In a post-covid world, Whaleseeker bucks trend of purpose-profit startups

Emily Charry Tissier has a fun but challenging mission ahead of her along with her colleagues at Whaleseeker. The Montreal startup, recently accepting into Techstars AI, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to improve whale monitoring efforts.

On the one hand, the company is a for-profit business. On the other, Whaleseeker possesses an inherently conservationist set of values in its work alerting people and organizations to safely coexist with whales. In fact, Whaleseeker is vying for a full B-Corp certification, a seal of approval for businesses that balance purpose and profit.

But this leaves them caught in the middle.

“It’s a tough space to be in, for purpose and profit. Traditional investors may not turn their attention to us because we’re so niche, so we really have to prove our monetary value to them,” said Tissier. “And then on the other hand, a lot of the funding foundations that want to invest in environmentally-friendly and climate-friendly things might not invest because we’re a for-profit company.”

Like the saying goes, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Perhaps this is a small issue to navigate in what looks to be a promising future for the young startup. And it’s hard not to cheer for a company trying to protect these socially-intelligent marine mammals.

Moreover, “impact investing” is growing locally here in Montreal and around the world. Just a few months ago former Real Ventures partner Sylvain Carle left the venture capital firm to join SecondMuse, an international fund focused on environmentally-friendly funding.

“Especially in a post-covid world, people are refocusing in a healthier, more balanced way. It’s an exciting trend,” said Tissier. “I see it as a very positive sign for the future in how we can develop and use AI ethically.”

Whaleseeker was founded in 2018 by Tissier, her husband Bertrand Charry and third cofounder Antoine Gagné-Turcotte. Prior to founding the company, Tissier and Charry spent approximately 1,200 hours combing through more than 6,000 aerial photographs of whales for the World Wildlife Fund. Before that, Charry analyzed more than 3,300 aerial photos by hand for his masters degree in biology at McGill University.

Their technology uses AI to speed up analysis of aerial photographs and other methods measuring the presence of whales. To do that, they use aerial drones or cameras mounted on the bottom of aircraft. The data Whaleseeker provides helps strengthen environmental impact assessments, and ultimately, help governments decide hunting quotas, fishing closures, shipping lane management and more.

Whaleseeker’s business comes from organizations seeking to make good on regulatory or value-driven pacts. Freight ships want to avoid whales. Oil and gas companies are mandated to detect whale populations during seismic studies and ocean exploration vessels. They’re mandated to keep clear of marine mammals within three to five kilometres of their vessel. Currently that’s done by humans using binoculars.

This data isn’t easily audited, as one may imagine, and its methodology isn’t ideal.

“It’s one challenge to detect when a marine mammal has entered an area. It’s another challenge to declare that space free of marine mammals, so the ships can continue working and not lose money,” explained Tissier. “It’s a tough ask when humans need to monitor this. We want to offer thermal imagery, being able to see in a wider range of weather conditions, and at night, so they can comply with regulations.”

The cofounder says using better monitoring technology would help industry comply with marine regulations and, ultimately, prove less costly to their bottom lines. Fishing closures happen for weeks at a time, translating to lost business for vessels. But with better technology, dynamic fishing lanes could be managed in just hours.

“The bottleneck there is the amount of data and the quality of data. You need more and better special and temporal data, and that’s what we’re trying to offer our clients,” said Tissier.

Meanwhile, another Whaleseeker client, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, wants to adequately manage the populations present in its waters. Other clients can include environmental impact assessment firms.

“They all have the same problem,” Tissier told Quebec Science. “They need to examine their images faster, at lower cost, and get results.”

Why whales?

Whales are a very fascinating species for us humans. There’s a tremendous amount of interest and fanfare for them. We know they possess social and communicative intelligence, but we don’t yet fully understand how that works. We don’t understand whale culture as much as we’d like to, said Tissier.

They’re “charismatic megafauna,” Tissier said with a laugh.

It all started with Bertrand Charry’s studies with aerial photography, where one can determine the sex of a whale based on whether they have a tusk (males). From there, they could grasp population and the overall health of that group. From this research, they saw that there was a need to develop protocols on detecting young marine mammals.

Since Tissier worked in ecology and statistics, the World Wildlife Fund opportunity proved a natural opportunity for the pair to work together. Through their work with aerial photography, they were able to successfully detect two marine areas where extra monitoring was necessary. Soon other organizations contacted the couple asking them to analyze their aerial imagery.

“Once you’ve gone through a couple thousands of these images, you think to yourself, ‘there must be a more efficient way of doing this than scanning images on a computer screen.’ There’s only so much a human being can do in a day and remain accurate,” said Tissier.

The available solutions at the time didn’t fully meet their needs. The ones that did weren’t accessible, demanding six-figure contracts. “We saw a gap in a service and decided to solve it ourselves,” she said.

When whale health comes front and centre in front of us

Whales seem to captivate national attention for brief spells of time. In the summer, a humpback whale found itself hanging out in Montreal’s Old Port for a few days. Spectators were quick to crowd around watching, but most experts forewarned danger. The male was 400 kilometres away from its natural habitat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and its new freshwater surroundings weren’t suited for it over the long term.

Weeks later, said experts, the whale was dead, likely as a result of being hit by a ship. News articles suggested that a large ship “would never see or notice” a whale, especially at night.

“It’s is a case that our technology would like to prevent,” said Tissier. “The problem with a lot of automated detection technology is that everyone wants innovation but no one wants to take a risk on it. They’ll only use it after others have used it. We need to harness the power of AI that other industries have used and make it accessible to the masses,” said Tissier.

Whaleseeker wants to develop a tool that’s powerful enough for oil and gas, government and researchers to use, but simple and inexpensive enough for everyday boaters or a mom-and-pop whale-watcher tourist boats to use as well. Tissier wants to develop a cheaper, off-the-shelf technology where clients can feed those images through Whaleseeker’s API. Whaleseeker’s team can analyze the images in real time and let them know if whales are around their boat so they can take safe measures.

They want to be able to offer a system that combines data with expert analysis to boost capabilities of detecting whales in a greater range of environmental conditions. Their tool would offer 360 degree viewing around a ship as opposed to just scanning waters.

And that tool could prevent one of the situations we had in the Saint Lawrence this past summer.

Seeing a whale, says Tissier, is emotional and powerful for people. Their excitement comes in pairing that magic with their technological innovation, through Bertrand’s decade of experience studying how these whales move to their AI solution developed by Gagné-Turcotte.

It’s an exciting mission, says Tissier, to offer a solution that will enable her own daughter to grow up with healthy whales populating waters.

Up next for Whaleseeker will be Techstars AI Demo Day, which streams live on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Grab your tickets here.

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