The Point Lobos thrusts its pug nose into the blue-gray waters of California’s Monterey Bay. On board squats Ventana, a remote-operated vehicle roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The unassuming probe has seen more of the ocean floor than almost any other vessel in history, and on this cool morning, she is on her way to making her 2,000th dive. Named after the Spanish word for window, Ventana carries the dreams of dozens of scientists and engineers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
This morning, Ventana has one of Jim Barry’s dreams secured to her steel bottom. Beneath a gaggle of electrical cords, mother-boards filled with microprocessors, lights, computers, thrusters, and a high-definition digital camera, three clear-plastic cylinders ride along smoothly as Ventana glides 1,200 meters to the bottom of the underwater Monterey Canyon. There, a robotic arm gently places the three cylinders on the seafloor. In about a month, Ventana will return to pick them up.
The cylinders will measure how much oxygen is consumed by organisms in the deep ocean. Why does that matter? Because scientists are studying whether deep-ocean storage of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, which would be trapped by smokestack filters) could solve global warming. Barry, a benthic ecologist, wants to be certain that addressing that problem won’t kill sea creatures — or harm them so much that they stop reproducing. His plastic cylinders use the same data-gathering methods that a medical researcher uses to study blood gases.
Welcome to one of the new economy’s next frontiers. With Silicon Valley in disarray, it would be easy to conclude that the technological principles that fueled explosive growth are in retreat. Easy — but wrong. The innovation paradigm at the heart of the new economy is alive and well — and insinuating itself into fields that, at first blush, seem to have little to do with business. “A lot of oceanic exploration is stuck in pre-World War II models of science,” says Jim Bellingham, director of engineering. “Now we use data management from the Net, we take microsensors from the medical industry, and we use supercomputing to help us model the information that we’re pulling from the oceans.”
Drive south from San Francisco, along the black ribbon of Route 1 as it hugs the northern coast of California. To the east rise the peaks of the coastal mountain range — explored, analyzed, farmed, and fenced for centuries. To the west, the Pacific Ocean heaves and swells into the sinuous scoop of Monterey Bay. There, in a series of massive underwater canyons that would dwarf the Grand Canyon, the seabed plunges in some places to 4,000 meters. And we know almost nothing about what’s down there.
“The biggest discoveries in ocean science are yet to be made,” says Bob Vrijenhoek, who sits with his back to the bay in his office at MBARI. Vrijenhoek, an evolutionary biologist who spent most of his career at Rutgers University, is the quintessential teacher-scientist. His specialty involves one of the newest discoveries in ocean science: hydrothermal vents, where ocean water seeps through cracks in underwater-volcano lava, becomes heated, and releases back into the cold water above. Before the mid-1970s, no one even knew that these “hot seeps” existed — let alone that they held the remarkable life-forms that survive in them. “We used to think the deep sea was like a desert: constant, static, virtually dead,” says Vrijenhoek.
It’s precisely that sense of eye-opening discovery that interested David Packard, the Silicon Valley legend, in funding an oceanic institute. Packard established MBARI in 1987. Along with the startup money, Packard offered up a management mandate for the institute. He wanted engineers and scientists to work together on equal footing and to solve problems in a spirit of collaboration. As at Hewlett-Packard, big thinkers would work with clever tinkerers to create breakthrough tools.
Packard’s mandate was considered so important that it is now cast in bronze in MBARI’s lobby. But it takes a lot of work to get from mandate to methodology. That’s the job of Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who has trained with the U.S. Navy SEAL team in underwater demolitions, and who became president and CEO of the institute four years ago. At that time, life at MBARI did not exactly live up to Packard’s vision. “The engineers were like Kelly girls,” McNutt concedes. “Their time was scheduled, the scientists had the ocean offices, and no engineers sat at the table to talk about projects.”
McNutt, who grew up in Minnesota, far from any ocean, worked quickly to give MBARI’s engineers more of a say — in part because of her own experiences in the research world. For 15 years, she had toiled away as a geophysicist at MIT, where she says she felt hamstrung by the lack of teamwork between scientists and the school of engineering. MBARI was a place where she could bridge such gaps. “I completely bought into David Packard’s belief that scientists and engineers should work together,” she says.
