When Matthieu Dunbabin given the devastation caused to 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 a prototype underwater robot to reseed dying reefs with tiny larvae of coral.
While initial results were promising, the prospects for actual bot deployment seemed dim. “Universities can get stuck in three-year funding cycles,” he told TechCrunch. “But global issues cannot wait three years.”
Then in 2019, Dunbabin was approached by Oceankind, a mysterious new ocean philanthropy organization who promised to accelerate his efforts. “They saw what we were doing and said, ‘what do you need to adapt?’ And they wanted it to be quick,” he said.
In quick succession, Oceankind provided three grants totaling nearly $2 million to iterate the robot’s design, add machine learning capabilities, and turn it into a self-contained multifunctional underwater reef restoration system, intuitive enough to be used by citizen scientists. Queensland’s CoralBots are now in use in Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and the Maldives.
“What I love about Oceankind is that they recognize the true cost of technology projects and are willing to bear it,” Dunbabin said. “They’ve absolutely been a dream funder.”
Until this week, Dunbabin was not allowed to mention Oceankind. Instead, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which also received a separate $1 million donation from Oceankind, took public credit for the robot research. Although Dunbabin can now give all credit to Oceankind for the funding, he still refuses to identify the Silicon Valley power couple behind the organization.
A review of California state filings shows Oceankind was incorporated as an LLC in 2018, run by a family office that controls many of the properties and businesses of Google co-founder Larry Page. But it wasn’t until last week that Oceankind’s website was updated to say it was in fact Page’s wife, Lucy Southworth, a research geneticist by profession, who founded and runs the organization.
The website also details how Oceankind has spent over $121 million to fund a wide range of projects related to marine science, technology, animal life and climate. This makes Oceankind one of the largest non-governmental funders of ocean science in the world.
Cast a wide net for science
Oceankind’s declared mission is “to improve the health of the world’s ocean ecosystems while supporting the livelihoods of the people who depend on them”. “We seek to advance the policy, science and technology needed to reverse the growing threats facing our oceans.”
Oceankind’s list of grants shows the organization casting its net widely, funding everything from offshore wind farms in Japan to cellular research on seafood products. Oceankind has supported diversity and representation efforts, funded research on wastewater control and sustainable fisheries, and awarded grants to science programs from the Arctic Ocean to the tropics.
One Oceankind project that may raise some eyebrows is its funding of research that strays into the controversial field of geoengineering. In September 2019, Oceankind convened a conference of ecologists, biochemists, and climate experts to examine ocean alkalinity enhancement (OAE). In addition to warming the planet, rising carbon dioxide levels are acidifying the oceans, threatening shellfish populations and delicate ecosystems like coral reefs.
OAE involves adding large amounts of ground alkaline rock to seawater, where it would react with excess CO2 to form bicarbonates that sea creatures use to form their skeletons and shells. These should eventually turn into sediment on the seabed, storing carbon for millennia.
Although OAE is still at a theoretical and experimental stage, its large-scale deployment would be a colossal undertaking. the Official report of the Oceankind conference noted that it could require five billion tons of rock per year, roughly double the amount currently used in global cement production.
Few of the conference attendees were aware that Oceankind had a connection to Page, who, as seventh richest person in the world, is able to personally fund a major geo-engineering program. The conference ultimately concluded that very wealthy donors could consider “large-scale demonstrations” to validate the effectiveness of OAE on a large scale.
Oceankind has awarded nonprofit ClimateWorks marine science grants totaling at least $18.2 million, dedicated to shipping decarbonization, carbon dioxide removal, and OAE. ClimateWorks in turn recently awarded grants for limited OAE field experiments.
Oceankind’s Money Mystery
Larry Page has long had a charitable foundation, named after his late father, of which he and Southworth are both trustees. Over the past decade, this foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to donor-advised funds — tax-advantaged charitable vehicles that aren’t required to disclose where the money ends up.
Additionally, Oceankind itself is not a non-profit organization, which is required to open its books annually in public filings with the IRS. Instead, Southworth has incorporated Oceankind as a limited liability company (LLC), making it virtually opaque to public scrutiny. So it’s impossible to know what share, if any, of Page’s Google fortune ended up at Oceankind. However, TechCrunch found no indication in public records of mainstream nonprofits or government agencies providing funds to Oceankind.
Oceankind confirmed to TechCrunch that Southworth resources it and supports its executive director in leading the organization, but spokeswoman Nina Lagpacan did not respond to questions about the ultimate source of its funding. She provided TechCrunch with this statement, “Oceankind is not seeking visibility or conducting media interviews at this time.”
This lack of transparency worries some philanthropy experts. “Is it appropriate to put this kind of research in the hands of billionaires so that they are the financial drivers?” asks Stephen Gardiner, professor of philosophy at the University of Washington and author of A Perfect Moral Storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change. “I wonder what kinds of accountability are in place, what kinds of power they could exercise over what gets done and how.”
Page and his family are said to have spent much of the pandemic in Fiji. Last year, Page was granted residency 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’s in favor of some kinds of ocean interference but against others, that could influence the research agenda in ways that you might not see if the projects were run by national science foundations or other institutions with more responsibility and political legitimacy. ”
On the other hand, Oceankind seems to empower valuable initiatives that might otherwise languish. In 2021, Oceankind donated $100,000 to SkyTruth, a nonprofit environmental monitoring organization that uses remote sensing data to identify and monitor threats to the planet’s natural resources. The funds were to help him operationalize a system called Azure that traces oil slicks back to individual vessels at sea.
In 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 executed this great idea so convincingly if we hadn’t had the support of Oceankind.”
Amos hopes Oceankind will continue to support Cerulean as SkyTruth expands its oil slick tracking, possibly globally. And now it looks like the billionaires behind her won’t be hiding under the waves anymore.