In 2011, a 16 year-old teenager decided to look into what the world might be able do about all the plastic garbage in our oceans. The next year, he presented his ideas on a TEDx talk, and went viral. He wasn’t interested in raising awareness, or just trying to reduce the problem. He wanted to accomplish far more, and it was the audaciousness and scale of his ambition that caught the world’s attention. Boyan Slat was going to clean up the oceans.
After years of research, preparatory work, and fundraising, Slat’s company, The Ocean Cleanup, has raised over $30 million dollars, and captured the attention of investors from all over the world. Earlier this year, Slat and his team announced that they’d finished their preliminary work, and would be launching the largest environmental cleanup operation in history in 2018.
Of course, a $30 million dollar enterprise isn’t really something to write home about in terms of business success. So, what is it really about Slat that makes him relevant, and has the world’s eyes glued to his progress?
Making environmentalism profitable
Researchers had been looking at different ways to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans for decades. Mostly, they had come to a consensus that the key was prevention, rather than repair. Gathering plastic from the surface of all the world’s oceans seemed like an unrealistically expensive task that no government would willingly fund, and that would take a prohibitively long amount of time.
Slat’s revolutionary idea was to use ocean currents to passively trap plastic in a system of booms. This idea, however, is not what caught the world’s, and later investors’, attention. Slat calculated that by gathering, recycling, and selling the gathered ocean plastic, he would be able to generate a significant profit. Instead of just launching an environmental cleanup effort, he would be “mining” plastic for commercial purposes.
While existing industries like renewable energy, recycling plants, and others have developed business models that are environmentally friendly, this is something new. Existing green industries aim to provide value to customers while avoiding and minimising environmental impacts. The Ocean Cleanup, on the other hand, is a business that deliberately does impact the environment to improve it while generating revenue.
In the past, environmental cleanup efforts have always been expensive. Funding had to come from public sources: investments made to manage the collective damage we do. This is a problem where the oceans are concerned, because international waters obviously don’t fall within any country’s jurisdiction. This makes them essentially an unmitigated environmental disaster zone waiting to happen.
Of course, a teenager’s claim that a venture will be profitable isn’t exactly the assurance that major investors are looking for. What that can do, however, is capture the imagination of the public. Slat’s initial funding didn’t come from businesses, but rather a crowdfunding campaign that brought in $2.2 million dollars from over 38,000 contributors. With this startup capital, Slat founded his company, conducted further research to assess his idea’s feasibility, performed tests, and steadily improved his plastic capture technology. Then, with a far more mature concept and business model, he could finally gather the investment needed to begin to scale and launch his project.
What can business owners learn?
Boyan Slat has achieved something that every entrepreneur dreams of. He started with nothing but an idea, and turned it into a multi-million dollar enterprise through sheer vision and determination. His story gives us a few important takeaways.
Inspiring ideas have real cash value
Slat’s initial idea wasn’t appealing to typical investors. It sounded like a fanciful, high-risk project to support. However, the idea still got him the funding he needed, because the initial 38,000 donors didn’t buy stock or issue loans. They gave their money because they loved the idea for its own sake, and they wanted to see him succeed. Boyan Slat was audacious enough to actually attempt to go and tackle a serious global problem, and that kind of ambition inspires and excites people.
Great ideas can come from anywhere
The insight that made Slat’s idea fundamentally feasible was that the ocean’s currents could be harnessed to effectively clean themselves. Like many great solutions, the idea seems simple in retrospect. It didn’t come from an engineer or a climatologist, but rather a high school kid who had a moment of inspiration while doing a school project.
Green doesn’t mean less efficient or profitable
In many industries, resistance to environmental reform is led by the argument that it’s less efficient and unprofitable. Boyan Slat has show us that, sometimes, there are other ways to approach the issue. In the case of plastics, the pollutants being cleaned up are also a resource that can be sold and used for profit.
Bringing great ideas, businesses, and entire new industries to life doesn’t necessarily require corporate backing, angel investors, personal wealth, and a long resume. Someone with sufficient vision, an inspiring idea, and the ability to capture the imagination of the public can do so just as readily.