#197 Paul Bunje, Co-founder & CSO of Conservation X Labs
Paul Bunje is the co-founder and CSO of Conservation X Labs, an organization that brings innovation to global conservation threats. Conservation X Labs is a leader in using technology and entrepreneurship to protect biodiversity using a mix of crowdsourcing, open innovation, directed research, and acceleration.
Paul was formerly the Chief Scientist at the XPRIZE Foundation, where he led the impact strategy across grand challenge domains at XPRIZE, spanning civil society, environment, energy, health, and exploration.
Dr. Bunje is a global thought leader in bringing innovation to solve environmental grand challenges. Paul was formerly the founding Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions, the Managing Director of the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability, and served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Oceans. The American Association for the Advancement of Science selected Paul as one of 40 individuals that exemplify the thousands of AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows who are dedicated to applying science to serve society.
Paul is trained in biology, with a B.S. from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
Bigger Than Us #197
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Host Raj Daniels 00:00
Paul, how are you doing today?
Paul Bunje 00:50
I’m doing great, Raj. Thanks for having me.
Host Raj Daniels 01:34
Paul, thank you for being on. And you know, we were talking briefly offline about you having three daughters and a son. I have three daughters. So I think we can go down the rabbit hole of parenting. But I’ll hold that for another show. What I would like to start with is something that I heard you mentioned on another interview. I would like to ask you, what is the tyranny of experts?
Paul Bunje 02:01
So this is a — without denigrating experts because expertise is a critical thing. This is also the concern that we have when lots of experts start to have a bit too much groupthink, and it’s difficult to find novel, or break out, solutions to potential problems. And it’s one of those notions where, as the world continues to change as dynamically and rapidly as it is, we need to be sure that we’re also inviting in and ensuring new approaches, new voices, new perspectives to be able to help address some of the biggest challenges that we might be facing.
When there’s too much reliance on the sort of known quantity interests, the people that have, for the longest time, been those that we look to for answers, then that can become sort of a tyranny of expertise, as it were. And I think we think about this, in large part, with respect to the genius in the crowd. There is talent and brilliance everywhere.
But the opportunity to participate and help solve problems is not universal. And we need to be able to lift up new experts as much as we possibly can if we’re going to tackle some of the biggest threats that we have via climate change or biodiversity loss, food systems problems, new pandemics arising, etc.
So that’s one of the things that we at Conservation X Labs like to think about a lot, which is, how do we lift up new experts? How do we break down the existing barriers that might exist for novel solutions — things that are really, truly going to be transformative and get us to the next level?
Host Raj Daniels 03:44
So since you’ve mentioned Conservation X Labs, can you give an overview of the organization and your role in the organization?
Paul Bunje 03:50
Yeah, absolutely. So Conservation X Labs, we think of ourselves as a technology and innovation company that’s really working in the biodiversity conservation space. And we have an ambitious and bold mission, which is to prevent the sixth mass extinction. In the history of Earth, there have been five previous mass extinctions, where well over 90% of all species went extinct. We’re what appears to be on the brink of, or even potentially in the midst of already, a sixth great extinction, where species are going are being lost from the face of the earth forever at a rate that’s completely unprecedented, at a rate that’s faster than anything else.
The big realization and alarming fact is that this is the first mass extinction potentially caused by a single species: humans. Us. And so Conservation X Labs is looking at this through the lens that, okay, there’s a crisis on the planet, and it’s a crisis that affects us, of course, because we rely on the services that are provided by the natural world. We eat, we breathe, we drink clean water, all of which are as a result of this. So it’s incumbent on us as well to think about how it is that we might prevent the worst of it from happening.
The flip side of this is that we’re living in an era of unprecedented abundance in terms of the technologies and solutions available to us, the resources that humans have at our disposal to create new solutions. And that sort of technological and innovation capacity is really a real opportunity to prevent the worst from happening. And that’s what Conservation X Labs is built to do. Alex Deghan and I co-founded this organization about seven years ago — almost seven years ago now — to bring that new approach, that new vision, to a field that really needs to 10x, 100x our efforts to reduce the pressures on the natural world and ensure that we have a thriving planet for all future generations of all creatures.
Host Raj Daniels 05:52
Have you read the book by Elizabeth Kolbert?
Paul Bunje 05:54
Are you thinking of Sixth Extinction?
Host Raj Daniels 05:58
Yes, I am. How did you feel after you read it?
Paul Bunje 06:03
Host Raj Daniels 06:07
I felt the same way. So I’m just curious. I haven’t spoken to anyone about it. I felt kind of sad after I read it.
Paul Bunje 06:11
Yeah, it’s interesting. This is something I’ve studied most of my life, right. The book came out after I was not just aware, but was actually working on my PhD at the time. And it synthesizes so much, not just the science behind extinction and the challenges, but so much about why it matters, I think. What I thought when I was reading that book, actually, was of Carl Sagan, this Pale Blue Dot soliloquy. And if anyone hasn’t heard that, go to YouTube and listen to him say this. But you know, the whole notion that there’s this one — in the vast expanse of the universe, so far as we know yet, there’s this one little hanging blue dot of a planet that contains life.
