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Meet the Australian founder using drones to plant thousands of trees a day

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Dr Susan Graham is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Dendra Systems, an environmental restoration company founded in 2014. Based in London, Dr Graham’s known for her work across research, startups and inspiring young women in tech.

She was named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for industry in Europe in 2017 and is the former winner of both the 2015 Hello Tomorrow Competition Grand Prize and the 2017 New York Venture Summit Pitch Competition. Most recently, she is the winner of the Advance Award for Emerging Leaders, which recognises Global Australians who represent the next generation of Australian innovators, thought leaders, creators and collaborators.

Founding Dendra Systems

When Dr Graham founded Dendra Systems in 2014, she had set herself the challenge of helping to solve the world’s current environmental crises.

“There really is this collision of challenges that have gone beyond the tipping point,” she says. “We’re living in a period of mass extinction, the rate of which is over 10 times that it’s been in the last 10 million years.

“We currently have 2 billion hectares of degraded land and question marks over the future of food security for everyone on earth. I looked at it and thought, ‘There has got to be the technology to help enable people to turn the tide on this crisis.”

That’s why Dendra was started. She explains that it was the combination of taking on a challenge that has a real positive impact on the environment, and using “awesome tech” to do so.

Dendra uses drone technology to survey and analyse degraded land, and to plot trees using what they call a “sky tractor” to restore the ecosystems. By using drones to both diagnose the problem and solve the problem, the process is entirely scalable and more accurate than other methods of fixing environmental problems.

“Just imagine how nature would do it with surrounding forests and birds coming over and dropping seeds into degraded land,” Dr Graham says. “What we’re going is just accelerating that by putting the exact seeds that are needed in the right place at the right time using drones.”

“These environments are not friendly. They’re steep, they’re rugged, they’re scratchy and they’re trying to keep our out. While the natural world is beautiful, it’s not very easy to manage, so solving the problems from up above it makes the process a lot more efficient.”

“With drones, you have the ability to analyse an entire ecosystem down to a blade of grass. They can capture so much more data in any one day, than traditional methods of monitoring could do over a longer period of time. Then, you’re obviously allowing AI systems to go and analyse that data which again, is just so much more scalable than we could ever think of.”

Credit: World Economic Forum

Supporting women in tech

Dr Graham is a large supporter of women in tech, simply because of the opportunity and joys it can bring. Born an entrepreneur, she knew from a young age she would be using her skills and passion to solve challenges.

“My first experience with business was when I was 14 and trading cattle on my parents property,” she says. “It’s not exactly what you call entrepreneurship, and it wasn’t exactly a startup, but it was certainly my first experience in the world of trading.”

“I became an engineer after getting my PhD from Oxford, which drew me towards the world of innovation and developing technology to tackle big challenges that can be scalable. With this, a passion grew inside of me to make a business that addressed the fundamental sustainability of the earth.”

When asked what she would say to young women looking to join the tech world, she said: “Just do it.”

“It’s so exciting, it’s so rewarding, and it’s a fantastic challenge. If you can become an engineer, or a scientist, what you’ve got to do is just launch yourself into it and not be afraid of failing.

“There are hurdles no matter what you do, but this career path is an exciting and a fun one, I can guarantee it. So, seriously, just jump in.”

The Advance Awards

This year, Dr Graham is the recipient of the Advance Award for Emerging Leaders, which recognises Australians living abroad who have the talent and the tenacity to showcase Australian ingenuity to the world. She has been selected due to her research, her work with Dendra Systems and her use of technology to disrupt the environmental restoration space.

“I was pretty chuffed when I was nominated as a finalist,” she said. “So I was absolutely over the moon to find out I had won.”

“Myself being an Australian, but living abroad for the last decade, it’s been such a wonderful community to always be connected to. It’s helped me understand how Australians can operate businesses globally, and make a real impact in the world.”

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Ellie Dudley
Ellie Dudley is a journalist at Dynamic Business with a background in the startup space and current affairs reporting. She has a specific interest in foreign investment and the Australian economy.