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Monarch butterfly
A monarch butterfly feasts of swamp milkweed in Michigan. The loss of milkweed due to the spread of herbicide-resistant crops is seen as one of the reasons for the Monarchs’ decline. (USFWS Photo / Jim Hudgins)

Premier Residential CEO Eli Moreno has helped several startups take flight in Western Washington, but his latest venture focuses on flights of a different kind: the continent-spanning treks of Monarch butterflies.

Moreno is priming the pump for a $50,000 prize that’s aimed at encouraging the development of a high-tech system to track the butterflies as they migrate between Canada and his native Mexico.

“A thousand years from now, we want to be able to preserve these butterflies,” Moreno told GeekWire today.

That’s not a sure thing: Experts say the Monarch population has declined by 80 percent over the past two decades, primarily due to habitat loss, drought and insecticides.

Eli Moreno
Eli Moreno is a Mexico-born Tacoma entrepreneur who serves as CEO for Premier Residential, a company that focuses on property investments, acquisitions and management. (Photo Courtesy of Eli Moreno)

Tracing the precise routes taken by millions of Monarchs each year could help scientists figure out how best to protect them, but today’s methods are woefully low-tech. Researchers typically apply paper tags to the butterflies’ hind wings, and then hope that the tags are found on dead or captured Monarchs.

The nonprofit Monarch Butterfly Fund is offering a $50,000 cash prize to the team that comes up with the best concept for an e-tagging and tracking system capable of providing data at least once a day.

The instrument package should weigh less than 75 milligrams (0.0026 ounce), cost less than $5, and be suitable for attaching on butterflies without impeding their flight. The system should be able to pass along data via a cellphone network or other means in the U.S. and Mexico for months at a time.

Moreno, a member of the Monarch Butterfly Fund’s board, has contributed the first $25,000 toward the prize. An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign has been set up to raise the rest of the prize money, plus additional funding for team stipends.

The procedure for submitting proposals is laid out in a document drawn up by the Monarch Butterfly Fund. Deadline for submissions is April 1, 2018.

Once all the submissions are received, the Monarch Butterfly Fund will pick teams to participate in the prototyping phase of the challenge. A panel of judges will then determine which prototype merits the prize. A follow-up crowdfunding campaign will be set up to support the start of production of the chosen system and to develop the tracking app.

So why is a Tacoma entrepreneur involved in an international save-the-butterfly campaign? Moreno said it all started 15 years ago when he and his family paid a visit to Mexico’s best-known Monarch winter sanctuary, which is not far from where he was born.

“It was incredible,” Moreno recalled. “No one can prepare you for that beautiful natural wonder. I like to say that it’s sacred ground.”

Since then, Moreno has been a supporter of reforestation and community-building efforts in the region. And now that the campaign is delving into high-tech territory, Moreno can’t wait to see what innovators will come up with. Will there be drones? Radio-readable RFID tags?

“We can’t rule anything out yet,” he said.

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