We present a methodology for deriving emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC) using space-based column observations of formaldehyde (HCHO), and apply it to data from the GOME satellite instrument over North America during July~1996. The HCHO column is related to local VOC emissions, with a spatial smearing that increases with the VOC lifetime. Isoprene is the dominant HCHO precursor over North America in summer, and its lifetime (~1 hour) is sufficiently short that the smearing can be neglected. We use the GEOS-CHEM global 3D chemistry model to derive the relationship between isoprene emissions and HCHO columns over North America, and use these relationships to convert the GOME HCHO columns to isoprene emissions. We also use the GEOS-CHEM model as an intermediary to validate the GOME HCHO column measurements by comparison with in situ observations. The GEOS-CHEM model including the GEIA emission inventory for isoprene provides a good simulation of both the GOME data (r2=0.69, n=756, bias=+11%) and in situ summertime HCHO measurements over North America (r2=0.47, n=10, bias=-3%). The GOME observations show high values over regions of known high isoprene emissions, and a day-to-day variability that is consistent with the temperature dependence of isoprene emission. Isoprene emissions inferred from the GOME data are 20\% less than GEIA on average over North America and twice those from the US EPA BEIS2 inventory. The GOME isoprene inventory when implemented in the GEOS-CHEM model provides a better simulation of the HCHO in~situ measurements than either GEIA or BEIS2 (r2=0.71, n=10, bias=-10%).