And the way he put it was, that contains all of life, i.e. all of history, all of the people that you’ve ever loved, or have loved, or will love, all of the great things and the terrible things, all of the amazingness and richness and fullness of life contained on this one planet that, when you step back to the edge of the solar system and look at it, is so incredibly vulnerable looking.
That’s one of the things that I was thinking about: how special it is to be in a place that the diversity around us can be so rich, so complex, changed so much over the billions of years of history of life. And here we are, with the power to render species extinct or the power to cultivate a beautiful garden if we so chose. The power to, if we collectively wanted to, make these choices that can actually result in a future that either is good for humans and other creatures or not.
And there’s something about that that’s profoundly scary, but also profoundly empowering, particularly when we recognize that it’s not up to single individuals to do, but what I started out by saying. There’s this genius in the world, and there’s this joy and love in the world amongst people, and when you travel around the world, you see that. And I think if we can harness that and work together, we’ve got every opportunity to avoid the worst of what Elizabeth Kolbert was forecasting based on the science.
Host Raj Daniels 08:43
Now, a long time ago, there was this quote by John Muir about everything being connected. And there was a time when we collectively perhaps believed that. When do you think this right turn happened, where we decided that we were no longer responsible for being interconnected?
Paul Bunje 09:02
That’s a fantastic question that I wish I’d thought about and really understood because, quite candidly, I would feel silly trying to speculate on when or why that happened. I don’t want to be the kind of person who immediately blames social media or something because clearly, this was happening long before that.
Although I would say it’s — I don’t know if what you’re describing is this sort of right turn towards a lack of reliance on others, or dependence, etc. You know, that feels peculiarly American in some ways. When you travel to other parts of the world, you don’t necessarily see that. You still see a tremendous amount of social fabric, as it were.
But I also don’t think that it’s permanently American, necessarily. There are periods where we see folks rallying together to work into the future. And I would actually argue that we’re, right now, and particularly because of younger generations, seeing a shift, especially around care for the planet, that is more in line with what Muir was talking about how, if you pull on one thread of the universe, everything else comes along. It’s all intertwined.
You mentioned — I don’t know if your girls are this way — but watching my girls grow up — my 14 year old, my 17 year old — it’s pretty clear that they want to work with others. They want to be reliant on others, and others includes non-human creatures, non-human animals and plants and other species. There is a renewed connection to the environment and passion for it. And that’s borne out in polls, of course.
But I also think you see this anecdotally, just with how powerful movements around climate change are that are being led by young people like Greta Thunberg and others. I think we may actually be at a point where our fears of over-individualistic approaches to these are going to be rejected, and we’re going to see younger generations try to pick up where thinkers of the past have been leading us.
Host Raj Daniels 11:17
I would agree, and I feel like it’s a very optimistic outlook. Going back to Conservation X Labs for a moment — we started with this tyranny of experts. How do we convince the experts to perhaps make way for some of these new voices coming online?
Paul Bunje 11:33
I think it’s actually probably more effective just to convince them not to say no. People love their ideas. And people love power, even if it’s a tiny bit of influential type of power. It’s the whole notion of the barbarians at the gate, right? And I also think about this to a degree in the way that Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, really thought about it, where you see paradigm shifts occur. He was talking about, in science, when certain theories just could no longer explain the full weight of evidence that had been gathered on a particular subject, at which point, usually what you have is a new generation of scientists who then come with a new theory, a new paradigm, that helps explain the existing evidence significantly better. And it’s actually a new generation that kind of displaces, relatively rapidly, in the sphere of scientific thought.
I think that’s probably true as well when we’re talking about about applying identifying and applying solutions and developing new things. I mean, you certainly see that type of massive disruption in industries like technology, right. And you’re seeing that in other spheres as well, where completely new approaches to communication or healthcare are rapidly being adopted. Often, they occur in places where you don’t have the incumbency, necessarily. I like to think of technological leapfrogging as well. If you look at something like the prevalence of smartphones, a lot of this happened in lower and middle income countries initially, where you did not have established wired telephones going everywhere.
And so as soon as you had cellular technology, that became adopted extremely rapidly, which helped drive down the costs of building these kinds of phones, and then it quickly got adopted in places in Europe, North America, and others that were slower to actually pick this up. And I’m thinking of places like Myanmar, where it was something like two years — it went from 0% cell phones to 98% penetration, just remarkable adoption — because there was nothing in its place. And that allowed technological innovation to accelerate in many ways.
We’re seeing the same thing with things like renewable energy, where places that don’t have built out grids can rapidly identify an effect. One example that I just think is so amazing is we — Conservation X Labs, working with a whole suite of partners, including the Rocky Mountain Institute, the University of India, the government of India, and others — ran something we called the Global Cooling Prize, which was looking at transforming air conditioners, which seems, really, not extremely sexy and exciting. But it turns out most air conditioners you buy are extremely inefficient, something like 12% or 13% of what they could possibly be. So they use a lot of electricity to cool off a room.
