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Solve at MIT Insights: Optimizing Marine Tech for Ocean Conservation

Wendy Schmidt, President of the Schmidt Family Foundation, is working at the intersection of marine technology and impact investing to advance innovations that address human-inflicted damage to life below sea level. During Solve at MIT’s closing plenary on May 9, “Science or Fiction—Creating the Future,” Schmidt spoke with Andrew Freedman, former Science Editor of Axios, about how to optimize the relationship between ocean conservation and innovation.

Freedman began the conversation by asking Schmidt about the increasing pace of both marine technology and man-made ocean problems. “When you think of the whole history of oceanography and the hundreds of years people have studied this planet, it’s the technologies that we have today that allow us to access amounts of data and visualizations that just were never possible before,” Schmidt said.

These visualizations were in reference to ROVs launched by the Schmidt Foundation’s research vessel, Falkor. Schmidt emphasized that in a world where a million species are at risk of extinction, speed is key. “We need to use these technologies as rapidly as we can deploy them to make ourselves smarter,” she said.

The Schmidt Family Foundation, which runs one of the few self-funded ocean programs, gives scientists, students, and innovators access to high-performance computing, labs, and a growing suite of robotic tools. “We do all of this in exchange for just one thing: the open sharing of data,” Schmidt explained. 

Though some scientists initially balked at the open source model, there is now “a growing community of practitioners who really understand that they’re going to move faster and go farther together than they would by themselves,” she said.

When Freedman brought up the notorious problem of plastics littering the ocean, Schmidt recalled an anecdote from one of Falkor’s expeditions in the Gulf of California. 6,500 feet underwater, the team came across “fabulous” hydrothermal vents that were teeming with life—and Disney balloons featuring Elsa and Mickey Mouse. While plastic is of enormous value as a material, “We need to keep that value in the economy and out of the environment,” she said. 

Schmidt went on to describe one of the Foundation’s most exciting early investments. The Saildrone, which recently received an infusion of 90 million venture dollars, is an autonomous vessel for ocean data collection that’s more flexible and costs less than a conventional ship. 

“So we look at our job as being the early risk capital in things like [the Saildrone],” Schmidt said. “There’s this huge gap between what people have in their laboratories or in their garages and what can be commercialized.”

In order to narrow this discrepancy, Schmidt called for innovators to dive into the ocean sector, where there’s potential for conservation and profit to work hand in hand. “Go out there, do your research, and figure out what the market really looks like,” she urged. “See if you can accelerate the pace of our understanding of something as complex as the ocean, which has pretty much been under attack for the past 50 to 60 years.”

Schmidt’s final message encouraged people to reorient their perspective of the ocean. Visuals captured by marine technologies can help children and adults alike see their environment as “a continuous landscape,” rather than view the ocean as remote and obscure. From there, innovative solutions that have already been developed on land can be applied to urgent problems at sea. 

“We’ve got to start making the connection between healthy soils and healthy seas,” Schmidt pressed. “They’re not different.” 

Watch the full conversation between Schmidt and Freedman here.

Solve intern Silvia Curry contributed to this article.


Wendy Schmidt speaks in the Closing Plenary, "Science or FictionCreating the Future," during Solve at MIT. Photo: Adam Schultz/MIT Solve

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