Innovating for Mars, and maybe Earth, too

Innovating For Mars

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

While reading this essay from the comfort of your home or office, picture this: On the arid slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, six strangers volunteered to live in a self-contained geodesic dome, only 36 feet in diameter, for an entire year. The crew lived without physical connection to the outside world and with minimal digital communication, by choice.

This may sound like the makings of a space-age reality show, but their vision was far greater than vanity or masochism: they want to get NASA, and humans, to Mars.

I recently devoured The Habitat, an addictive podcast from Gimlet Media that chronicles HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), this simulated mission to Mars. In addition to stoking my gratitude for the mobile, varied and outdoor life I lead, the podcast encouraged me to revisit a popular question: How can exploring another planet help us here on Earth?

For former NASA astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman, the link is clear: "Sustainability, for someone like myself planning to go to Mars, is a closed-loop system, not being able to go home or bring supplies. The things we need to think about are exactly the things we need to think about for a sustainable earth," she told Joel Makower in an interview at our VERGE conference in 2015.

Nothing is new about looking to space for solutions to our own planet’s problems. Whether it’s filtering water from astronauts’ urine, growing food using LED light or 3D printing tools, NASA’s technological advancements designed for intergalactic missions already serve us. The technology required to prepare for life on our resource-constrained planet is not so different from preparing for life on Mars (aside from velocity, atmosphere, temperature and a few other nontrivial factors).

However, technology itself can get us only so far. "It takes realizing that you have to give up a little bit of control, you have to be open to other people and you have to be brave," Coleman explained in a recent interview.

The Habitat podcast offers such a compelling narrative because it speaks to the challenge of human collaboration, even with a shared vision such as NASA’s moonshot (or Mars-shot, as it may be). Whether we’re solving for a closed-loop plastics value chain, eliminating food waste or designing products for disassembly and reuse, even the best innovators can’t create and scale solutions in a vacuum. They need to engage the larger ecosystem to succeed.

VERGE Accelerate: Speaking of innovation ecosystems, we’d like to hear about what challenges you’re trying to solve. We’ve just launched our VERGE Accelerate program, which gives early-stage companies the opportunity to pitch to thousands of business leaders, government officials and investors on the main stage at VERGE 18, Oct. 16-18 in Oakland, California. Our goal is to elevate, celebrate and accelerate entrepreneurs on the cusp of game-changing innovations.

Some of last year’s circular economy participants included: Evrnu, a regenerative fiber company that works with companies such as Levi’s and Target to produce recycled fabrics with 98 percent less water than farmed cotton, using a closed-loop process to reuse chemical solvents in the process; Renewal Mill, a startup that cuts down food waste by finding new uses for the byproducts of industrial food production; and Bioplastic Recycling, a company that works to facilitate and scale the market for used bioplastics.

Think you and your company is out of this world (or maybe just what the planet needs)? Check out the qualification criteria and apply before July 30.

If you have questions or thoughts about innovation — on earth or in space — don’t hesitate to send me a note at [email protected]. I invite you to suggest a story or topic we should cover, or an interesting article you’ve come across in your online travels.