To celebrate the new partnership between Flash Forest and The White Feather Foundation, Tassoula Kokkoris spoke to Flash Forest Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Cameron Jones, about his startup journey and his company’s mission for rapid post-wildfire restoration.
TK: I’m interested to know how your journey began. What is the path that led you to create Flash Forest?
CJ: I earned my undergraduate degree in International Development and I spent part of that time [while I was studying] living with a First Nations community doing field ecology. I also lived in Borneo and worked on a nature documentary about habitat loss for orangutans due to deforestation and wildfires. I then traveled to Zambia, where I was responsible for health monitoring and evaluation.
What I learned through all of this is that I really wanted to take my career in an environmental direction, so I earned a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Energy Policy with a focus on carbon capture and storage.
I then worked in the Department of Energy for a number of years in Alberta and became disillusioned with the public sector because I realised that ultimately it was quite difficult for me to move the needle. After proposing many things that I felt very passionate about and coming up against roadblocks, I resigned.
I started Flash Forest with [my brother] Bryce [Jones, CEO] right after that, while simultaneously teaching university courses on corporate social responsibility and sustainable energy policy.
TK: So, how did you come up with the idea for the company?
CJ: A few years ago Bryce approached me with this idea to use drones to plant trees. Immediately I was in!
Part of the reason we started this was because of our childhood. When we were young teenagers we moved to Kelowna, British Columbia. The year after we moved there, one of the biggest fires in Canadian history took place. It took out the entire forest behind our house, it took out over 250 houses and the expectation was that the forest would regenerate and come back after such a big fire.
It’s been 20 years now and no trees have come back behind our house.
So because the forest has always been near and dear to us, we had this idea and started working with one drone. We tried to create these pods that went into the soil and figure out how to use gelatin to stick them together, then shoot them out. It didn’t work (laughs). But we were so excited about the idea that we decided were going to make it work … and eventually, we did.
We went from producing three thousand planting pods in three months to doing 1/2 a million pods produced and planted in a day.
TK: In just four years, you’ve become so impactful in the region. How did you become so powerful so fast?
CJ: It was a series of breakthroughs. First we just tried to drop seeds, which didn’t work. Our first breakthrough was when we came up with a device that could help us produce these pods, which could hold water for a period of six weeks. That was very definitive for the business because we saw significant jumps in germination. The other breakthrough was effectively embedding the pods into the soil because dropping them on the surface doesn’t always work. When seeds get exposed to heat, they can dry out or get eaten. So figuring out a way to get them into the earth was important.
TK: You have a very impressive Advisory Board and expert team that makes all of this possible. How did you build that group, which resulted in such an innovative technology?
CJ: Reading the news about climate change, we decided we wanted to work on wildlife restoration and plant a billion trees by 2028. We got so many applicants when we first started and didn’t have the financial capacity to pay much, so the main thing we tried to assess from our candidates was that they had a good work ethic, were capable, and had high integrity. As long as we knew that they truly cared about the mission and they were committed, it would work—and it has!
TK: What about the things that are out of your control—like the weather?
CJ: We’re trying to plant trees in a rapidly warming climate. Everything about what we’re doing is unpredictable now, so we have to adapt to succeed. We can’t look at weather patterns from the past to choose a site because it doesn’t matter. We have so many challenges, we just think: Who would be the best person to help us solve this? Then we just call them and we’ve been very fortunate that many of them said they’d join our team.
We’ve been so lucky that everyone is deeply committed to the business. We have a problem that needs solving, they’re going to sleep thinking about it. They come up with a new idea, we try it … sometimes it fails, but if it does, we keep trying until we find something that works and then we move forward.
TK: Here in America, we recently witnessed a terrible wildfire in Maui and with climate change, the wildfires all over the world are predicted to get worse. Do you have plans to expand your planting beyond Canada?
CJ: Absolutely—next year, we are going to do some projects in the U.S. I really want to plant in South America. Brazil is very near and dear to me. And then I would also like to plant in Australia. The challenge in our business is that every forest is so nuanced and unique that we need to understand the landscape before we approach the community so we can treat that forest in a way that’s going to be the most appropriate for that type of wood mix. To regenerate the way it naturally was.
TK: The protection and preservation of Indigenous peoples is very important to us here at TWFF. How did Flash Forest begin working with First Nations communities in Canada?
CJ: One of our founders (Angelique) and a number of people on our Executive team are Indigenous, so they help inform how to collaborate with the different communities. We also get connected through partners in the field. But before we get government approval for a project, we prioritize the First Nation partners and speak with them first. If we don’t have the buy-in from our Indigenous partners, we’re not going to do it. Their knowledge can’t be taken for granted; it’s invaluable to all of us.
TK: We were thrilled to find Flash Forest, especially given those principles.
CJ: It’s mutual. When we heard about the opportunity to work with Julian Lennon’s White Feather Foundation, we all got goosebumps. I think it’s just rare finding a partner that is such a good match—an alignment that’s so close in mission—it just makes everything so easy. A shared commitment to bringing back nature.
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All photos used with permission, courtesy of Cameron Jones and Flash Forest.