Climate Change, Startup Analysis

Tech to change the world: Former Google head engineer Alan Noble calls on startups to make their work matter

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Alan Noble AusOcean

Alan Noble (centre) and the AusOcean team. Source: Supplied.

Not-for-profit environmental startup AusOcean has been putting its tech into practice, conducting an extensive marine survey, and ultimately opposing the construction of a new port.

The startup, founded by former Google head of engineering Alan Noble, spent the summer surveying underwater life in Smith Bay on the North Coast of Kangaroo Island, and the proposed site of a new wood-chip storage facility and port.

A statement on the survey said the development would cause “inevitable damage to this pristine marine environment”.

It could result in the destruction of 15 hectares of sea floor, the statement said, with Noble himself adding “native species would also likely be adversely impacted by the introduction of marine pests”.

AusOcean

A weedy sea dragon in Smith Bay. Source: Supplied.

Speaking to StartupSmart, Noble says AusOcean was founded on the belief “tech can and should be a force for good”.

In the context of ocean science, this means “providing a way to do much more at a much lower cost”.

The startup focuses on finding ways to provide ocean research technology that has previously been “prohibitively expensive” at a much lower cost.

For example, some technology has been developed to withstand serious depth, he says. Most underwater equipment doesn’t have to be quite that robust.

“The low-hanging fruit in terms of how humans interact with the ocean is in coastal systems,” he says.

“Typically, they’re not that deep.”

In this research project, the team used AusOcean’s underwater camera technology to test a new way of monitoring sea life in any given area.

In the past, this would have been done with divers in the water, who would count and note down vertebrate species in one direction, and invertebrates in the other.

AusOcean

This method was used in this study, for comparison purposes, Noble says. But the team also used a low-cost underwater camera, towed behind a boat, which provided high-res footage of the open floor and allowed analysts to study ocean life from the comfort of the lab.

“The ocean is a hostile environment,” Noble says.

“You need boats and divers and platforms. There are just a lot of access and infrastructure issues.”

On the surface, a camera towed behind a boat may not appear revolutionary. But, according to Noble, in the footage, the team spotted a particular species of pipefish that was not previously known to live in this location.

“They’re really hard to spot,” he says.

“The divers didn’t notice it, and probably never would have.”

For Noble, the “holy grail” will be machine learning technology that can analyse footage and identify species. This will enable more comprehensive and reliable surveying, he suggests.

“Human beings are not good at spotting those things,” he adds.

AusOcean

More than money

It’s Noble’s belief that all startups should be considering their impact on the environment, no matter the sector they’re working in.

“We’re not here just to make a profit. We’re here, hopefully, to leave the world a little bit better,” he says.

“That would be my dream come true, that all businesses, big or small, startups or multinationals, were thinking a little bit more about their impact on the environment and doing something about it,” he adds.

However, for tech startups specifically, there is a huge opportunity to make a difference, and quickly.

“There’s a lot of tech that either exists already or is essentially being commercialised as we speak, that can, and should, be applied not just to traditional enterprise-type things,” Noble explains.

If a company is developing technology, they should simply consider how that technology could be repurposed to have environmental or social-impact outcomes.

“I would like to encourage more people to think about how tech could be used in a way to help our environment,” he says.

Although his own passion is protecting the oceans, Noble implores founders to consider how their tech could be used to address social issues they’re concerned about — be it rivers, social justice or humanitarian causes.

“A cool startup may have some great tech, be happily productising and making beaucoup buck — which is great, we need that, don’t get me wrong — but, if that’s all you’re thinking about, you’re probably missing a bigger opportunity.”

This article is part of our spotlight on climate change. You can view the full series here.

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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