A country like India, not only is it already the largest side of demand for air conditioning, but it’s rapidly expanding because people are moving into the middle class. It’s getting hotter and the like, so the demand is through the roof. So we thought, “How do we fix this?” We had a prize rather than the tyranny of experts, which, in this case, were two large manufacturers that made 70% of all of the room size air conditioners in the world. Their tyranny was based on market capture.
How do we change this and transform this sort of technology? And so we asked anybody who wanted to, to try to create a technology that was five times better for the planet — five times less impact on climate change. More efficient. Turns out the two winners actually 10xed that number. 10x. And this is remarkable because what this means is a country like India, which is now working to actually scale these technologies, can drive the demand side that’s needed to get something that’s so much better for the planet. At 10x, if just India’s demand is met, using this new technology — and, like I said, we work with the government.
So their effort is to do this. That’s the equivalent of avoiding one degree of warming. Just India. And now imagine if we expand that to the rest of the world, this technology that I would prefer to buy because I spend less money on my electricity bill. I live in Los Angeles, and you live in Texas. So you know how much the AC costs, right?
Host Raj Daniels 16:02
Paul Bunje 16:03
It’s that kind of thing as well that’s really possible in terms of, how do you get the experts, as it were, or the incumbents, let’s say, to change? Sometimes it’s that you replace it with something just so much better. The rest of the world demands that that become the standard.
Host Raj Daniels 16:19
So you mentioned the air condition challenge. Let’s speak tactically for a moment. How does Conservation X Labs invite people to participate in these challenges?
Paul Bunje 16:30
So that’s a great question. We do a couple of things at Conservation X Labs. We have this kind of open innovation program, which is exactly like you described: prizes and challenges. We also believe in the power of collaboration. So we have a mass collaboration platform that allows people to ideate together and work together to co-create, as it were. But we also then build our own technology.
Sometimes it’s more straightforward — if you know what the solution needs to be and how to build it, then you just go ahead and do it. And so we’ve also done that. We are currently blending these two models to create new solutions as quickly as we can. We don’t know who can create the solution. But we do know what needs to be built in a decent fashion, or with reasonable confidence.
And then we’re able to actually cycle these folks through, but to get that talent — you’re onto a really, really important question. One way is being on podcasts with folks like you to just preach that this exists. But it’s really through partnerships, it’s really about how it is that you identify the groups out there that are passionate about also finding new solvers. And I think one of the challenges that we face is that, in any field — but this is especially true in conservation and environmental work — we often think really narrowly about people who are educated like us, are trained like us, or work in the same fields as us, when in reality, we’re really good at knowing — and I’m trained as a biologist. I’m really good at describing problems.
But I’m not exceptionally well-trained at building a new piece of tech, as it were. So what we need to do are invite the new solvers in from all kinds of different fields, be it engineering, be it computer science, be it design architecture. Often, what you need are the creative thinkers, the artists, and others that are able to co-create with a team. Because the solution is not just a widget. It’s not just a bunch of wires you plug in or code that you type into your computer. Very often, it requires those design elements that will ensure somebody out there wants to use this thing. And not just one somebody, but millions of somebodies, so that you can get something to scale, so that something like the cooling technology we described gets adopted.
And so that means partnerships with groups across the spectrum, and quite frankly, around the planet, around the world, where we can actively reach out, and people can reach out as credible ambassadors and say, “There’s this challenge out there that you might be able to solve.” And so we do spend a lot of time, a lot of work, building partnerships, reaching out through the media, and promoting the opportunity for solvers to join us because the more that we get there, the more opportunity there is for that genius that’s in the crowd to be given the opportunity to showcase what they can do and create a solution.
Host Raj Daniels 19:25
You know, this might be outside the realm of this conversation, but I’m going to suggest an idea. I don’t know if it’s possible or not, but I’m going to bring it up. I heard you say on an interview that we have 3 billion, potentially, new minds coming online in the next few years. You talked about cell phone adoption, technology, etc. I’ve been around technology for a good 10–12 years, specifically here in the Dallas area. I’m familiar with apps. I had my own software startup for a while, so I’m familiar with the whole app building, distribution, etc.
But as you were speaking, I thought about the opportunity of what would it look like to have Conservation X Labs as a pre-installed app on an Android or iOS device. That way, when these 3 billion new minds come online, they don’t immediately get consumed into the world of social media. But there’s an opportunity for them to see where they can essentially earn, learn, and contribute.
