“Soils store more carbon than all living biomass and the atmosphere combined,” says Sasankh Munukutla, ’22, MS ’23, cofounder of Terradot, a startup that is on a mission to accelerate gigaton-scale carbon removal and storage in soil globally.
According to a Nature study, cropland worldwide has the potential to store gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year more than they do today.
“You can think of carbon in soil as a bank, and ultimately you want to have more carbon going in and reduce the amount going out. That’s soil science 101,” Munukutla says.
Terradot encourages farmers to lean into land management practices that sequester carbon from the atmosphere, such as cover cropping and enhanced rock weathering, and to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, like avoiding burning crop residue and optimizing fertilizer application.
The carrot? Farmers will receive training and payment for switching to these climate-smart practices. Terradot will measure and verify their progress for high-integrity, quality-conscious carbon-credit buyers.
“This is a scalable solution that we have today,” says James Kanoff, ’22, CEO and cofounder, contrasting it with a roadmap for 30 years in the future. “This is something for this decade, which is the critical decade.”
A human story
The Terradot cofounders chose this business because they want to avert the risks of a warming world.
“I saw very early on the impact of climate change,” says Munukutla, who is from Singapore. Growing up across Asia, he witnessed increased flooding and forest fires, which instilled in him a strong moral responsibility to work on climate change. Munukutla took two gap years before enrolling at Stanford to serve in the Singapore military as a commander, which further instilled the service mindset in him.
At Stanford, Munukutla worked at the intersection of technology and social impact in multiple domains. Munukutla cites his summer internship at Tarjimly as part of the CS+Social Good Fellowship program after his frosh year as his most formative experience. He worked on technology to scale language translation in refugee camps globally and provided hundreds of hours of free on-demand translation in detention centers in the United States.
“That summer cemented my conviction to use technology to address societal inequities,” says Munukutla.
Meanwhile, Kanoff took a gap year before enrolling at Stanford, and he spent time in South Sudan.
“There was a once-in-a-thousand-year drought that had happened three years in a row with 70 percent of the population food insecure,” says Kanoff, of the crisis exacerbated by Sudan’s civil war. “It was such a worst-case scenario: 5 million people were basically facing a climate-induced famine.”
He says that returning home to California, to a land of grocery stores, was a struggle.
“How do you make sense of those two worlds? And the answer is you don’t. You just work really hard to bring them together,” he says.
Terradot, while driven by the environment, is ultimately a humanitarian mission.
“In some ways, climate change is probably the third or fourth reason we should be improving the world’s soil carbon,” he says, making the case that improving soil carbon will also improve food security and reduce global poverty.
The venture is focused on the Global South because that is where the world’s most degraded soil lies—and also where communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change.
“Improving soil carbon is exciting because it can have an impact across multiple U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. We have an opportunity to have this holistic, multifaceted social impact specifically in regions where people are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” says Munukutla. “That deeply matters to us and really resonates with our past experiences.”
As the carbon market has grown in recent years, so have concerns about credit quality. As a result, the Terradot team is building transparency into their business model, with an advisory board of scientists, going through third-party verification and planning to publish their work similar to an academic lab.
“We want the scrutiny,” says Kanoff. “This is one of the few climate solutions we have today that is scalable, but we have to be able to measure it in a high-integrity way.”
The cofounders aim to build a technology platform that can have a global impact, being equally useful to farmers in Mexico as in Indonesia. The crux is finding a way to measure carbon in soil efficiently and accurately, and with a quantifiable degree of certainty.
Until now, scientists have depended on a practice called ground-truthing to verify carbon in soil, where soil samples are collected by hand and shipped to labs for analysis. The method is as expensive as it is time-consuming.
Terradot is combining traditional sampling methods to get a baseline, together with using biogeochemical modeling and remote satellite sensing and machine learning, to quantify soil carbon sequestration and GHG reductions accurately. Moreover, Terradot is building science backed tools to assess additionality and durabulity and more, ensuring their accounting is of the highest rigor.”
The approach draws on skills that Munukutla gained in the Stanford Machine Learning Group, where his research focused on mapping oil and gas infrastructure using satellite imagery and computer vision, and Kanoff’s research with Professor Scott Fendorf, at the Stanford Soil and Environmental Biogeochemistry Lab. Now they see a chance for these powerful technology tools to combat climate change.
Where ideas take root
The cofounders brought their early idea to EARTHSYS 213: Hacking for Climate and Sustainability, and as a team interviewed more than 100 experts during the 10-week class. By March 2022, they had completed the course and wanted to keep the momentum going.
“We were all really excited. We saw the potential,” says Munukutla.
As did collaborators. By this time, the classmates were in touch with CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, to discuss a pilot program with farmers. It was an Innovation Transfer Grant from the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy that brought the pilot to life.
“The grant was game-changing. It really allowed us to go from the lab, and the abstract of research and stakeholder interviews, to making something actionable happen on the ground,” says Munukutla, noting the project enrolled 100 farmers across 250 hectares in Chiapas, Mexico starting in August 2022.
A year later, they’ve already measured progress.
“We saw anywhere from three to five tons CO2 equivalents in GHG removal and reductions per hectare. It’s amazing to see what can happen with just this first level of practices,” he says.
The growing season
The cofounders have scaled up before. In 2021, Kanoff won the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Service Award for his role linking farmers with food banks during the pandemic. Farmlink, the nonprofit he cofounded previously, is on track to deliver a billion meals by the end of 2025.
In June 2023, Munukutla was named an inaugural fellow in the Ecopreneurship Program, a joint effort launched by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. With the program, he gains access to year-long coaching and funding meant to foster companies that address a pressing social or environmental need.
At the same time, Terradot recruited three interns through the TomKat Center, and in 2023, the startup successfully raised its first round of venture capital.
In the months ahead, Terradot is looking to expand the pilot into a larger project that can reach over a million hectares at full scale with TomKat Solutions funding. To reach farmers directly, they will continue to team up with in-country partners, NGOs, governments, agribusiness, and other mission-aligned partners.
“We want to do this one day for every farm on Earth. So we’re starting really, really small just from this region in Mexico. We’ll see if we can accurately measure it there and prove out the technology,” says Munukutla.
“Ultimately, there are two possible worlds,” says Kanoff.
He describes how in one scenario, farmers could become the world’s chief agents of mitigating climate change, all while better being able to support their families and feed their communities.
In another, agriculture remains as it is today, and 90 percent of the world’s soil will become severely degraded, costing the world economy trillions of dollars, contributing 20 percent of global emissions, and inducing widespread famine.
“Terradot exists to help make that first world a reality,” he says.
This article is part of the TomKat Center Spotlight series designed to highlight the impact and trajectory of the work of faculty and students who received funding through our Innovation Transfer Program, TomKat Solutions, and Graduate Fellowships. Stanford University does not endorse any non-Stanford entities, programs, products, or services listed in the article.