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13 minute read

A serial entrepreneur with a conscience Eric Ralls, founder and CEO of PlantSnap

A serial entrepreneur with a conscience

Rebecca Harcourt interviews Eric Ralls, founder and CEO of PlantSnap

A self-confessed science nerd and nature lover, Eric Ralls developed the app PlantSnap with the goal of reconnecting people to the world around them. I recently caught up with Eric via Zoom at his home in the US to find out more about him, the app and the partnership between PlantSnap and BGANZ.

Eric, how did your journey begin?

I grew up in East Texas in an oil and real estate family. I’m a long way from home now, both geographically and ideologically. I live in a little ski town in the

Eric Ralls. Photo: PlantSnap.

southwest corner of Colorado. I escaped East Texas to Nashville where I studied Japanese and psychology and then went to grad school in Arizona to study business. Back then Japan was doing well, and I had a Walkman and a Sega console. In hindsight, I think I should have learned Chinese! I got out of grad school and discovered the Internet. It was the early days of the Internet. I was really interested in space and the universe at that time. There was no website about space, so I decided to build one, called Cosmiverse. It was 1999 and that was my first Internet company. It was just a big media portal, with a bunch of writers. You went to Cosmiverse to read about space like you go to CNN or News Online to read about politics and showbiz. It was fun, and successful, and I realised that I could do my job from anywhere in the world. My job was learning about things that interested me and teaching people what I had learned, and I loved it.

My aim has always been to get people to understand science by making it easy and fun to learn. With my current website, earth.com, there’s six million pages of content, one for every plant and animal species on the planet. We also publish about 10 news articles every day about earth, nature and the environment. This is the only earth we’ve got, and we’re not taking care of it.

I was never a plant person. I was just a science nerd. I was having beers with a friend, and in his backyard there was this really pretty flower that no one could identify. At the time, in 2012, there was no easy way to identify it. That’s when the idea of a plant-identifying app was born, and when I filed the first patent. I couldn’t build it, however, as the technology just wasn’t there. I became a bit obsessed with it and then, in 2017, I heard about a branch of artificial intelligence called Machine Learning that was just what I needed. I found some technology that would scale too, on a global level. My obsession could finally become a reality.

PlantSnap is a small team, only about 20 of us in total. My skill is hiring people smarter than me. That’s the key to having a successful business — put your ego away and hire people that are a lot smarter than you. They’ve been able to bring what’s in my head into reality. Our development team is based in Bulgaria, our customer support team and our botanists are spread around the world, and we have about five people in the US. We’re a truly global operation, which allows us to have people working on PlantSnap 24/7/365. We have been a virtual office since day one, using all the tools that people who have been forced into remote working are now learning to use.

Most importantly, PlantSnap is not a company built solely to make money. If I had known how hard and expensive it would be to develop PlantSnap, I may not have done it! My #1 goal is to help the planet by partnering with scientists around the world to help combat and alleviate the damage being done to the ecosystem by climate change. We have also partnered with Snapchat, with PlantSnap being integrated directly into the Snapchat app, which is getting a younger demographic interested in nature and plants. If they carry that along with them into adulthood, then this planet’s got a chance.

Image: PlantSnap.

What does PlantSnap do?

It’s really simple. It’s an app for your mobile phone that allows you to identify plants. Hold the app up, snap a photo of a plant. And in about five seconds, depending on your connection speed, it returns the result.

You get the plant’s name and information, like its taxonomy, habitat, care and uses, as well as toxicity information and its endangered or threatened status. If you like the plant, you click a button and are taken to a website to buy it. Here in America, Amazon sells plants online. During the pandemic, it’s really taken off in a big way. Plant delivery in the US is a huge market and it’s booming. One positive thing to come out of the pandemic is that people are discovering gardening. In Australia, we’ve partnered with Bunnings and in New Zealand, with Kings Plant Barn.