Paul Bunje 20:21
That’s a cool idea. That’s a really cool idea. Let’s talk further. We built something, and it’s still live, called our digital makerspace, which is essentially an open door for people to come in with questions, ideas, even potential solutions, and then team up and build different things that are on there. We’re thinking how to how to rebuild it and take it to a new thing. And I like your idea about,
Host Raj Daniels 20:49
I’ll tell you why. Because I have a lot of family in East Africa. In fact, my parents are in Nairobi right now, visiting, I have a lot of family in India. And what I’ve seen over the last, let’s call it 10 years, Paul, is that when people get their cell phones, the first thing they’re drawn to is the social media apps of the world. In fact, some people in India will — it’s quaint, because for us, we go back to the 90s, and we look at AOL, and AOL was, quote, unquote, the internet. And now, with the popularity of Facebook, people think Facebook is the internet. That’s their gateway to get in and get connected. And then once they’re on that, so many of them get lost down that rabbit hole of useless messages and watch apps, etc. But I’m thinking, from a broader perspective, how do we capture some of that talent and minds before they get lost in that rabbit hole?
Paul Bunje 21:41
I love that idea. And you could gamify this.
Host Raj Daniels 21:44
Absolutely. I mean, there’s 100 different ways to do it. There’s another gentleman I heard recently — biology — he’s actually doing problem solving where he’s rewarding via digital currencies. If there’s some way to gamify it, Conservation X Labs, digital currency, and having a pre-installed app, let’s say, on an Android device because most of the population in those countries are Android devices.
Paul Bunje 22:08
It’s funny how people feel reward and what incentivizes people to do things, and money’s great, but often, it’s the pride of knowing you’ve done something important. So you could imagine how easy this would be to build on a Web3 sort of notion, right? Because ideas can become NFTs in this way. You give people the sort of power to change the world and prove it, that they’re the ones.
Host Raj Daniels 22:30
People would die for medals.
Paul Bunje 22:31
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Host Raj Daniels 22:34
Absolutely. Now you’ve talked about the makerspaces. And I think I heard you in an interview saying that you’re looking for opportunities to partner with makerspaces, too. Is that correct?
Paul Bunje 22:42
Yeah. A lot of times, our challengers are innovators and things like that. They just need a physical place to build. This is another example of partnering with folks — we love to showcase other awesome organizations and facilities and such that are doing amazing things. And if we can send great people their way, we’d love to, so yeah, absolutely.
Host Raj Daniels 23:03
Now I know the concept of makerspaces here in the US, but is there a concept of makerspace overseas, too?
Paul Bunje 23:08
There is. Yeah. And in fact, one of my favorite ones is a place called Makerbay. Hong Kong is their core one. But they also have outposts in Calcutta and somewhere in Malaysia, I think, as well. They’re quite remarkable. So certainly, South and East Asia have a lot of makerspaces. There are some in Northern Europe as well, that a group called Mistletoe runs. So yeah, they’re very similar in some ways. And you know, one of the keys to any of these makerspaces is often community, getting back to this question you were asking about people wanting to work together. I’m very curious to see — after a couple of years of pandemic restrictions, you’re starting to see people want to scratch that itch of being and working with others again. And makerspaces are the kind of place that I would love to see explode as people want to get back in the world and do something productive with others.
Host Raj Daniels 24:01
Now, you mentioned Malaysia, and I think it was Indonesia. But I had a dinner conversation last night with my girls about one of the projects you mentioned in another interview — the one with the lobsters and the wires. Can you share that? Can you share some information about that project?
Paul Bunje 24:15
Yeah, so this is a cool thing. It’s called LobsterLift. So we ran, essentially, an engineering hackathon in Borneo a number of years ago that we called Make for the Planet. We invited groups to apply to be a part of this. 15 groups from around the world were invited to this conference around ocean marine conservation in Malaysian Borneo. And what we did was we actually brought those experts, who we talked about earlier, who know the problems really well and asked them to challenge these 15 brilliant teams, which were groups of engineers, students — there was a group from MakerBay that was actually helping us, bringing in 3D printers and everything else like that.
And one of the problems that was out there was this problem of the Atlantic right whale, which is an endangered species. There are fewer than 500 individuals left. That’s along the eastern coast of North America, that it lives. And there are two causes of mortality, of death, in the Atlantic right whale. One is ship strikes, and the other are lobster line entanglements. So when you are catching lobster, one of the things you do is you put a lobster pot down on the seafloor, and then there’s a cable, a rope, that goes all the way to the surface where there’s a buoy, so that you can pull that, so that the lobster fishers can pull that thing up. These right whales will actually get entangled in these. There are a million of these lines between Florida and Maine.
Host Raj Daniels 25:48
I couldn’t believe that number when I heard it.
Paul Bunje 25:50
Isn’t it insane? I mean, there’s a lot of lobster, too, that you can eat, so the size of things that happen in the ocean is mind boggling. I don’t think most people can even fathom how much there is there, including how much we’re actually taking out of it. So yeah, as these right whales swim by, they will get caught in the lines, they wrap around them and will often suffocate these right whales.
So this was the problem. This was the challenge. And this was put to groups, and one of them, which was a group of folks including some engineers, included some scientists and others, they came up — in five days, they came up and prototyped a solution they called LobsterLift, which removes that rope entirely. And what you have is a sonic key. You can put sonar through the water. And what it did was attached an inflatable balloon that was on the lobster pot on the sea floor. And if the lobster fisher came by, and used the correct sonic key, the correct sound down there, it would trigger that lobster pot to inflate the balloon which would rise to the surface. Brilliant, and in some ways, elegant, solution to this.
