Having co-founded StartupAus, acted as advisor chief scientist of Australia, and now sitting on the board of the South Australian Museum, Alan Noble has an impressive and eclectic CV before you even consider the 11 years he spent as engineering director at Google Australia.
Or the environmental, not-for-profit tech startup he left the tech giant to launch.
A long-standing supporter of the Australian startup scene, Noble took the plunge and did what many dream of: he walked away from a comfortable job and launched his own startup — one firmly rooted in his personal passions.
Although he founded AusOcean in February 2017, Noble continued working part time at Google for over another year, before announcing he was stepping down in February this year, and officially leaving the tech giant in April.
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Having had several startups before he joined Google, Noble tells StartupSmart his time at the tech giant was “an anomaly”.
“I was surprised at how long I stayed there,” he says.
“That’s evidence of the fact that Google is a place where you can do some pretty amazing things.”
AusOcean is Noble’s passion project, borne out of a lifetime’s interest in the state of Australia’s oceans, and combined with the realisation that his technology skills could be put to good use there.
“I’ve always loved the ocean, and I’m not alone,” he says.
“Increasingly, I’ve become concerned about what humanity is doing to our oceans. [It’s] symptomatic of the broader degradation of our environment. We’re land animals — it’s hard for us to relate to things outside of our natural environment … [but] our oceans are suffering quite badly.”
Noble also noticed that, while there are a lot of not-for-profit organisations focusing on the environment, and specifically on cleaning up the ocean, many of them “don’t use tech very well”.
“My entire life has been designing and building tech products. We can use technology to tackle some of the challenges in the environment,” he says.
“That was the realisation.”
Although Noble has only recently gone full-time at AusOcean, the idea has been bubbling away for more than three years.
“It’s taken me this long to have the courage of my convictions,” he says.
He did get permission to work on the startup on a part-time basis during his final year at Google, but he believes that kind of arrangement “doesn’t work”.
“There’s no such thing as a part-time entrepreneur,” he adds.
The turning point came when Noble took two months off for long-service leave at the end of last year.
“I decided to use that time to essentially … build a minimum viable product for what AusOcean could be,” he says.
He then added another month of annual leave to his working sabbatical, hired some students and started building prototypes.
The time also allowed him to connect with other not-for-profit organisations, to “test the waters”, and establish whether or not there was a need for his startup. The answer was a resounding yes.
“It convinced me that what I wanted to do actually made sense,” Noble says.
“I went back [to Google] in January and gave in my notice.”
Making science accessible
AusOcean’s mission statement is to “help oceans through technology”. For people working in ocean science, the technology is available, but it’s expensive, so AusOcean is focused on how to “take the cost out of doing ocean science”, says Noble.
The startup is still entirely powered by students and volunteers, but it’s starting to make headway in providing low-cost tech, allowing everyday people to get involved in ocean conservation.
So far, the team is working on creating a low-cost floating platform, or rig — “something you could build for a couple of hundred bucks” that comes equipped with what Noble calls “useful technology” like solar panels, monitoring equipment and batteries.
“Any individual, student [or] community group will have access to the basic tech — whether it’s a local community that’s concerned about water quality, or a group of students. All of that can be made much more accessible,” Noble says.
The second project involves underwater cameras, given the big focus on observation in ocean science.
About 80% of the use cases AusOcean is seeing are around “stationary monitoring of interesting or threatened marine hotspots”, says Noble. That is, gathering data on reefs and coastal structures, for example. But currently, “the tech for doing it over extended time is very expensive”.
Cameras can stop working, or require SD cards to be changed, but Noble claims AusOcean is working on a camera that can provide a continuous stream to YouTube, and which can be built for less than $50.
“When you can drive down the cost to that, it’s something that can be accessible to almost anyone,” he says.
“It’s not sexy, but in terms of actually getting useful data, that’s really what scientists need.”
Noble also has plans to engage with local schools, getting students involved in building and deploying some of the floating rig platforms, exposing young people to the technology while also promoting teamwork and collaboration, and raising awareness about the ocean.
He’s focused on working closely with other not-for-profits too, making technology accessible to them, rather than just seeing them as customers. Part of Noble’s motivation for operating as a not-for-profit focuses around this very point of collaboration.
“When I have conversations with folks and say we’re non-profit, people are very, very helpful,” he says.
As a non-commercial operation, AusOcean is not “trying to foist a product to people”, but rather offering a platform for scientists to work with, while also making ocean science more accessible for everyday people with an interest in the environment.
“I’m a big believer in citizen science,” Noble says.
“Your typical smartphone is just packed with instruments, with the software on top you can do a lot of science … you can do the same with ocean science,” he adds.
“Any citizens can go out there and deploy their own little rig and do useful ocean science.”
There are a lot of communities that are concerned about the state of the oceans, and heightened awareness, particularly in the younger generation. “There’s a lot of demand,” he says.
This is clearly something of a passion project for Noble, who says he was only able to throw himself into it because of the support he has from his family. He wouldn’t have been able to spend his three month sabbatical on AusOcean, “if my wife had wanted a holiday in Tuscany”, he says.
“She had faith,” he adds, “I think that’s important.”
Support for founders doesn’t just come from co-founders and the team building the product, Noble says. It’s also from all the other people in a founder’s life.
“It’s hard enough being an entrepreneur. It’s essential you have strong support,” he says.
Equally, “there’s a global opportunity here,” he adds, with the opportunity to travel the world deploying technology for the good of the oceans.
“Holidays will happen,” he says.
Noble has no regrets when it comes to his decision to leave Google, and for any entrepreneurs thinking of taking the same leap from corporate life, he advises them to “just do it”.
“It may sound like a cliche, but ultimately you should follow your passion,” he says.
“Making the decision is hard, but once it’s done, I personally feel very comfortable.”
That said, it can be easier said than done when you’re working at one of the largest corporations in the world. Nevertheless, striking out on your own can be “a delicate dance”, Noble warns.
In his last year at Google, when he was working part time, Noble had to get clearance that there was no conflict of interest. Google does do a lot of work in ocean conservation, he says.
“You would want to make darn sure that you weren’t inadvertently in a conflict situation,” he says.
“In my humble opinion, you don’t want to be moonlighting while you’re still employed,” he adds.
While he admits his three-month sabbatical was a “luxury” not everyone has, he’s an advocate for finding a way to test the waters, if possible.
The change hasn’t been without its challenges, either. Noble admits that when it comes to running a not-for-profit he’s “a complete newbie”.
Even in terms of communication; having worked with engineers all his life, Noble knows how to talk to them.
“I’m still learning how to talk to marine biologists and ecologists,” he says. “They communicate in different ways.”
There’s also a whole new load of maritime bureaucracy he’s contending with.
“I’ve never had to deal with them before,” he says.
But Noble is resigned that that’s just the nature of startups.
“If you’re doing something sufficiently innovative, you’re going to run into obstacles,” he says.
Noble is in something of a unique position, being able to combine his lifetime of experience in the technology and engineering space with his personal passion, and having the potential to make a difference to a global issue he cares about.
“You go through life, accumulate a bunch of experiences … these skills and interests, dare I say, passions,” he says.
“If you can combine together your life experiences [in a way] that also lets you tap into your passions, it’s an amazing thing.
“A lot of people never find that.”
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