We currently have about 650,000 plants in our database, including hybrids and varietals. If the plant is in our database, and the photo is a nice clear close-up of a flower, it’s 96% accurate. It also works on leaves, but they are a lot harder because they’re very similar across all species. It’s easy to identify plant leaves on the genus level, but once you get to the species level it makes it a lot more difficult, so the accuracy on leaves alone is probably 85%.

We have also developed a global, social community inside PlantSnap called PlantSnappers. People can share their photos, see photos taken by millions of other people around the world, and discuss gardening tips. Right now, it’s a very basic, niche social media platform targeted solely to people with an interest in plants and nature. We’re currently adding many new features that will greatly enhance the user experience, hopefully enticing PlantSnappers to engage with fellow plant and gardening enthusiasts on a daily basis.

Another cool thing about PlantSnap is that it is constantly improving — the more images it has, the better it gets at identifying them. We re-train the identification algorithm every month with the images that users have taken during the previous month, so the algorithm is constantly getting smarter.

As the Internet becomes more pervasive around the world everyone will have access to it, and to PlantSnap. You can see on our website how PlantSnap is spreading around the planet already in the Explore Map tab. You can zoom in to any place on the planet and see what people have been snapping during the past 30 days.

PlantSnap brings nature from every part of the world into the palm of your hand.

You partnered with BGCI and BGANZ. How important are these partnerships to the success of PlantSnap?

Image: PlantSnap.

The main goal of PlantSnap is to map and catalogue every plant species on earth by 2022. PlantSnap users are participating in a Global Citizen Scientist project to do this. This database will be offered as an open-source system to scientific organisations, NGOs, and universities around the world to help them study and address the impact of climate change on every plant species in every country and town on Earth. This is something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago — imagine the manpower and the organisational nightmare. Now, all people have to do is walk around and snap photos of plants.

Having said that, it’s more the partnerships with BCGI and BGANZ that will really make the difference, as well as the one we have with the American Public Gardens Association here in North America. We have partnered with about 1200 botanic gardens world-wide, and those gardens have 700 million unique visitors. This was supposed to be the year we launched the app in about 500 gardens in North America and Europe, but unfortunately 95% of those gardens never got to open, or they did so on a very limited basis due to COVID-19. Because of this, we’re launching in Australia and New Zealand, on 1 December 2020. So far, we’ve got all the main plant species from Australia and New Zealand in our database. The ANBG has given us 18,000 images of native plants in Australia. We’re aiming to get some more from Kings Park WA and also the native list from New Zealand. We hope to have them all by the end of November.

We tested the app in about 25 gardens in the US last year, but its use in Australian and New Zealand gardens will be the biggest yet. We’ve got lots of users in the northern hemisphere, but not nearly enough in the south, and hopefully this relationship is going to make us a truly global app instead of a seasonal northern hemisphere app. It’s going to be really fun to watch the social community when people from Australia and New Zealand start posting plant photos — plants like the bottlebrushes and all the amazing banksias will look like alien creatures to people in the northern hemisphere. That will encourage them to use the app year-round because they’re able to log on and see these plants in different parts of the world that they probably never have and never will be able to visit.

I’m also hoping that these partnerships will help our Global Citizen Scientist project. Anyone going to a botanic garden clearly cares about nature and enjoys plants and should want to participate in helping us with this massive scientific initiative. We’ll be able to track the movement of species across regions or territories as the planet warms or cools in certain places. We’ll be able to track whether or not a plant flowers, and when. If there’s a species not flowering as much as it should in a certain area, then the app will trigger that maybe this plant is endangered or threatened, and that’s when BGCI kicks in and can investigate. Having the gardens on board is the best way to get the message out. Our planet is in trouble and we’ve got to do something. We can all play a role just by taking a few photos.

How will PlantSnap benefit botanic gardens and their visitors?

