When Matthew Dunbabin saw the destruction of tropical reef ecosystems from overfishing and climate change, he wondered if robots could help. With funding 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 coral larvae.
While the initial results were promising, the prospects for actually deploying the bots seemed bleak. “Universities can get stuck in three-year funding cycles,” he told MovieUpdates. “But global problems cannot wait three years.”
In 2019, Dunbabin was approached by Oceankind, a mysterious new ocean philanthropic organization that promised to accelerate its efforts. “They saw what we were doing and said, ‘What do you need to scale?’ And they wanted it to be quick,” he said.
Oceankind awarded three grants totaling nearly $2 million in quick succession to replicate the robot’s design, add machine learning capabilities, and turn it into a multifunctional autonomous underwater reef recovery 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 see the real cost of doing technology projects and are willing to support them,” Dunbabin says. “They’ve definitely been a dream financier.”
Until this week, Dunbabin was not allowed to name Oceankind. Instead, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which also received a separate $1 million donation from Oceankind, was given public credit for the robotics research. While Dunbabin can now give Oceankind full credit for the funding, he’s still unwilling to identify the Silicon Valley power couple behind the organization.
An investigation of California state filings reveals that Oceankind was incorporated in 2018 as an LLC, managed by a family office that manages 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 indicate that it was actually Page’s wife, Lucy Southworth, a research geneticist by trade, who founded and leads the organization.
The website now also details how Oceankind has spent more than $121 million funding a wide variety of projects related to marine science, technology, animal life and climate. That makes Oceankind one of the largest non-governmental funders of ocean science in the world.
Casting a wide net for science
Oceankind’s declared mission is “improving the health of global ocean ecosystems while supporting the livelihoods of people who depend on them.” “We are trying to advance the policy, science and technology needed to reverse the growing threats to our oceans.”
Oceankind’s list of grants shows that the organization is spreading its net widely and financing everything from offshore wind farms in Japan to cell-based seafood research† Oceankind has supported diversity and representation efforts, funded research into sewer management and sustainable fisheries, and provided grants to science programs from the Arctic Ocean to the tropics.
One Oceankind project that has raised eyebrows is funding research that strays into the controversial field of geoengineering. In September 2019, Oceankind convened a conference of ecologists, biochemists and climate experts to look at improving ocean alkalinity (OAU). In addition to warming the planet, rising levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying the oceans, threatening shellfish populations and fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs.
OAU involves adding large amounts of crushed alkaline rock to seawater, where it would react with excess CO2 to form bicarbonates that marine animals use to form their skeletons and shells. These should eventually end up as sediment on the seafloor, where the carbon is stored for millennia.
While OAU is still largely in a theoretical and experimental stage, deploying it on a large scale would be a huge undertaking. The official report van Oceankind’s conference noted that it could require five billion tons of rock annually, which is roughly double the amount currently used in global cement production.
Few conference attendees knew that Oceankind had a connection to Page, who as the seventh richest person in the world, is able to personally fund a major geoengineering program. The conference ultimately concluded that very wealthy donors could consider “large-scale demonstrations” to validate the effectiveness of OAU on a large scale.
Oceankind has awarded a total of at least $18.2 million to ClimateWorks, a marine science nonprofit, to help decarbonise shipping, remove carbon dioxide and OAU. ClimateWorks in turn recently awarded grants for limited OAU field experiments.
The mystery of Oceankind’s money
Larry Page has long run a charitable foundation named after his late father, of which he and Southworth are both directors. Over the past decade, that foundation has given hundreds of millions of dollars to donor-advised funds — tax-friendly charitable vehicles that don’t have to disclose where the money ends up.
In addition, Oceankind itself is not a non-profit organization, which is required to open their books every year in public filings with the IRS. Instead, Southworth incorporated Oceankind as a limited liability company (LLC), rendering it virtually opaque to public scrutiny. So it’s impossible to know how much, if any, of Page’s Google fortune ended up with Oceankind. However, MovieUpdates was unable to find any indication in public records of traditional nonprofits or government agencies providing Oceankind funds.
Oceankind confirmed to MovieUpdates that Southworth will provide it with resources and support the Executive Director in leading the organization, but spokesperson Nina Lagpacan did not respond to questions about the ultimate source of its funding. She did provide MovieUpdates with this statement: “Oceankind is not seeking visibility and is not conducting media interviews at this time.”
This lack of transparency worries some experts in philanthropy. “Is it appropriate to put this kind of research in the hands of billionaires so they can financially drive it?” 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 kind of responsibility there is, what kind of power they can exercise over what is being 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 favors certain forms of ocean interference, but against others, that could influence the research agenda in a way that you might not see if projects were run through national scientific foundations or other institutions with more responsibility and political legitimacy. †
On the other hand, Oceankind seems to encourage valuable initiatives that would otherwise languish. In 2021, Oceankind donated $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 intended to help operationalize a system called Cerulean that returns oil spills to individual ships at sea.
During its first year of operation, Cerulean identified 187 ships responsible for intentional oil spills, using satellite data, machine learning and human experts. “I’m convinced that the project would have happened anyway, because it’s a great idea,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth. “But it’s hard to say whether we would have worked out this great idea so convincingly if we hadn’t had support from Oceankind.”
Amos hopes Oceankind will continue to support Cerulean as SkyTruth expands its oil slick detection, eventually to a global scale. And as of now, it looks like the billionaires behind it will no longer be hiding beneath the waves.