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.