Technology TED Fellows

Unreasonable at sea: Fellows Friday with Cesar Harada, who circumnavigated the globe with Protei

Posted by: Karen Eng

In January of 2013, TED Fellow Cesar Harada, inventor of an open-source sailing robot, set sail on a four-month, 14-country round-the-world journey with Unreasonable at Sea, a global innovation accelerator on board a boat. Here, he tells us about how this extraordinary voyage helped crystallize his vision for how his open source sailing robot Protei will contribute to cleaning up the world’s ocean and freshwater environments.

What is Unreasonable at Sea, and how did you come to join this expedition?

The Unreasonable at Sea is an accelerator for global innovation in social entrepreneurship. It’s a program for 10 entrepreneurs hosted on a floating university that sails around the world for four months while being mentored by a group of 20 of the world’s most potent entrepreneurs. On the ship we developed our strategy and business models — in port we met with potential investors, governments, academics, nonprofits and the local startup scene.

The program was started by Daniel Epstein, co-founder of the Unreasonable Institute, and George Kembel co-founder of the Stanford d.school. Several of my friends recommended that I apply to this program. At first sight, it was very attractive, but when I found that they would take 6% equities from our company Protei, Inc., I became hesitant. Fairly close to the deadline, the TED Fellows program organisers encouraged me to apply, so I finally did and decided to go with Gabriella Levine, Protei, Inc.’s COO, on this life-changing adventure. The program went beyond my expectations, changed me as a person and helped us define our business future.

What was the mission of the journey, and how did it dovetail with what you’re doing with Protei?

About 1,000 companies applied to this program shy of 100 different countries of origin, and only 11 ended up being selected. The main criterion is that you have to be a for-profit startup providing a technology that has the potential to impact positively the lives of millions of people. The core belief of the program is “entrepreneurship can change the world” — quoting George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man (/woman) adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Even though the program is taking place on the seven seas, Protei was the only company which was actively connected to the ocean. Our company designs and manufactures open hardware — shape-shifting sailing robots to explore and clean the ocean. Think maritime drone to transport environmental sensors and clean-up payload. The range of applications for a fleet would be to skim oil spills, collect plastic trash, measure radioactivity around Fukushima, patrol natural reserves and fish populations, mapping coral reefs, providing data connections between underwater robots and satellites. We have decided not to support weaponized applications.

Tell us about a few of your most crucial stops and what you learned in each. How will these inform your future work with Protei?

In Hawaii, we learned how Protei could help aid plastic pollution research. We met with Dr. Henk Carson, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins who are among the pioneers for plastic pollution research. We journeyed to Kamilo Beach and sampled plastic from the multicoloured beach made of pretty much only plastic. Pessimists estimate hundreds of millions of tons of plastic trash are currently breaking down into the ocean and slowly coming up the food chain back to our plates; the other estimate only tens of tons: the scientific community fails at agreeing on the actual amount of plastic pollution in the ocean and its destructive effect on the life in the ocean due to the lack of data, frequency and resolution. Protei could carry optical sensor similar to plankton counter and measure plastic debris in the ocean.

In Ghana, oil pollution is threatening traditional fisheries. In 2007 large oil reserves were discovered, and intensive exploitation started in 2010 near Takoradi shore, since renamed “oil city,” where western and Chinese oil companies have rushed. Traditional fisheries are suffering pollution, and the oil spill response capacity seems very inadequate, following the bad example of the Nigerian oil industry. We met representatives from the ministries of energy, environment and fisheries and universities, and also went fishing with local fishermen. Protei is a modular sailing robot, so we could carry fish counters as well as oil detection equipment to evaluate the impact of oil pollution on fish populations.

In Japan, we investigated radioactive water leaking into the Pacific Ocean. With the Safecast volunteer network we built an underwater Geiger counter and measured radioactivity on the seabed in the exclusion area near Fukushima. Recently 120 tons of contaminated water used to cool down the melting nuclear power plant have leaked, and nobody knows the long term consequences of such pollution in the ocean. Around 300,000 Japanese are still refugees in their own country, unable to return to where they used to live in places that were either devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, or that are currently contaminated. We plan to return to Fukushima in September and deploy underwater Geiger counter-equipped Protei around the Fukushima power plant.

In the cases above, Protei can be a part of the solution. Protei will also be useful for general oceanography and water-quality assessment, especially in Vietnam and India, where we witnessed terrible river and lake pollution. In Morocco, we organized a hackathon that was so successful, some of the participants have now set their own permanent Hackerspace in Casablanca.

What did you achieve?

As a company, Protei progressed on the community level, in that we now understand much better what our customers and developers from around the world want, and how much they are willing to spend to address which ocean issues. In terms of technology, we did testing in the field on specific applications, which led us to make many important design decisions, define our initial feature set and a plan to develop the technology in the future. And we also developed our business strategy: we are looking for corporate partners and sponsors interested in ocean research and protection.

In the short term, we want to provide high-quality oceanographic instrument transport at the price of toys. We aim to manufacture 1,000 Protei (small, 1 meter-long units) by the end of the year with a simple feature set based on an Arduino microcontroller that can be upgraded with a Raspberry Pi or fitted with an Android-powered phone to control a fleet of Protei anywhere in the 3G range with high environmental data feed. We’re already in the process of building a new community and retail website for the date of public release.

It sounds like this journey crystallized many things for you, both in terms of what Protei can do and where it needs to go, as well as personally. You decided during the journey to move to Hong Kong. Why?

As a business we are trying to imagine how capitalism can be used for the environment first. We believe that if a technology is good for the environment, it should be made available for everyone to use, modify and distribute. This is why we are installing ourselves in Hong Kong and manufacturing in Shenzhen, where we are most likely to be copied. The problems in the ocean are too immense for us alone. The Hong Kong-Shenzhen combination is amazing for the speed of prototyping and testing, with immediate access to parts and affordable manufacturing. The future of copying will benefit the environment.

On the personal level, I found a home at sea. That’s where I want to live. And being exposed to so many forms of aquatic pollution and experiencing how it affects people’s lives has confirmed the relevance of our work, stimulates our creativity and increases my sense of urgency. I’m excited to transition from prototype to product, and build a community to explore and protect the ocean.

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