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Studying the oceans to help save the earth

An innovative collaboration is doing its part to solve the climate crisis

Studying the oceans to help save the earth

Many large companies are implementing plans to minimize the role their individual businesses play in the climate crisis. But according to Dan Leibholz, chief technology officer at Analog Devices, company emission reduction goals are a good start, but to make a major impact, companies must proactively look to lend their expertise. “This is a massive problem, and it’s a problem that can’t be solved by one institution or one technology company,” he says. “It really requires the strength of many.”

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That’s why Analog Devices, a global semiconductor technology company based in Wilmington, Mass., has joined forces with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a nonprofit research organization, to form the Ocean & Climate Innovation Accelerator (OCIA). The OCIA brings together research and industry to advance knowledge of the ocean’s role in defending against a warming planet. The companies hope this convergence of the technology and science sectors will accelerate new climate change solutions.

During a recent Fast Company Innovation 360 panel, Leibholz and Peter de Menocal, president and director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, discussed how other companies across the business landscape can merge their talent, technology, and innovative frameworks to address climate change. Here are four takeaways from that discussion.

1. Identify opportunities to capitalize on overlapping expertise.

Woods Hole’s team is made up of 1,000 ocean scientists, plus technicians, engineers, and marine operations experts, while Analog Devices’ expertise is around bridging the digital and physical worlds. A key early component of their collaboration was figuring out where the teams’ interests, and areas of expertise, overlapped. “The ocean is one of the biggest challenges in terms of sensing, processing, and communicating on a very broad scale,” Leibholz says, noting that Analog’s system- and device-level expertise was a natural fit for those challenges.

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Meanwhile, Woods Hole’s staff was already experienced at developing power-efficient electronics and developing new ways to make complex analyses in the ocean. With these complementary skill sets, the organizations could easily identify opportunities for collaboration that would allow them to accelerate technology developments together.

“I not only believe in the organization that we’ve built, but also that the approach we’re taking—de-risking innovation and pursuing difficult problems—is the right way to go about this,” de Menocal says. “If you look at the structure of technological revolutions—the Human Genome Project, the COVID vaccine—they begin with this kind of effort.”

2. De-risk research projects to encourage faster experimentation.

Government-funded research institutions may not have the ability to perform quick experiments or “fail fast” because of the pace of funding and reporting cycles. But a private-sector partnership can sidestep those requirements—for the benefit of scientists and the research they’re conducting. “What the Ocean & Climate Innovation Accelerator brings to Woods Hole is the freedom to pursue really high-risk, big-consequence questions,” de Menocal says. “And that translates into a liberation of our staff’s talents.”

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Indeed, Analog Devices’ entrepreneurial culture means its people are comfortable with a fast-paced innovation cycle. “We’re impatient, and I think that’s a positive in how we’re helping to grow this thing,” Leibholz says. “We’re funding and supporting breakthrough technologies that may or may not work out. The ones that do, we’ll fund to the next tier and then send them on their way.”

3. Foster opportunities for cross-organization collaboration.

Public-private partnerships aren’t just labs of innovation; they can also provide real benefits for employees to share information and connect to a larger purpose. That’s certainly been the case for Analog Devices employees, who are invested in the accelerator’s potential to make meaningful progress on climate issues. Leibholz points out that ideation sessions, lightning round talks with scientists, and opportunities for hands-on involvement have all drawn an enthusiastic response.

“This is part of what any corporation is looking to do, which is to drive a level of engagement that allows employees to see themselves as part of solving bigger problems, along with solving the problems that are important to their customers day in and day out,” he says.

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4. Scale an innovation framework.

Setting time-bound frameworks for R&D has helped focus the accelerator’s efforts, providing enough time to dig into a project without making it never-ending. Each year, the OCIA picks one area of focus to guide grant projects for deep innovation. Recently, it focused on better understanding ocean-based carbon capture; next year, it will be looking at coastal ecosystems and developing early-warning systems for indicators of sea-level rise.

The OCIA and its projects will only become more impactful as the consortium grows. Leibholz envisions other companies in areas including big data, sensors, and cloud technology following suit and joining. “We’ve got a mechanism that works and that’s scalable,” de Menocal says. “And I think that’s probably the biggest takeaway here—that OCIA is designed to be scaled up.”

For more information about the OCIA and how companies can get involved, visit its website.

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