And also, as it turns out, it has the advantage of making it basically impossible to steal someone else’s lobster pot, right? Because there’s a lock and key now as well. So that’s something that lobster fishers love. They think this is kind of cool. And so now, it’s being scaled up. It was hailed by the head of this phenomenal organization called the International Fund for Animal Welfare as the only solution he’s ever seen to the right whale entanglement problem a couple of years ago at a big international meeting. So it’s just one of those examples of, you get some people that don’t necessarily know about the right whale. They don’t know about the problem. But if they’re given a challenge, in five days, they can literally come up with a working prototype of this. And now it’s being built out as a separate sort of company that a couple of those engineers started.
Host Raj Daniels 27:43
The way I described it to my nine year old was I used the TV remote as an example.
Paul Bunje 27:48
I like that. That’s exactly right.
Host Raj Daniels 27:50
And I said, our TV remote only turns our TV on. So for a moment there, she said, “A balloon. How do they stop the lobster pot from flying away?” I said “No, it’s not a balloon, they just come to the surface of the water.” But that’s kind of the explanation I gave her.
Paul Bunje 28:02
Yep, that’s right. That’s right. You just you inflate it so that it floats. And it’s that simple.
Host Raj Daniels 28:06
Very interesting. Now, can you explain — and it sounds beautiful, but I know it’s not, from research. What is artisanal mining?
Paul Bunje 28:15
Great question. It does sound beautiful. It’s a funny term.
Host Raj Daniels 28:19
It sounds lovely. Like artisanal bread.
Paul Bunje 28:23
Sometimes we’ll call it artisanal and small-scale mining as well. We’re talking right now through these computers, and inside these computers are a ton of different metals, right? Copper, gold, some lithium for the batteries, etc. These come from somewhere, right? They get mined out of the earth, typically.
But our perception of mines — big giant pits somewhere with massive trucks and things like that — is off compared to the actual size of something. You just described artisanal and small scale mining. And that’s really individual miners and smallish operations, doing things in, typically, an informal — meaning that there’s no company behind it — sometimes an illegal, ie, they’re taking stuff out of a place without permission, and maybe against the laws of that country, and then putting it into the supply chain. And so this is an issue I didn’t know very much about at all until a couple of years ago when we were investigating the critical effects on biodiversity, water, aquatic ecosystems, and things like that.
And this came up as a potential real area for innovation. And I’ll give you just sort of a specific example. We’re working right now in the second round of a challenge to ask innovators from anywhere to come up with cool solutions to this problem. Right now it’s focused on the Amazon and gold mining. Gold is in all of our computers, all of our technology. Obviously, it’s a huge part of our jewelry as well. About a third of all the gold in the world comes from these small informal mines.
Host Raj Daniels 29:58
Paul Bunje 29:59
And when I say small, it’s because they’re not centralized operations. They can actually get quite large, and a significant amount — most of this is actually happening in the Amazon basin and what happens is that miners will come into virgin rainforest. And in the topsoil of the Amazon is a significant amount of gold. They will take down the entire rainforest, denude this entirely, strip the topsoil, and put this through really, really rudimentary mines. I grew up, actually, in California’s Gold Country. And we’re talking about the same technology they’re using now that I learned about people using during the gold rush in the 1850s in California. They’re basically taking this dirt, putting it through sluices, amalgamating it to mercury, and you actually see these miners will sometimes even be standing in vats of mercury mixing with gold, right. So it’s a horrible human health disaster as well.
And then all of the tailings and effluent end up getting into the watershed. And you’ll see these massive ponds now, where once was beautiful, lush, rich rainforest filled with species is now what looks like a Martian wasteland, but filled with different colors of polluted water and ponds and the like. And to give you an idea of how much impact this can have, we often think of mercury pollution as a marine problem: “Don’t eat that fish because there’s too much mercury in it.” Well, 40% of the mercury pollution in the world comes from these artisanal gold mines. 40% that are very far away. And it’s because you’ve got miners that are desperate for a living, and this is huge. This employs 100 million people or so globally.
So it’s a big economic drive for some of the poorest people in the world who are working for a couple of years to be able to support their family. But it also results in in damage to their health. When you literally burn, with a blowtorch, the mercury off of the gold in order to get pure gold, you then end up breathing this, but it also gets into the atmosphere, deposits into the ocean, gets into the water, etc. And then you have this — you can’t just blame the miners, right? They’re incentivized to do this. This is we — it’s you and I, Raj, that are paying for this gold, for example, right? So what is it that we can do to improve their lot, improve the lot of the ecosystems that they’re in, where their mine is set up, and in particular make it clear that we can change the entire incentive structure for doing this through those supply chains.
