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Meet the Innovator – Steven Chen, CEO and Co-Founder of Treeswift

Pennovation Works is home to an exciting mix of startups, research initiatives, and innovative companies. As the campus continues to grow, we are highlighting various members of the Pennovation Works community through the Meet the Innovators spotlight series. This month, we are spotlighting Steven Chen, CEO and Co-Founder at Treeswift.

Before we get to know Steven, let’s get to know Treeswift:

Treeswift is building the next generation of forest monitoring systems through the utilization of state-of-the-art robotic and machine learning technology. They provide forest stakeholders with easily accessible precision data and analyses. Treeswift’s goal is to create a data ecosystem for natural environments. This is accomplished by flying drones under forest canopies to gather imagery, information, and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) information. Their services are used in carbon capture and timber value estimation, deforestation monitoring, advanced growth forecasting, and forest management. Treeswift started at a resident’s desk last summer in the Pennovation Center. Since then, they have grown to two garages, workshop spaces, and are continuing to expand.

10 Questions - Meet the Innovator Steven Chen:

We had a great time getting to know Steven! You can check out our YouTube channel for a recorded version of this interview. 

What is your current position at Treeswift, and how long have you been with the company?

  • I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Treeswift. I’ve been there from the start - around three years now, and I’ve seen a lot of growth since then.

What led you to where you are today?

  • The idea of Treeswift started during my PhD in Dr. Vijay Kumar’s lab, where I researched robotics for agriculture and forestry. I saw a lot of interesting problems in forests where you need to gather information, but it was very challenging to get it. The importance of forests are increasing because of the need for nature-based solutions to climate change. It became clear that we needed technology to create a data foundational layer, which is why I started Treeswift.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

  • Getting this technology out of the research lab, and into the hands of the foresters and those managing the land. By bridging connections between technology and foresters, we can build something that they find valuable, had input on, and want to use.

What motivates you to do what you do?

  • Climate change is one of the biggest problems we are facing. As a technologist, I think about the impact I can have specifically within robotics. Robotics can go into complex environments and capture data that serves as the foundation for markets, policies, and decisions that are being made about climate change. We need to identify stakeholders who would find value in the data, scale the information to build data sets, and increase coverage.

What’s the best part about working at Pennovation?

  • Penn has a very strong agriculture and robotics group. Having come from the PhD research labs at Penn, it’s been great working with them on the third floor as well as working with the Treeswift startup on the first floor. It’s been great to foster the connections between the labs and Treeswift. This really shows that Pennovation is a hub of cutting-edge technology on both the academic and innovation ecosystem side.

What has been the biggest challenge throughout the pandemic, and the greatest silver lining from the pandemic within your company?

  • I call our company a COVID startup in that we began bringing employees on at the start of the pandemic. It definitely was a challenge figuring out how to work collaboratively at a time where it wasn’t safe to be in the same room. One of the big silver linings is that we’ve been able to create a culture around the hybrid/remote work model, which is very powerful. This allows us to be very attractive for new candidates, increase our net for potential talent, and hire people outside of the Philadelphia region. 

How would people in your life describe you?

  • I think they would describe me as someone who is always searching and not afraid to try new things. My family and friends have seen me go through a few career changes, and know that I’m always focused on growing and creating an impact.

Lightning Round:

What’s been your favorite food truck that has come to Pennovation?

  • One of my favorites is Pitruco Pizza.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

  • I went through a few phases. I originally wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer, then wanted to get into the finance world, but later realized I loved technology and creating things. This path lead me to Penn and ultimately Treeswift.

If you could travel anywhere right now, where would you go?

  • My wife is from Ethiopia and I’ve never been, so that would be one of my top choices.

What is your favorite holiday or tradition?

  • My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving because it's the start of many holidays, and I get to see my family and friends. It is also a welcomed break in my packed schedule.
Photo of innovator Steven Chen