile laser sensing technology, to accurately measure and inventory mixed hardwood forest stands. To demonstrate the need for this technology, Brennan Holderman, a forestry researcher leading the project, held up a tape measure during his pitch to show how foresters typically estimate the timber in a stand of trees.

This labor-intensive method has not changed for over a century. With a large margin of error, this conventional method can lead to an over- or under-valuation of timber values by tens of thousands of dollars. A typical census of a one-acre forest stand usually takes a forester 2½ hours to complete. The RealForests technology, however, can inventory the same stand in 60 seconds. 

An image of the black walnut provenance site at University Park using RealForests' adapted LiDAR. Credit: Brennan HoldermanAll Rights Reserved.

According to the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, the state produces about $5.5 billion in forest products each year. The technology could have significant impact by allowing for better inventorying and management of its 16.9 million acres of forestland.

In his pitch, Holderman noted that the RealForests technology would not replace the forestry workforce but rather make it more efficient and effective and allow forestry professionals to attend to other natural-resource-management priorities.

“We are going to provide more accurate, economical measurements than anyone has achieved before,” Holderman said.

With RealForests, an operator would carry a portable unit with sensors. While walking through a forest stand, a 3D map of the stand is built in real time, allowing operators to identify tree species, which is important to forest management and timber value. That physical inventory with labels will allow RealForests to build an extensive and valuable database which may ultimately be able to leverage machine learning to identify the tree species.

“This was the most competitive and most exceptional cohort in my three years here,” said Bob Dornich, who leads the TechCelerator program, “we’ve had some great companies and great competitors come through — but these guys were a notch above. Every single one of them was a standout.”

“Brennan’s win validates the college’s entrepreneurship and innovation effort,” said Maria Spencer, the John and Patty Warehime Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the college. “Our discoveries address real and important problems, and that makes us tough to beat in these business pitch competitions. I am absolutely thrilled, and so proud of Brennan and his team.” Spencer worked with Holderman to help him develop the business pitch.

Five other College of Agricultural Sciences teams also have taken top honors at the Ben Franklin’s TechCelerator, and another team topped Invent Penn State’s Tech Tournament. Both TechCelerator and Invent Penn State are sources of competitive funds to help a startup reach and realize market success.

The college’s winning teams were recipients of funding and support via the Research Applications for INnovation (RAIN) program, which is a source of funding for researchers who are ready to take steps toward commercializing their research. RealForests won a $25,000 RAIN grant in 2019, and those funds were matched with $12,500 from the Penn State Research Foundation.

Other RAIN grant recipients have included entomologist Nina Jenkins, who developed Aprehend, a natural biopesticide for the elimination and prevention of bed bugs; food scientist Greg Ziegler, developer of AvoColor, a natural food color derived from avocado seeds; and agronomists Corey Dillon and Greg Roth, who conceived the InterSeeder, a piece of equipment designed to allow farmers to seed cover crops into an existing field crop such as no-till corn. All have gone on to launch successful startup companies.

Holderman, whose RealForests work grew out of his master’s thesis in forest resources management, would likely be the co-founder of a startup company that further develops and markets the RealForests technology. The innovation has applications in other industries, but the team is starting with forestry because of the team’s background, relationships and that industry’s need for innovation.

The RealForests team also includes Marc McDill, associate professor of forest management, Doug Miller, research professor and director of the Center for Environmental Informatics in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and Jeff Hershey, graduate student in biorenewable systems.

The college's RAIN program will open for applications later this month and researchers are encouraged to contact The Office for Research and Graduate Education for more information, and to visit the RAIN website to apply.

Last Updated December 16, 2019