And right now, those supply chains themselves are difficult to see through. Often, they’re using the same supply chains through criminal networks that are trafficking in guns, drugs, people, and the like, and also putting these kinds of minerals that eventually make it into your smartphone. And so this challenge asked people to come up with new ways of doing the mining, how do you do it without mercury, for example, new ways of exposing the supply chain, of making it clear and transparent, so that we can make better decisions as consumers or as companies that are buying these things. New ways of actually empowering the miners themselves so they don’t have to tear down so much rainforest, for example, like data tools. And we’ve seen some incredible solutions. In fact, I’m super excited because this week, we’ve taken a number of the innovators, the cool solutions from the first round and the second round of this.
And we’re now putting them in what we’re calling the Amazon CoLab, which is a facility to help them feel test and scale up their solutions with partners on the ground that know these things. Because a lot of the innovators are not from South America, for example. And so what we’re doing in the Amazon is giving them the opportunity to work with those local communities, those local solvers, and those local organizations that can help scale the solutions up, test them in the field, make sure that they are appropriate for this, and really give that next step.
So at Conservation X Labs, we do a ton of sourcing of great ideas and great new solutions. We do our own developing them. This is that last step in scaling them up because until you get a remarkable breakthrough into the hands of everyone who needs it, it’s not really the solution we need. And so that last step scaling is what I’m super excited about because we’re launching the CoLab this week, and a bunch of our team is down in Peru, in the Madre de Dios Province, which is a beautiful place in the Peruvian Amazon, launching this with some incredible innovators and giving them a chance to really show what they can do and take it to the next level.
Host Raj Daniels 34:23
It is exciting. And I think the key, or one of the keys, you mentioned there in passing is the idea of not affecting the livelihood of the people that are doing the work. I think that incentive has to be in place.
Paul Bunje 34:36
We often think of nature as somehow separate. And we are part of nature. We evolved from other apes and we rely in all of these ways. In reality, this is about people and giving people the opportunity to thrive on this beautiful blue dot, this beautiful planet that we have, and so you’re exactly right. It’s a stupid, quite frankly, notion to blame those that are looking for a way to support their family for what’s happening. And in reality, if we can give them a better way, or they can develop their own better way, then that’s what we need to support because everybody actually likes nature, as it turns out. Let’s not denigrate, let’s actually co-create ways of solving these problems.
Host Raj Daniels 35:25
Well, speaking of nature — and you mentioned CoVID earlier — some of the challenges that we’re seeing today is because we’re seeing this border, quote, unquote, between us and nature, spilling over into humans. What are some of the challenges you’re seeing in that area?
Paul Bunje 35:41
This is actually an area we care deeply about. Thanks for asking. There’s this new-ish kind of field called planetary health, which really reflects the fact that, that human health, public health, agricultural health, and ecological health are completely intertwined. Right?
Host Raj Daniels 36:00
Paul Bunje 36:02
We see it too — if there’s a strange cold snap that happens in, let’s say, Texas, and it shuts down all of the electricity grid, people end up dying, right? So your health is actually related to a weather system that is likely being affected by climate change and shifts in the jet stream and the like. And the same thing with heat waves. Same thing with pollution that gets in the water — all of these kinds of things. So it makes sense.
But what we’re seeing now is this field, planetary health, start to actually put some real meat behind how we deal with these kinds of things. So this is an area that we Conservation X Labs consider ourselves, in many ways, a planetary health organization. And as an example, one of the things we’ve been building for the last several years is a handheld molecular lab, essentially. In fact, we’ve been thinking about this as, okay, how can you tell if there’s an endangered species that’s been turned into bone or flesh or something like that, and it’s being traded, you know, across borders and things like that, and customs agents are trying to stop it? Well, the only way to tell is with genetics, with the DNA that’s inside there.
And so we built a tool. We call it the NABIT. Essentially, it takes the genetic barcode, and it puts it in the hands of anybody. It’s super easy to use, you don’t need to be a scientist. It goes anywhere, it’s rugged, you can drop it, all these sorts of things. And then when COVID happened, we realized that a virus like the virus that causes COVID is the same thing. You can’t see it, and it gets anywhere. And so it’s great if you can swab it, send it to a lab, and 24 or 48 hours later, you find out whether you’re positive or not. But what about those people — maybe a homeless encampment — that aren’t going to be there 24 or 48 hours later?
Well, what about those clinics that are that are far down on a road where it actually takes three to four days just to ship the sample before it gets processed. So you can take the NABIT. And so we started developing a test with partners that had spun out of the Broad Institute at Harvard. A test for this. And now we’re extending that to, how do we prevent the next 20 pandemics? Because CoVID, the SARS-CoVID-2 virus, most likely it jumped from an animal reservoir. A bat that was in a wet market. Well, we know other viruses have done the same thing. HIV has done that. Ebola jumped from primates, Nipah, Zika. All of these sorts of things are so called zoonotic diseases.
