Inside The Secretive Silicon Valley Startup Trying To Save the Oceans with Tech

Inside The Secretive Silicon Valley Startup Trying To Save the Oceans with Tech

When Matthew Dunbabin observed the destruction caused by overfishing and climate change on tropical reef ecosystems, he wondered if robots could assist. Dunbabin’s team created prototype surface and underwater robots to reseed dying reefs with microscopic coral larvae with funding from Queensland University of Technology, where he is a professor of robotics. While the early findings were good, it appeared that the bots would not be deployed. He told TechCrunch that universities often become caught in three-year financing cycles. “However, global challenges cannot be postponed for three years.”

Dunbabin was then approached in 2019 by Oceankind, a mysterious new ocean philanthropic company that offered to help him speed his work. “They observed what we were doing and said, ‘What do you need to scale?'” says the narrator. “They also wanted it to be quick,” he explained. Oceankind awarded three grants totalling almost $2 million in quick succession to improve the robot’s design, add machine learning capabilities, and convert it into a multi-functional autonomous underwater reef restoration system that is simple enough for citizen scientists to operate. CoralBots from Queensland are currently being used in Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Maldives.

“What I admire about Oceankind is that they understand and are willing to fund the genuine expense of conducting technological initiatives,” Dunbabin remarked. “They’ve been an absolute dream funder,” says the author. Dunbabin was not authorized to discuss Oceankind until this week. The research was credited to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which financed an early version of the underwater robot (and also got a separate $1 million gift from Oceankind). While Dunbabin can now attribute the current financing to Oceankind, he refuses to name the Silicon Valley power couple behind the charity.

Oceankind was created as an LLC in 2018, according to California state papers, and is administered by a family office that owns several of Google co-founder Larry Page’s holdings and enterprises. However, Oceankind’s website was just recently changed to reflect that the group was formed and directed by Page’s wife, Lucy Southworth, a research geneticist by profession. The website now includes information on how Oceankind has spent more than $121 million on a variety of initiatives involving marine research, technology, animal life, and climate change. As a result, Oceankind is one of the world’s largest non-governmental financiers of ocean science.

Science is being cast a wide net. “To promote the health of global ocean ecosystems while supporting the livelihoods of those who rely on them,” says Oceankind’s mission statement. “We are working to promote the policy, knowledge, and technology needed to counteract the mounting dangers to our seas.” Oceankind’s grant list demonstrates that the company casts a wide net, sponsoring anything from off-shore wind facilities in Japan to research into cell-based seafood. From the Arctic Ocean to the tropics, Oceankind has supported diversity and representation initiatives, financed research into sewage management and sustainable fishing, and given funds to science programs.

One Oceankind project that could raise some eyebrows is its support of research into the contentious field of geoengineering. Oceankind held a symposium of ecologists, biochemists, and climate scientists in September 2019 to discuss ocean alkalinity augmentation (OAE). Carbon dioxide levels are growing, which is acidifying the oceans and endangering shellfish populations and sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs. OAE entails dissolving vast amounts of ground-up alkaline rock in saltwater, where it reacts with excess CO2 to generate bicarbonates, which are used by sea animals to build their bones and shells. These should eventually end up as silt on the bottom, where the carbon will be stored for millennia.

Although OAE is still primarily theoretical and experimental, it would be a major task to implement it at scale. According to the official report from Oceankind’s conference, five billion tons of rock per year might be required, which is about double the amount now utilized in worldwide cement production. Few conference participants were aware that Oceankind had ties to Page, who, as the world’s seventh richest man, is in a position to directly fund a substantial geoengineering program. 

The meeting came to the conclusion that very rich contributors should pursue “large-scale demonstrations” to prove OAE’s efficacy at scale. Oceankind has awarded ClimateWorks, a marine research NGO, at least $18.2 million in funds for decarbonizing shipping, carbon dioxide removal, and OAE. ClimateWorks, in turn, has provided funding for a limited number of OAE field trials.