When Her Industry Fell Behind the Times, This Founder Took Disaster Planning Into Her Own Hands

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

By Megan O’Brien, finance and business editor
6-minute read


In short:

  • Geospiza co-founder and CEO Sarah Tuneberg brought data-driven efforts to the emergency management industry to help mitigate the consequences of climate disasters.
  • Despite a lack of business and technological experience, Tuneberg successfully navigated the startup world through actively taking risks and making connections.
  • Adopting a “yes, and” attitude toward obstacles helped make the process of launching Geospiza less intimidating – and a success.


Sarah Tuneberg was hunched over her notes, toggling between countless tabs in Excel and Chrome, looking for a piece of transparency film so she could draw on a paper map, when she came to the realization.

“I was making life or death decisions with [terrible] technology,” she said.

As an emergency manager in a services consulting business, Tuneberg had helped state and national governments, international organizations and large corporations prepare for emergencies, primarily through data and modeling. Some of the hazards she considered were manmade or terrorism-related. However, Tuneberg’s business primarily handled preparedness for weather-induced natural disasters. She was working on plans for Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when the epiphany hit.

“I had friends in the private sector that had these amazing business intelligence tools. They had graphs of every tweet they had ever sent and how long people had looked at it,” Tuneberg said, “yet I was making huge decisions that affected people’s lives with a crazy manual process.”

“I had friends in the private sector that had these amazing business intelligence tools. ... yet I was making huge decisions that affected people’s lives with a crazy manual process.”  

 Today, Tuneberg is the CEO and co-founder of Geospiza, a first-of-its-kind software company dedicated to improving disaster outcomes through data. A star in the Denver startup scene, Geospiza has garnered attention for its powerful mission – and its passionate female founder.

Sarah Tuneberg's startup, Geospiza, helps cities prepare for natural disasters.ariel view


The head and the heart of Geospiza’s launch

After more than a decade in emergency preparedness and public health, Tuneberg knew where the problems were in her industry. The research was clear that humans, particularly those in vulnerable populations, were suffering from a lack of resources and preparation when it came to natural disasters. People with disabilities, older adults, people of color and lower-income populations tended to be disproportionately affected by adverse outcomes in climate disasters, as she had seen in incidents like Hurricane Harvey and wildfires in Northern California . To her, it seemed that all  the systemic problems in the world were increased and magnified by natural hazards.

Yet the services consulting industry wasn’t helping, due to its reliance on outdated methods and the increasing frequency of major natural disasters. While the information to improve outcomes for underserved groups technically existed, it didn’t live in a modern, integrated platform. Instead, it remained in binders or a convoluted spreadsheet – which made insights difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.

A self-professed data junkie, Tuneberg knew the power and value of making evidence-based decisions. At the time, the hype behind the internet of things (IoT) was hitting its peak. The idea of devices all around the world collecting and sharing data brought the question to mind: Why can’t we do that for climate disasters?

The Geospiza software uses data from multiple sources to predict how a natural disaster might impact a region.screenshot

An online platform that pulled pertinent data from sources – weather outlets, transportation sensors, the Census, social media feeds, historic disaster data and real-time event specifics – would be invaluable in protecting communities. Those insights could then be mapped to illustrate vulnerabilities and high-risk areas, thus converting the nature of emergency management from reactive to proactive.

“We were working on big, ugly problems, and we needed to be able to scale [our scope and agility in approaching them] ,” said Tuneberg. “That was the moment where we said, ‘We’re going to bring in all this data to make really rapid, informed decisions. No more paper maps.’ That was really the head and the heart of the impetus behind Geospiza.”

"We said, ‘We’re going to bring in all this data to make really rapid, informed decisions. No more paper maps.’"




Where to begin?

The idea was the easy part. Tuneberg had degrees in public health and social work but no experience in business or technology. She ended up asking someone to meet for coffee to get advice on where to start.

“I had never asked to meet someone for coffee before,” she laughed. “Now I do it all the time.”

