Inside a secretive Silicon Valley startup trying to save the oceans with tech

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When Matthew Dunbabin After seeing the damage being done to tropical reef ecosystems by overfishing and climate change, he wondered if robots could help. With funding from Queensland University of Technology, where he is a professor of robotics, Dunbabin’s team has developed a prototype underwater robot to repopulate dying reefs with tiny coral larvae.

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While initial results were promising, the prospects for actual deployment of bots seemed dim. “Universities can get stuck in a three-year funding cycle,” he told TechCrunch. “But global problems cannot wait three years.”

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Then in 2019, Dunbabin was approached by Oceankind, a mysterious new ocean charity, who promised to speed up his efforts. “They saw what we were doing and they said, ‘What do you need to scale?’ And they wanted it to be fast,” he said.

In quick succession, Oceankind awarded three grants totaling nearly $2 million to iterate the robot’s design, add machine learning capabilities, and transform it into a robot. multifunctional autonomous underwater reef recovery system, intuitive enough to be controlled by civilian scientists. Queensland-based CoralBots currently operate in Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and the Maldives.

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“What I like about Oceankind is that they understand the real cost of implementing technology projects and are willing to support it,” Dunbabin said. “They were just a dream sponsor.”

Until this week, Dunbabin was not allowed to mention Oceankind representatives. Instead, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which also received a separate $1 million donation from Oceankind, took on the public acclaim for robot research. While Dunbabin can now give Oceankind full credit for the funding, he remains unwilling to name the powerful Silicon Valley couple behind the organization.

Examining California filings reveals that Oceankind was incorporated as an LLC in 2018, operated by a family office that controls many of Google co-founder Larry Page’s properties and businesses. But just last week Oceankind website updated to point out that it was actually Page’s wife, Lucy Southworth, a genetic researcher by profession who founded and runs the organization.

The website also now details how Oceankind has spent more than $121 million to fund a wide range of projects related to marine science, technology, wildlife and climate. This makes Oceankind one of the largest non-governmental ocean science donors in the world.

Casting a wide net for science

Oceankind’s stated mission is to “improve the health of global ocean ecosystems while supporting the livelihoods of the people who rely on them.” “We are committed to advancing the policy, science and technology needed to reverse the growing threats our oceans face.”

Oceankind’s list of grants shows how the organization spreads its network wide, funding everything from offshore wind farms in Japan to seafood cell research. Oceankind supports diversity and representation efforts, funds research into wastewater treatment and sustainable fisheries, and provides grants to science programs from the Arctic Ocean to the tropics.

One Oceankind project that might come as a surprise is the funding of research that deviates from the controversial field of geoengineering. In September 2019, Oceankind convened a conference of ecologists, biochemists and climate experts to explore the issue of Ocean Alkalinization (OAE). In addition to warming the planet, rising carbon dioxide levels are acidifying the oceans, threatening shellfish populations and fragile ecosystems like coral reefs.

OAE involves adding large amounts of crushed alkaline rock to seawater where it will react with excess CO2 to form bicarbonates, which sea creatures use to form their skeletons and shells. Ultimately, they should turn into sediments on the seabed, where carbon is stored for thousands of years.

Although the OAE is still mostly in the theoretical and experimental stage, deploying it on a large scale would be a massive undertaking. official report The Oceankind conference noted that five billion tons of rock could be needed annually, about twice the amount currently used in global cement production.

Few of the conference attendees knew that Oceankind was associated with Page, who, as seventh richest person in the world, has the ability to personally fund a significant geoengineering program. The conference ultimately concluded that very wealthy donors might consider holding “large scale demonstrations” to validate the effectiveness of the UAE on a large scale.

Oceankind has provided at least $18.2 million in grants to non-profit marine science organization ClimateWorks to decarbonize shipping, remove carbon dioxide and the UAE. ClimateWorks in turn recently made grants for limited field experiments with the UAE.

The Secret of Oceankind Money

Larry Page has long had a charitable foundation named after his late father, of which he and Southworth are directors. Over the past decade, the foundation has given hundreds of millions of dollars to donor-recommended funds, tax-efficient charities that aren’t required to disclose where the money ends up.

Moreover, Oceankind itself is not a non-profit organization that is required to open its books in public filings annually with the IRS. Instead, Southworth incorporated Oceankind as a Limited Liability Company (LLC), making it virtually opaque to public scrutiny. Thus, it is not possible to know how much of Page’s fortune in Google has gone over to Oceankind. However, TechCrunch was unable to find any indication in public records that traditional non-profit or government agencies provided any funds to Oceankind.

Oceankind confirmed to TechCrunch that Southworth is funding it and supporting its chief executive in leading the organization, but spokeswoman Nina Lagpakan did not respond to questions regarding final source of its funding. She provided the following statement to TechCrunch: “Oceankind does not currently seek publicity or give interviews to the media.”

The lack of transparency worries some philanthropic experts. “Is it appropriate to put this kind of research into the hands of billionaires to be their driving force financially?” asks Stephen Gardiner, professor of philosophy at the University of Washington and author of the book The perfect moral storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change. “I wonder what kinds of accountability there are, what kind of power they can exercise over what is done and how.”

Page and his family reportedly spent most of the pandemic in Fiji. Last year, Page obtained a residence permit in New Zealand, where one of his eVTOL startups, Wisk Aero, recently completed flight tests.

“I don’t know anything about Larry Page’s preferences,” Gardiner says. “But if he advocates some types of intervention in the ocean but opposes others, it can affect the research program in ways that you might not notice if the projects were run through national science foundations or other institutions with more accountability and political legitimacy. ”

On the other hand, Oceankind seems to be supporting valuable initiatives that might otherwise wither away. In 2021, Oceankind donated $100,000 to SkyTruth, a non-profit environmental organization that uses remote sensing data to identify and track threats to the planet’s natural resources. These funds were to help him put in place a system called Azure which tracks oil slicks to individual ships at sea.

In its first year of operation, Cerulean accurately identified 187 vessels responsible for the deliberate oil slicks using satellite data, machine learning and human experts. “I’m sure the project would have gone ahead anyway because it’s a great idea,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth. “But it’s hard to say if we could have brought this great idea to life so convincingly if not for the support of Oceankind.”

Amos hopes Oceankind will continue to support Cerulean as SkyTruth expands oil slick tracking, eventually to a global scale. And from now on, it looks like the billionaires behind him will no longer hide under the waves.

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