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

·6-min read

When Matthew Dunbabin saw the devastation wrought on tropical reef ecosystems by overfishing and climate change, he wondered if robots could help. With money from the Queensland University of Technology, where he is a professor of robotics, Dunbabin’s team developed prototype surface and underwater robots to reseed dying reefs with tiny coral larvae.

While initial results were promising, prospects for actually deploying the bots seemed dim. “Universities can get stuck into three-year funding cycles,” he told TechCrunch.“But global issues can’t wait three years.”

Then in 2019, Dunbabin was approached by Oceankind, a mysterious new ocean philanthropy organization that promised to accelerate his efforts. “They saw what we were doing and said, 'what do you need to scale?' And they wanted it to be quick,” he said.

In rapid succession, Oceankind provided three grants totaling almost $2 million to iterate the robot’s design, add machine learning capabilities and transform it into a multi-functional autonomous underwater reef restoration system, intuitive enough to be operated by citizen scientists. Queensland’s CoralBots are now being put to work in Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and the Maldives.

“What I like about Oceankind is that they recognize the true cost of doing technology projects and they’re prepared to support it,” said Dunbabin. “They’ve been absolutely a dream funder.”

Until this week, Dunbabin was not allowed to mention Oceankind. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which funded an early version of the underwater robot (and which also received a separate $1 million donation from Oceankind), took public credit for that research. While Dunbabin can now give credit to Oceankind for the latest funding, he is still unwilling to identify the Silicon Valley power couple behind the organization

An examination of California state filings show that Oceankind was incorporated as an LLC in 2018, managed by a family office that controls many of Google co-founder Larry Page’s properties and businesses. But it was only last week that Oceankind’s website was updated to indicate that it was actually Page’s wife, Lucy Southworth, a research geneticist by profession, who founded and directs the organization.

The website also now details how Oceankind has spent more than $121 million funding a broad range of projects related to marine science, technology, animal life and climate. That makes Oceankind one of the biggest non-governmental funders of ocean science 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 people who rely on them.” “We seek to advance the policy, science, and technology necessary to reverse the growing threats facing our oceans.”

Oceankind’s list of grants shows the organization casting its net widely, funding everything from off-shore wind farms in Japan to cell-based seafood research. Oceankind has supported diversity and representation efforts, funded research into sewage control and sustainable fisheries, and made grants to science programs from the Arctic Ocean to the tropics.

One Oceankind project that may raise eyebrows is its funding of research that strays into the controversial area of geoengineering. In September 2019, Oceankind convened a conference of ecologists, biochemists and climate experts to look into ocean alkalinity enhancement (OAE). As well as warming the planet, rising levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying the oceans, threatening shellfish populations and delicate ecosystems like coral reefs.

OAE involves adding large quantities of ground-up alkaline rock into seawater, where it would react with excess CO2 to form bicarbonates that sea creatures use to form their skeletons and shells. These should ultimately end as sediment on the seafloor, storing the carbon for millennia.

Although OAE is still mostly at a theoretical and experimental stage, deploying it at scale would be a massive undertaking. The official report from Oceankind’s conference noted that it could require five billion tons of rock annually, which is about twice the quantity currently used in global cement production.

Few attendees at the conference knew that Oceankind had a connection to Page, who, as the seventh richest person in the world, is in a position to personally fund a significant geoengineering program. The conference ultimately concluded that very wealthy donors could consider “large-scale demonstrations” to validate the effectiveness of OAE at scale.

Oceankind has given marine science nonprofit ClimateWorks grants totaling at least $18.2 million, dedicated to decarbonizing shipping, carbon dioxide removal and OAE. ClimateWorks in turn recently made grants for limited OAE field experiments.

The mystery of Oceankind’s money

Larry Page has long had a charitable foundation, named after his deceased father, of which he and Southworth are both directors. Over the last decade, that foundation has given hundreds of millions of dollars to donor-advised funds -- tax-efficient charitable vehicles that are not required to disclose where the money eventually ends up.

Moreover, Oceankind itself is not a nonprofit, which are required to open their books every year in public filings to the IRS. Instead, Southworth incorporated Oceankind as a limited liability company (LLC), making it virtually opaque to public scrutiny. It is thus impossible to know how much, if any, of Page’s Google fortune has ended up at Oceankind. However, TechCrunch could find no indication in public records of traditional nonprofits or government agencies providing Oceankind with any funds.

Oceankind confirmed to TechCrunch that Southworth resources it, and supports its executive director in leading the organization, but spokesperson Nina Lagpacan did not respond to questions regarding the ultimate source of its funding. She did provide TechCrunch with this statement: “Oceankind is not seeking visibility nor conducting media interviews at this time.”

This lack of transparency worries some experts in philanthropy. “Is it appropriate to put this kind of research into the hands of billionaires for them to be the drivers of it financially?” asks Stephen Gardiner, a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington and author of A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. “I wonder about what sorts of accountability are in place, what sorts of power they might be exercising over what’s being done and how.”

Page and his family are reported to have spent much of the pandemic in Fiji. Last year, Page was granted New Zealand residency, where one of his eVTOL startups, Wisk Aero, recently completed flight tests.

“I don't know anything about Larry Page’s preferences,” says Gardiner. “But if he’s in favor of some kinds of interference with the ocean but against others, that could influence the research agenda in a way you might not see if projects were being run through national science foundations or other institutions with more accountability and political legitimacy.”

On the flip side, Oceankind does seem to be empowering valuable initiatives that might otherwise languish. In 2021, Oceankind gave $100,000 to SkyTruth, a nonprofit environmental watchdog that uses remote sensing data to identify and monitor threats to the planet's natural resources. The funds were to help it operationalize a system called Cerulean that tracks oil slicks back to individual ships at sea.

Over its first year of operation, Cerulean positively identified 187 vessels responsible for deliberate oil slicks, using satellite data, machine learning and human experts. “I’m confident the project would have happened anyway because it's a great idea,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth. “But it’s hard to say if we would have fleshed out this great idea as compellingly, if we hadn't had support from Oceankind.”

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

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