Gardens don’t have the resources to track who’s coming to the gardens, what part of the gardens they’re visiting, and what plants they’re looking at — or not looking at. This type of information is collected through the app and allows gardens to understand how people are using them. Visitors also have a fun, interactive experience. They can learn about the unlabelled plants — a huge benefit, as many gardens don’t have all their plants labelled. Every plant in the garden will be listed and geolocated in the app. Eamonn told me that the BGANZ members are excited at the thought that they won’t have to be asked to identify a plant ever again, because the time they spend on that is enormous. Another huge benefit with the app is that the gardens get to keep the photos. Surprisingly, most gardens don’t have photos of their own plants, as well as not having any demographic information about their visitors. The gardens also get to keep the photos that are taken with the app when people leave the garden. Every garden has a unique download link and that attributes the download to that particular garden. The app also helps more people discover gardens, as app users are notified about their nearest PlantSnap-partnered botanic garden.

BGANZ partner with PlantSnap — commences 1 December 2020

BGANZ will receive revenue from EVERY PlantSnap download in Australia and New Zealand. The app can be downloaded from links provided at your garden, on the BGANZ website and direct from Google Play and Apple App Stores in Australia and New Zealand.

BGANZ will receive 10% from either the ad revenue associated with the free version of the app, or 10% from the cost of the premium app.

This revenue will be used, in part, to fund plant conservation projects with member gardens.

What does the future hold for PlantSnap?

We’re about to launch a new website. The plantsnap.com website will have a page for every plant that we have in our database, and we’re also doing blogs and articles. Plantsnap.com is going from 100 pages to over 650,000 pages.

There’s also a couple of huge partnerships that we’ll be announcing either before the end of the year or in January 2021, and also a new version of the app that takes the technology to a level that is unheard of. The main problem anyone has in the app is framing and taking a good photo. We’re removing the possibility of user error.

We’re also developing a new app. It’s called

Image: PlantSnap.

PlantCatch. I live in the mountains where I was on nature hike with my little nephews who were playing Pokémon Go, looking for invisible monsters. I thought, instead of looking for invisible monsters, how about looking for plants and learn something while you’re at it? It’s a bit like Pokémon Go for plants. It’s another fun way to get kids interested in and understanding nature and the environment.

What’s been your biggest challenge with PlantSnap?

In the beginning, the biggest challenge was getting enough plant images to train the algorithm. We had to go out and get photos ourselves. Now that we’ve got hundreds of millions of images, it makes our job lot easier. Right now, the hardest part is getting the app to the number of users that we need to achieve the goal of mapping all the plant species on the planet. Now it’s just about growth. The algorithm is just going to get better and better on its own every month, and we just need more people using it. I’ve got 40 million installs so far around the globe. I want that to be at 200 million by 2022. Our partnerships with the gardens will be a big boost to hitting that number.

What are you reading, listening to, or watching at the moment?

I just read this amazing book called Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult. I like to read fiction that has a story based around real science. This book is about elephants. The protagonist studies elephants, so I’ve learned more about elephants through her studies woven throughout this novel than I’ve ever known before. I highly recommend this book. I also like documentaries, anything about space.

PlantSnap benefits botanic gardens and their visitors

Gardens can track who is coming to their garden and identify which part of the garden people are visiting, or not visiting. Every plant will be listed, with information about the plant. Gardens can add unique information about the plants held in their garden. All plants are geolocated. Gardens can keep the images of every plant taken in their garden — an instant photo collection. Garden staff won’t have to answer, ‘What is that plant?’ ever again!

Finally, what is your favourite plant?

Banksias and bottlebrushes. I haven’t seen them in person yet so maybe that’s why they’re my favourites. Otherwise, my favourite is the hibiscus. This was the flower no one could identify in the backyard back in 2012, where it all began. I think they’re just beautiful.

Garden staff won’t have to answer, ‘What is that plant?’ ever again!

Photo: Rebecca Harcourt.

The BGANZ Partnership with PlantSnap commences on 1 December 2020. Any member garden wanting to find out more about the PlantSnap app and how their garden can sign up, please contact Sam Moon, BGANZ Marketing and Communications Officer media@bganz.org.au