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Why ocean climate tech deserves more respect

The tide is turning in our knowledge about the ocean’s depths and the critical role it could play in mitigating climate change.

Woman speaking at a conference with geometric design in background
Aulani Wilhelm, assistant director for ocean conservation, climate and equity with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President. Photo by GreenBiz/Amayah Harrison

When it comes to climate tech investments, the amount of money focused on ocean-related solutions is a mere drop in the bucket.

Indeed, Propeller, a new $100 million fund co-founded by software firm HubSpot co-founder Brian Halligan and allied with the world-renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is billed as one of the first major initiatives centered entirely on this sub-category. 

More entrepreneurs and companies should center the ocean in their climate action plans, echoed two longtime ocean scientists and experts last week during a VERGE 22 keynote.  

"The ocean and the atmosphere are one big fluid mass. Completely connected," said Aulani Wilhelm, assistant director for ocean conservation, climate and equity with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President. "The ocean is what created all life on the planet, and it drives all living systems on Earth. When we think about climate, we often think about the atmosphere, and we think about the impacts that are happening above water. But those impacts that we’re experiencing on land are really because of the impacts that have already occurred and are continuing to occur in the ocean. Simply put, climate change is ocean change."

Simply put, climate change is ocean change.

Wilhelm, on loan to the White House from Conservation International, cited data suggesting that the ocean has already absorbed about 90 percent of the heat and about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted during the post-industrial era. And it has the potential to absorb 20 percent more of the CO2 we need to remove from the atmosphere, with the right support. Those are just a few reasons that President Joe Biden’s administration is working on an inaugural Ocean Climate Action Plan, to guide research and investments in green shipping, ocean-based renewable energy, blue carbon and other ocean-related solutions.

One reason the ocean doesn’t receive more attention is because its depths are still largely unexplored — less than one-quarter of the seafloor has been mapped, noted Dawn Wright, chief scientist at geospatial company Esri and both an oceanographer and geographer, during the VERGE 22 discussion.

Three women sitting on a stage with geometric background

The VERGE 22 keynote discussion about the ocean's role in addressing climate change with (l. to r.) Aulani Wilhelm, Dawn Wright and Kakani Katija. Photo by GreenBiz/Louis Bryant III

"It’s really hard to understand or protect something that we have not mapped in totality," she said. Efforts are underway to improve our understanding through data collected by a network of sensors and robots, Wright explained. She herself participated in a deep-sea expedition last summer to Challenge Deep, the world’s deepest seabed at almost 6.8 miles below the ocean surface, the first Black person to dive to that depth. The first thing she saw: a beer bottle, a "disheartening" discovery that underscores the importance of research into monitoring the status of the ocean. 

"It is wonderful to think about the stars, and to think about the moon and Mars. All of that is wonderful, but we’ve got to get a handle on our own planet. It is still our only planet," Wright said, drawing applause from the VERGE audience.

As more companies begin to explore solutions associated with the "blue economy" — such as aquaculture or offshore wind farms or kelp farms — it’s important to understand how these ventures might impact the ocean. "If we want to do some of these tech solutions, if we want to actually tackle climate, then we need monitoring," Wilhelm said, pointing to keeping tabs on biodiversity as a particular concern. "We need to monitor all of that … It’s not just cool to go to the deepest part of the ocean, it’s actually necessary."

It is wonderful to think about the stars, and to think about the moon and Mars. All of that is wonderful, but we’ve got to get a handle on our own planet.

From unicorns to narwhals

That need for foundational research about the ocean is one reason that climate tech fund Propeller has allied itself with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts, according to Halligan.   

"Our ocean holds tremendous potential for scaling up climate and carbon solutions, yet only a fraction of the venture capital dollars that have flooded into climate tech flow to the seascape of ocean-based solutions,” Halligan said in a statement. "The Propeller team together with our partners at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution launched this fund to change this dynamic — to invest in the planet’s best hope to decarbonize the global economy and turn today’s ocean startups into tomorrow’s 'narwhals.'" 

When I spoke with Halligan about the firm’s investment thesis, he said the fund will support early-stage entrepreneurs focused on three sorts of solutions:

  • Ocean Carbon: Startups focused on CO2 removal and technologies for measurement, reporting and verification.
  • Ocean Organics: Innovators that employ algae, kelp or microbes for packaging, food, energy or pharmaceutical applications.
  • Ocean Industrials: Ventures that center on addressing maritime industries such as shipping, wave energy or desalination

As part of its investment strategy, Propeller is running a three-day Ocean MBA Program for early-stage founders, something it plans to host twice annually. Its first investments will come from founders who attended one of the first sessions, although Halligan wasn’t prepared to discuss details.

Watch the entire VERGE 22 discussion:

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