So now we are deeply engaged. We’re working with partners at places like UC Davis, Johns Hopkins, Cornell University, the US’s Agricultural Research Service. MERS, the Middle East respiratory syndrome actually jumped from domestic camels, interestingly enough, so agricultural sites can also be a source of these kinds of things. The swine flu actually came from domestic pigs in the US, that we remember from the mid 2000s. So we’re looking at things like the NABIT as tools to put at the frontlines of detection so we can stop these pandemics before they start. But it also gets to the core challenges. So something like Ebola, as well as probably HIV, appear to have emerged because of bushmeat trade, right?
So humans going out, and hunting animals in the forest, essentially, for food, for meat, and the like, which is often driven by other economic challenges or, often, conflict, notably. So we think Ebola is probably related to some of the conflicts in West Africa that were there, for example. So all of these issues, from human security, to agriculture, to where are those threats to our lives going to come from next, really are intertwined and interrelated. That’s part of what we see as Conservation X Labs, a sort of opportunity to help, is how do we bring those different groups together, those different experts, who are still valuable, but probably have only a fraction of the solution, together to solve the big things, and to work on something that’s going to be the next step to 10x. That’s going to get us there. Some of those we will develop ourselves; others, we just want to work with as many people as we possibly can to create the next intervention, the next solution, the next opportunity to stop something that could cause an even worse pandemic, if that’s possible.
Host Raj Daniels 40:19
You know, it sounds like you’re working on so many different areas. And I can sense the enthusiasm in your voice. You’ve been with Conservation X Labs for about eight years now. What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about yourself?
Paul Bunje 40:31
You mentioned enthusiasm. Well, enthusiasm is not enough. You’ve said you’ve been an entrepreneur. You know entrepreneurship is hard. Very hard. My co-founder, Alex, before I was able to join him full-time, I was the chief scientist at XPRIZE before this.
Host Raj Daniels 40:59
I’m a fan of XPRIZE.
Paul Bunje 41:00
Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s amazing. A lot of our inspiration comes from them and similar organizations that think, quote, unquote, exponentially. It’s really important. Two things that are there: one, having people you trust that you can work with, and Alex has said this, but I feel this, which is, I couldn’t do any of this without having a partner in him to really keep things going because sometimes it’s emotionally so draining. The second piece that I’ve learned is I’m getting better, but I’m not great at making the hard decisions, necessarily, the decisions that might affect people and where they’re going in life.
Running an organization is not all about the mission and the vision. It’s also about how you get great people doing great things together. For example, the pandemic has been challenging for everyone. When we’re not together, you can see that people are not as much who they are and who they need to be to help Conservation X Labs succeed. And that includes me, and I think that learning those kinds of lessons is difficult sometimes, but it’s also really, really important to know that we’re all getting better, as it were.
Host Raj Daniels 42:27
I can understand that. Now, I usually ask a question about fast forwarding into the future. But let’s ask specifically. Conservation X Labs, what will it take to get you to the next level?
Paul Bunje 42:39
You know, it is a little bit to me about fast forwarding into the future. We were asked by one of our team members — Chad Gallinat asked Alex and I, a year plus ago — he said, “What Conservation X Labs what’s it look like in 2040?” And we love that question. And it took us a while. We spent several weeks kind of thinking about it. And we started to answer it, actually, in this next level manner. We realize that, right now, especially coming out of the pandemic, all of the work we’ve done over the past few years, Conservation X Labs is at an inflection point where we can really transform the field of conservation. And that’s what we’re looking at in 2040 was, in 2040, conservation shouldn’t be a nice-to-have, that you give some money to an NGO, to a nonprofit organization that loves to show cool animals. It should really be a part of all economic activity. We shouldn’t be thinking about it as something separate, where you put up a fence to protect things.
But in reality, it should be that all of us have a job that in some way, shape, or form is supporting, conserving, and protecting the natural world, as well as the human world, in part because they’re so intertwined. And so how do we get there? What’s the next question? Well, we got to do it now in some ways. And I think the next level — we’re at this point where, quite candidly, Raj, what we need are more partners. We need to work together. That means everything from from more capacity to build things, be they makerspaces or others, that means more companies, corporations. We work with some and we’re starting to increase that more. They want to come in and see the opportunity to transform their work so that it’s not just about ESG or sustainability as a nice-to-have, but it’s really, how do we make your company better?
Because let me give you an example. Right? We regard food waste as one of the biggest threats to biodiversity on the planet.
Why food waste? Well, about 40% of our food, globally, is lost somewhere between when it’s grown and after it’s consumed. Right? It could be lost on the farm. It could be lost in transport. It’s certainly — in my household, it’s too often lost on the dinner plate. But think about that 40%. We’re at a point where, if we were to use conventional agriculture, and we were to feed the next couple of billion people that will be born by 2050, we would have to add agricultural land the size of the continental United States.
And quite frankly, that means taking all this natural space that we really don’t have anymore. In other words, there’s not enough space to do it. Well, it’s one of the easiest things to do, instead of, instead of cutting down more forest to grow more cows and more soybeans for more cows, how do we reduce the waste that’s in that system? 40%. Think about that. That’s a massive amount of land. And so that’s protected and safe. So it turns out, that’s also a huge driver of climate change, right? Because that land conversion is also releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So if you can take that offline — so that’s one of those things where we want to work with companies, for example, that would actually save a ton of money, if they’re not paying for 40% of stuff that they can’t sell. Right? It’s a win-win.
