Treesense: Predictive Maintenance for Urban Trees

When does a tree in the city need watering? You can measure precipitation, but the amount that actually makes it to each tree is quite unclear. To solve the problem, Treesense has developed a sensor that measures the water status of urban trees in real time and keeps them from drying up – you could call it predictive maintenance for urban trees. The founding team presents their solution in our interview.

Munich Startup: What does your startup do? What problem are you solving?

Treesense: Watering urban trees is of growing relevance due to climate change. Cities, municipalities and housing associations award watering contracts to arborists and landscape gardeners, and tree specialists are also often involved. The biggest problem at the moment is that the decision to water is made based solely on the weather. This requires a time-consuming amount of administrative work and doesn’t even ensure that the trees are actually watered properly. This then means that either too much water is used or the trees dry up and die, which can be expensive.

We’ve developed a wearable for trees, which is a sensor that gives real-time information about the drought stress of trees. The data shows remotely and at any time whether a tree needs watering – without any complicated visits by experts. Our software serves as a predictive maintenance system for urban trees by making the decision to water them data-based and automated.

Munich Startup: But that’s nothing out of the box!

Treesense: Currently, soil moisture sensors are used, if anything, to assess whether the uppermost layer of soil has enough water. But this leaves out so many factors, such as soil condition, tree quality or root depth. Treesense Pulse shows the actual reaction from the tree because it monitors the water balance in the xylem tubes of the tree. The solution is also brand new in the world of science for identifying heat stress in trees on a broad basis.

Munich Startup: What is your founding story?

Treesense: As a forestry scientist, Giancarlo had already started researching to find a solution for monitoring the dryness of trees back in 2013, actually with the aim of discovering new indicators to help prevent forest fires. The idea of measuring resistance in the tree actually comes from the field of medical technology, which is how we met up with Julius at the Heinz Nixdorf Chair of Biomedical Electronics at TUM. With the involvement of Prof. Hayden and Dr. Brischwein as well, we were able to develop Treesense into a founding venture with the EXIST grant and got to know each another.

Treesense: Partnership with Stadtwerke München

Munich Startup: What have been your biggest challenges so far?

Treesense: They’re endless! We initially had a technology push, which is an innovation without really knowing the market. After many discussions with experts and users, we were finally able to identify the issue of watering urban trees. At the moment, we’re also affected by the global microchip shortage and had to develop a transitional product, which put us back a few months. Julius did an extraordinarily good job at managing that in hardware development at the end.

Munich Startup: Where would you like to be in one year, and where in five years?

Treesense: We currently have pilot projects with a number of large customers with small quantities on the market. In the B2B market, we can sell our hardware and software to tree experts and landscape gardeners. The next milestone is monitoring that covers the entire area of a city or town. In the best case, we want to secure this kind of project this year. What helps us in this respect are our connections with cities such as Madrid, Munich and Vienna, and especially our partnerships with city organizations like Stadtwerke München.

Over the long term, we want to establish our technology as the standard for evaluating tree vitality. How interesting would it be for us to be able to quantify the effects of climate change on our trees because we have a direct comparison between today and five years from now? As you can see, it’s about a lot more than just watering urban trees. How can we efficiently irrigate in farming to make sure soil isn’t contaminated with fertilizer in 15 years? How dry are the trees in our forests in reality, and what does that mean when it comes to the risk of forest fires? These are the interesting sustainability issues where we want to make a contribution.

“The startup network that you can build in Munich is tremendous”

Munich Startup: How have you experienced Munich as a startup location so far?

Treesense: It’s been very positive as a whole. The proximity to TUM and the startup center with our startup consultant Carmen Baur has really encouraged us. We’re very grateful to have the help. On the other hand, we have noticed that the focus of many stakeholders isn’t necessarily on trees – but we’re battling through that and are trying to raise awareness about the fact that sustainability can’t be implemented as quickly in traditional industries with a classic unicorn case. What we do love is talking with so many other startups that basically face the same challenges that we do. The startup network that you can build in Munich is tremendous.

Munich Startup: Risk or security?

Treesense: From our experience, scientists tend to take the more secure route and would rather test every hypothesis one time too many than not often enough. We’re learning, however, that we can only reach our goals if we go all in. We actually were and are constantly in situations where we don’t know what might happen next. We’ll have just solved a critical problem that could have done us in, and then just two hours later, the next one comes up. But that’s basically what defines life as a founder.