The Fourth Wave
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The Fourth Wave

Can technology save millions of species from mass extinction?

Conservation X Labs has a bold mission: to put an end to human-induced extinction. As a recent UN biodiversity report explained in stark terms, human activity is putting one million species of plants and animals at risk of extinction. It’s a sobering warning — but if we rethink conservation, there is hope.

CXL’s approach is certainly hopeful. Described by founders Dr. Alex Dehgan and Paul Bunje as a ‘pipeline of innovation,’ CXL goes beyond incubators and startups, using prizes and challenges to foster collaborative work on environmental solutions via their Digital Makerspace technology platform.

Competition and collaboration supercharge innovation

Like Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), CXL works on projects where they can have the greatest impact, with a focus on bringing scientists, economists, entrepreneurs and other partners together to develop solutions that address the underlying drivers of extinction. Promising examples include:

· The DNA Barcode Scanner, a hand-held device that compares a DNA sample to the Barcode Of Life Database to determine if species are actually what they’re claimed to be. Seafood fraud and illegal timber trafficking are devastating for ecosystems, and trafficking enforcement agents need tools like this to rapidly identify fraud or illegal activity in the field.

· The Global Cooling Prize, a $3 million innovation competition to develop a climate-friendly residential cooling solution that can provide cooling to people around the world without warming the planet. The Global Cooling Prize was launched in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute and the government of India in 2018. The goal: a five-fold decrease in climate impact!

· The Blue Economy Challenge, the first Grand Challenge for Conservation that sought solutions for alternative protein, new ocean products and sustainable fish-free feed. CXL ran the $2.3 million challenge in partnership with InnovationXChange, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, SecondMuse and World Wildlife Fund U.S.

Companies and other hot projects to watch

As a result of The Blue Economy Challenge, companies are pioneering aquaculture feeds based on plant and fish-free proteins. For example, KnipBio, a Massachusetts-based company, uses naturally occurring microbes to convert methanol into nutritious protein — and OakBio (NovoNutrients), a California-based company, converts greenhouse gases into fish feed. Also, New Wave Foods, another California-based company, is creating plant-based shrimp that is kosher as well as an environmentally and socially sustainable alternative to shrimp. If produced on a mass scale, this could not only help the environment and substantially reduce bycatch, but it could also reduce the amount of slavery involved in shrimp production.

Meanwhile, MicroSynbiotiX (California) is developing new delivery methods for farmed fish vaccines and EnerGaia (Thailand) is developing low-cost closed systems that grow edible food-grade spirulina in urban and rural settings. These advances can help replenish fish populations for people and the fish.

What makes CXL different makes it work

EDF and CXL agree that whatever the challenge, addressing the underlying cause is essential to solving it. For example, when it comes to habitat loss, why are people cutting down a forest? If it’s to produce crops or mine for gold, could we change the demand structure to provide other incentives, ones that make the forest more profitable alive than dead? The economic lever is a powerful tool in a conservationist’s toolbox.

Also, CXL uses both directed innovation — when a solution clearly needs to be started and developed in house — as well as open innovation techniques like mass collaboration, because they believe “there is genius in the crowd.” Their Digital Makerspace is a digital engineering workshop and collaboration space where they say that ideas are born, tested and developed in a cross-disciplinary community.

They try to influence the field itself, too, recognizing that some market based solutions can help those in the community at large as well as projects CXL supports — like an app that’s basically ‘Yelp for sustainability,’ so people can easily evaluate and identify what kind of sustainable practices retailers or restaurants are using.

Ending extinction may be only the beginning

As with many of the most innovative, modern approaches to environmental problems, exponential technology — sensors, computer chips, artificial intelligence and so on — is enabling surprising solutions like never before. That DNA Barcode Scanner? It’s due for commercial release next year.

It’s hard to say what new solutions environmental partnerships will come up with five or ten years down the line, but organizations like Conservation X Labs are eager to find out, and are growing their Tribe of innovators to keep the solutions coming. As their website says, “Humans have driven the sixth mass extinction. Humans have the power to reverse it.” Now let’s not go extinct ourselves before it’s too late.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave

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Environmental Defense Fund

Environmental Defense Fund

We work with businesses, governments and communities to create lasting solutions to the most serious environmental problems. We’re EDF.