And so that’s one of the things we’re also looking at. It also means those who want to put their money where their mouth is, who really believe that we’re in an ecological crisis — maybe they understand implicitly, maybe they haven’t seen it yet. But they want to be able to see that those solutions that I talked about, those exponential solutions, those things that can 10x things, are actually possible. Now we have the scientific, technological, and now the sort of innovation capacity to get those 3 billion new minds, especially if we build this app together. If we get those folks online, we can come up with those solutions. This is not hard anymore.
So we need those people with money on the sidelines, thinking it’s still a nice-to-have to also come in. All of that, I think, will not only help get Conservation X Labs to the next level. And again, it’s not just about us because we are a network. We are a community. We believe in empowering is so many individuals, organizations, and others. But that’s what’s going to lead to our vision for 2040 as well, which is a world where everything we do is actually completely in line with protecting humans and the planet.
Host Raj Daniels 46:46
You know, it’s interesting, I wrote an article that I published last week, specifically around extended producer responsibility. EPR. Are you familiar with that?
Paul Bunje 46:55
I’m not. Tell me.
Host Raj Daniels 46:56
So Maine, last year, passed a law — and I’ll share the article with you later — regarding extended producer responsibility, where now the manufacturer of a product is going to be responsible for how the consumer disposes of it.
Paul Bunje 47:11
I have heard of this. Yes, absolutely.
Host Raj Daniels 47:13
And Oregon is right behind them. I think California is looking at it, too. Actually, there are 21 states considering this law right now. And so I’m thinking that if you bring this idea of conservation to companies that perhaps have a presence in some of these states, it might be a good starting point for a conversation.
Paul Bunje 47:31
I think that’s absolutely right. I have heard of it. So I apologize for not knowing the term, but it’s part of this movement towards a circular economy as well. People respond to incentives, companies, individuals. Sometimes those incentives are sticks when a state comes up and says, “You got to do this.” But it solves one of these big problems in ecology and economics, which is an externality. If you can dispose of something for free, then who bears the cost of all of that waste? Ultimately, we all do as a society, so this is trying to bring that onto the balance sheet of a company, which I think is cool. And you’re going to need solutions. They’re gonna need to develop things, right? There are two sides to a coin. A country like India can say, “We need better cooling technology because we can’t build enough coal-fired power plants to meet demand for it.” They can say that, and you can build the incentives, but you gotta get the innovators out there to actually create this 10x better cooling as well on the on the flip side.
Host Raj Daniels 48:32
Paul Bunje 48:33
You’re absolutely right. And it’s great insight because I think that’s how we see Conservation X Labs being able to serve as that innovation engine that will help address those new changes.
Host Raj Daniels 48:44
So let me ask my future question, then. I think you’ll have a good answer for it. Let’s say it’s 2040. Picture year. If Fast Company, Forbes, Wall Street Journal were to write and headline, perhaps a short paragraph about Conservation X Labs, what would you like it to read? You’re casting your vision.
Paul Bunje 49:02
Yeah, but now it feels like bragging. I’d like it to read something to the effect of — on something like the Forbes 500, let’s say it’s Forbes, right. This year, the Forbes 100, let’s say, is represented by a majority of companies that were started or inspired by Conservation X Labs.
Host Raj Daniels 49:23
It’s beautiful. Write it down, tuck it on there. That’s your vision. I like it. What did Peter Diamandis say? The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself. Right. And I heard you mentioned that on another show or another interview. So there you go.
Paul Bunje 49:30
He said a lot of things. Yeah. I think Buckminster Fuller was maybe the first one to say that, and Peter has articulated it so well in so many different realms. He wrote a book along with Steven Kotler called Abundance, which really paints the fact that these opportunities are there. I don’t think that vision that I just articulated — I don’t think that’s crazy. Anybody can have a vision that big now, especially because we can capitalize on the brilliant minds that are in the world, the brilliant opportunities, and the generations like our kids who not only want to see a better future but are actively working to create it.
Host Raj Daniels 50:14
Totally agree. So last question. And this could be professional or personal. But if you could share some advice, words of wisdom or recommendations with the audience, what would it be?
Paul Bunje 50:26
You know, I think the personal and the professional are so intertwined nowadays. Think Big, and dream bigger, but bad things will happen. Don’t blame — we can mourn, we can get upset. But don’t let the bad things deter you from your vision.
Host Raj Daniels 50:48
Paul, I love that. Don’t let the bad things deter you from your vision. I think it’s a great place to leave off. I wish you all the best with Conservation X Labs. And look forward to catching up with you again soon.
Paul Bunje 50:59
A real pleasure to talk to you, Raj. And it sounds like we will talk soon. Great ideas you have, and I love it, and I can’t wait to have another conversation.
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