With the advice in hand to join TechStars, a Boulder-based startup accelerator, Tuneberg went to a Silicon Valley IoT conference to learn more about the scene she was trying to enter. She registered for the conference as a startup after learning that was the cheapest way to attend, even though she hadn’t come close to launching a business yet . After discovering that a pitch competition was being held as well, Tuneberg took the leap – and entered that too.

“I didn’t know what a pitch competition was. I had no idea what a pitch deck was. I just knew absolutely nothing. So, I just cobbled together an awful pitch deck. And I show up the next morning thinking it’s going to be about 10 people. There was around 500 people,” she said ruefully. “And it didn’t work great. It wasn’t a great moment for me.”

“I didn’t know what a pitch competition was. So, I just cobbled together an awful pitch deck. And it didn’t work great.”  

 However, her presentation attracted the attention of one of the judges, an investment manager for Motorola, who said, “You have a lot of work to do, but I get what you are talking about. Let’s talk.”

After the pitch competition, Tuneberg wrote to her eventual co-founder and CTO, Craig Kalick, about a data competition where developers, analysts and entrepreneurs would work together to solve big problems by building business apps and predictive modeling. Together, they won, which provided them with prize money to grow the idea of Geospiza.

After a failed pitch, Tuneberg became expert at explaining her software to investors.


Mapping the path to success

Tuneberg and Geospiza have come a long way from those initial, uncertain days. Since its inception two years ago, Geospiza has garnered numerous accolades, including:

Last year, Geospiza secured $1M in seed funding , the common term for the first batch of money a startup takes from venture capitalists. It also won a National Science Foundation Grant.


The “yes, and” mentality 

Tuneberg credits the growth of Geospiza to what she calls a “yes, and” attitude.

“Physically, emotionally and intellectually, it is very uncomfortable not to know what to do [to get your business off the ground],” she said. “If you had told me what I didn’t know, what I would have to do and learn, I don’t know if I would have done it. But it was kind of like this slow unveiling at the time of what I needed to do.”

“Physically, emotionally and intellectually, it is very uncomfortable not to know what to do [to get your business off the ground].”  

 Instead of getting discouraged upon discovering gaps in her knowledge, she took on a perspective of “Oh, well. I’m learning.” As each obstacle arose in the creation of Geospiza, she tackled that and looked forward to what was next.

“I would say, ‘Sure, I’ll give that a go.’ And then it worked out, and the next thing worked out, and then the next,” she continued. “[It was] never exactly how I thought it was going to go, but it worked.”

For example, after her “terrible” first pitch competition and deck, Tuneberg kept working on her pitch.

“I invested in a lot of prep. Practice, practice, practice,” she iterated. “There are hilarious videos from TechStars where I pitched a billion times. I’m pitching all the other founders in my class and we’re all talking at the same time just to get it. And so, I got very good at public speaking and won a lot of Geospiza’s startup money from competitions."

This approach is “half who I am and half blind inexperience,” she said. “Just try. You never know what will happen.”

The Geospiza software shows numerous "pathways" of actions that cities can take to prepare for disaster.geos screenshot


The bottom line

In terms of future plans, Tuneberg has one major goal in mind: get at least 10 more incredible global companies for Geospiza’s growing client roster in the next 12 months. Long-term, though, her outlook is a little less quantitative.

“In the long run, I don’t know what [success] looks like for us,” she said. “I don’t know if we get acquired by another company. But what we want to keep doing is waking up every day and using data to reduce risk in climate. And however that looks, we’re in.”

Geospiza is rather aptly named – for more reasons than one. The unique name refers to Darwin’s finches (genus: geospiza). These birds became famous for their uncanny ability to adapt and evolve in order to survive the conditions around them.

Geospiza aims to equip organizations to do the same in the face of escalating climate risk. However, the company’s ability to adapt and evolve in the face of a competitive startup landscape seems to encapsulate the name quite fittingly as well.