SE Series: Tracking Trees

An Interview with Darren Thomas, Managing Director, DoubleHelix

Getting to know The Social Entrepreneur


DNA extraction technology is now being used to curb the illegal timber trade. Impact Quarterly (IQ) recently interviewed Darren Thomas, the Social Entrepreneur behind DoubleHelix, who is doing all this based on a suite of DNA testing applications built upon proprietary DNA extraction technology to verify the species and origin of wood products accurately and at low cost.

Darren shares with us what brought him to be part of DoubleHelix and what his experience in commercializing a disruptive technology to revolutionize timber and raising capital has taught him.

IQ: DoubleHelix has received a lot of press lately in The Economist, The New York Times and other publications, but we would like to know more about your story as a Social Entrepreneur. What got you started to build a Social Enterprise in the forest genetics space? 

Darren (D):

At DoubleHelix we are tackling the issue of illegal logging and trade of illegal wood products. Illegal logging gets a lot of media attention, but it always seems far removed from our everyday lives. So it’s important to consider that illegal logging is closely connected to organised crime, slavery and other social tragedies that we unknowingly support when we buy illegal wood products from our local stores (where do you think all that illegal timber ends up?). Whilst learning about the illegal timber trade, we found a simple and elegant solution in genetics to tackle the problem.

From a personal level, it became clear to me during my business studies that in order to make a real impact in terms of environmental and social improvement, we would have to do something that makes a lot of money. After all, we still live in an economically driven world and I think that the way to get the best minds to solve the biggest problems we face in the world is to demonstrate that there are significant financial rewards to be made.

Following on from that, we didn’t make a conscious decision to go into the “forest genetics” space. Like many start-ups, we had many re-evaluations and iterations of our business plan to bring us to our exciting, bold (and achievable) objective.

IQ: Was there any inspiration or anyone who inspired you to pursue your dream to become a social entrepreneur today?

D: When I decided to change the direction of my career, I read a book called “What colour is your parachute” by Richard Bolles. Don’t go reading this book expecting to get THE answer. It didn’t tell me that my future was in forest genetics or as a social entrepreneur! But when I did finally meet my partners in the business and we started to define our goals, everything that I had learned about myself from reading the book was entirely consistent with the business we had chosen to pursue. That gives you a lot of confidence and motivation.

Getting to know about The Social Enterprise

IQ: Having successfully finished your proof of concept, what learning can you share with other aspiring Social Entrepreneurs looking to venture into a ‘disruptive’ space?

D: Expect that most people will tell you that it’s not going to work. That’s because most people don’t want to be disrupted!

Capital raising experience

IQ: From your experience, what advise can you give to other Social Entrepreneurs in terms of how to attract investors and raise capital?

D: There are no short cuts to raising capital from good investment partners. You need to have the complete business plan prepared, you need to have a plan for all the key areas like IP, the team and marketing strategy.  Investors always ask the same things because those are the factors that have historically defined success or failure of business. That also means you can only rarely do it by yourself. It’s much easier if you have partners and other people outside your immediate organisation who can guide you through the process and help you to fill in the gaps in your plan.   

Closing remarks

IQ: Given a chance, would you have considered doing anything differently in your journey during the past year? Any last remarks for our readers, such as your management mantra?

D: It’s not been easy and we’ve made lots of mistakes, but that’s the way you learn so I wouldn’t change anything. That’s easy to say now because, fortunately, none of our mistakes so far have led to ruin!