Standing over the guts of his favorite sea beast — Altex, a yellow, torpedo-shaped vessel in the lab for some revamping — Jim Bellingham is offering a history lesson on a young science. “Ocean exploration is like driving a car from the East Coast to the West Coast at night in a fog. What do you think you’d really see?” he asks. “These devices will let us know the ocean far more intimately.”
Talk about a slow company. For most of its history, ocean science and exploration has depended on dispatching big boats for months on end to gather data. Scientists would then study the data for years before even trying to answer any big questions. The research process became a little more interesting when people could be sent down in submersibles, and then unmanned probes plunged deeper. But even those faster-paced explorations provided only snapshots of conditions in the ocean. “We are limiting the sea by the way we observe it,” says MBARI science chair Ed DeLong. “Scientists tend to be conservative because exploration is so intense and expensive.”
DeLong, who could pass for one of the fishermen who unload their tuna boats across the street from MBARI’s headquarters, is eager to break through those limitations. He studies micro-organisms that contain genes for rhodopsin, which act like little batteries. They are difficult creatures to grow in a lab, so being able to collect them from the ocean helps his research — research that one day could allow for such “natural batteries” to be incorporated into biocomputing functions. “The great thing will be when we in the man-made world can use the inventions that nature has already made,” DeLong says.
To help scientists like DeLong explore faster, Bellingham is working on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that not only explore the oceans remotely (no humans necessary) — but that do so in smarter ways than ever before. He is creating modular AUVs that can be outfitted with varying scientific components, depending on the research mission. The goal is for sensors to be interchangeable, borrowing a chapter from the plug-and-play logic of personal computers.
The broader goal is to get scientists and engineers out on the ocean every day — without the costs, both physical and financial, that are associated with manned ocean exploration.
That should let scientists take more risks, because they won’t be tied to just one or two trips a year. And Bellingham hopes that in time, his vehicles will be a part of a vast, global ocean-observatory system. Imagine, he says, a school of “robotic fish” roaming the seas — searching for new life-forms, sampling the ocean’s water, and going where neither humans nor tethered underwater vehicles have gone before. On the ocean surface, around-the-clock monitoring technology loaded onto unmanned buoys will sample and sniff the waters. On the ocean floor, remote ocean labs tethered to land with fiber-optic cables will give scientists an opportunity to watch the ocean continuously and to retrieve information in real time.
What MBARI scientists will discover through this model of everyday exploration is anybody’s guess, but there are hints of what’s possible. Molecular biologist Chris Scholin spent several weeks in May off the Gulf of Maine predicting with great accuracy toxic-algae blooms like red tides that can kill fish, close beaches, and make humans sick. It has taken five years of work by Scholin and Gene Massion, an MBARI mechanical engineer, to develop an instrument to predict such blooms in the same way that the Centers for Disease Control forecasts flu breakouts.
Their relationship, now a friendship, was spawned when they were assigned to work together. Things didn’t exactly start swimmingly. Scholin likes to tell the story of offering up what he calls a “third-grade sketch” of a device he needed. Massion took one look at it and laughed, Scholin says. Massion admits to laughing, but then he set to work digging through his toolbox of technology. He yanked out remote medical sensors, sturdy batteries, and genetic-testing processes — made cost-effective and easy because of the human genome project. He put them together with the insight of Scholin’s scientific mind. The result: a “filter jukebox.” Like a musical jukebox, the device shuffles filters, runs genetic scans (much like medical DNA scans), and coughs up results without scientists needing to be near it.
The give-and-take between the two men typifies a new way of work at MBARI that could lead to the most innovative era of sea exploration to date. New challenges beckon, such as storing carbon dioxide in the deep sea. Scientists and engineers have realized that along with great technology, the new economy has given them something even more valuable: a better way of working. As George Malby, an MBARI electrical engineer, puts it, innovation ought to happen this way. “We have a natural respect for each other,” he says. “We have no reason to judge each other. We just have questions we want to ask and answer.”
Fara Warner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco. Visit MBARI on the Web (www.mbari.org).