WENDY SCHMIDT is a philanthropist and investor who has spent more than a dozen years creating innovative non-profit organizations to solve pressing global environmental and human rights issues. Recognizing the human dependence on sustaining and protecting our planet and its people, Wendy has built organizations that work to educate and advance an understanding of the critical interconnectivity between the land and the sea. Through a combination of grants and investments, Wendy's philanthropic work supports research and science, community organizations, promising leaders, and the development of innovative technologies. Wendy is president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, which she co-founded with her husband Eric in 2006. They also co-founded Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures.
Editors: The pandemic has altered the course of human history and the nature of our daily lives in equal measure. How has it affected the focus of your philanthropy across your organizations? Have any aspects of the crisis in particular been especially galvanizing as you considered where to concentrate your efforts?
Wendy: The COVID-19 pandemic has made the work of our philanthropy more relevant than ever. If anything, the circumstances of this time have validated the focus we have had for nearly 15 years. We support the need for universal access to clean, renewable energy, healthy food systems, and the dignity of human labor and self-determination in a world of interconnected living systems on land and in the Ocean we are only beginning to understand.
When you consider the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 virus on people who are poorly paid, poorly housed, with poor nutrition and health care, and exposed to unsafe conditions in the workplace—you see clearly how the systems that have been defining how we live, what we eat, who gets healthcare and what impacts the environment around us—need to change.
"This moment has propelled broad movements toward open publication and open sharing of data and samples—something that has always been a core belief in how we support and advance science."
If the pandemic teaches us anything, we learn what resilience looks like, and the essential role for local small businesses including restaurants, farms and ranches, dairies and fish markets in the long term vitality of communities. There is resonance, local economic benefit, and also accountability in these smaller systems, with shorter supply chains and less vertical integration.
The consolidation of vertically integrated business operations for the sake of global efficiency reveals its essential weakness when supply chains break down and the failure to encourage local economic centers leads to intense systemic disruption and the possibility of collapse.
Editors: For scientists, one significant challenge has been figuring out how to continue research, if at all, during this time of isolation and distancing. Yet, your research vessel Falkor, of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, is still on its expedition exploring the Coral Sea Marine Park in Australia—except now there are no scientists onboard. What was the vessel up to before the pandemic hit? Can you tell us more about how they are continuing to conduct research from afar now and how that's going?
Wendy: We have been extremely fortunate at Schmidt Ocean Institute. When the pandemic hit in March, our research vessel, Falkor, was already months into a year-long program to research unexplored deep sea canyons around Australia and at the Great Barrier Reef. We were at sea, with an Australian science group aboard, carrying on with our mission of exploration, discovery and communication, when we happened upon what we believe to be the world's longest animal—a siphonophore about 150 feet long, spiraling out at a depth of about 2100 feet at the end of a deeper dive in the Ningaloo Canyon off Western Australia. It was the kind of wondrous creature we find so often when we conduct ROV dives in the world's Ocean.
For more than two months this year, Falkor was reportedly the only research vessel in the world carrying on active research at sea. Once we were able to dock and return the science party to shore, we resumed our program at sea offering a scheduled set of now land-based scientists in lockdown in Australia the opportunity to conduct research remotely, taking advantage of the vessel's ship to shore communications, high resolution cameras and live streaming video. It's a whole new world, and quite wonderful in its own way.
Editors: Normally, 10–15 scientists would be aboard such a vessel. Is "remote research" via advanced video technology here to stay? Are there any upsides to this "new normal"?
Wendy: Like all things pandemic, remote research is an adaptation for what would normally occur. Since we are putting safety of the crew and guest scientists at the forefront, we're working to build strong remote connections between our crew, land based scientists and the many robotic tools on board Falkor. There's no substitute for in person work, but what we've developed during the current cruise is a pretty good and productive alternative in a crisis. And what's important is that this critical scientific research into the deep sea is able to continue, despite the pandemic on land.
Editors: Speaking of marine expeditions, you've sponsored two XPRIZE competitions focused on ocean health. Do you think challenge prizes could fill gaps of the global COVID-19 response, for example, to manufacture more testing kits, accelerate the delivery of PPE, or incentivize other areas of need?
Wendy: One challenge we are currently facing is that innovations don't have the funding pathway to scale, so promising ideas by entrepreneurs, researchers, and even major companies are being developed too slowly. Challenge prizes help raise awareness for problems we are trying to solve and attract new people to help solve those problems by giving them a pathway to contribute.
One idea might be for philanthropy to pair prizes and challenges with an "advanced market commitment" where the government commits to a purchase order for the innovation if it meets a certain test. That could be deeply impactful for areas like PPE and the production of testing kits.
Editors: COVID-19 testing, especially, has been sorely needed, here in the U.S. and in developing countries as well as low-income communities. That's why we're so intrigued by your Schmidt Science Fellows grantee Hal Holmes and his work to repurpose a new DNA technology to create a portable, mobile test for COVID-19. Can you tell us about that work and how you are supporting it?
Wendy: Our work with Conservation X Labs began years ago when our foundation was the first to support their efforts to develop a handheld DNA barcode sensor to help detect illegally imported and mislabeled seafood and timber products. The device was developed by Hal Holmes, who became one of our Schmidt Science Fellows and is the technical lead on the project, working closely with Conservation X Labs co-founders Alex Deghan and Paul Bunje. Now, with COVID-19, Hal and team have worked with another Schmidt Science Fellow, Fahim Farzardfard, to repurpose the technology—which requires no continuous power source, special training, or a lab—to serve as a mobile testing device for the virus.
The work is going very well, manufacturing is being organized, and distribution agreements with hospitals and government agencies are underway. You could see this device in use within a few months and have testing results within hours instead of days. It could be especially useful in low-income communities and developing countries where access to testing is challenging.
Editors: How is Schmidt Futures involved in the development of information platforms that will offer productive solutions?
Wendy: In addition to the work I've mentioned, we've also funded the development of tech-enabled tools that can help the medical community be better prepared for the ongoing spike of COVID cases. For example, we funded EdX and Learning Agency to develop an online training to help increase the number of medical professionals who can operate ventilators. The first course is being offered by Harvard University, and so far, over 220,000 medical professionals have enrolled. We have also invested in informational platforms that make it easier to contain the spread of the disease, such as our work with Recidiviz to model the impact of COVID-19 in prisons and outline policy steps states could take to limit the spread.
Information platforms can also play a big part pushing forward scientific research into the virus. For example, we've funded the UC Santa Cruz Virus Browser, which allows researchers to examine each piece of the virus and see the proteins it creates, the interactions in the host cell, and — most importantly — almost everything the recent scientific literature has to say about that stretch of the molecule.
Editors: The scale of research collaboration and the speed of innovation today seem unprecedented. The whole science world has turned its attention to combating the pandemic. What positive big-picture trends do you think or hope will persist once the crisis eventually abates?
Wendy: As in many areas, the COVID crisis has accelerated trends in the scientific world that were already well underway. For instance, this moment has propelled broad movements toward open publication and open sharing of data and samples—something that has always been a core belief in how we support and advance science.
We believe collaboration is an essential ingredient for progress in all areas. Early in this pandemic, Schmidt Futures held a virtual gathering of 160 people across 70 organizations in philanthropy, government, and business interested in accelerating research and response to the virus, and thought at the time, it's pretty amazing this kind of thing doesn't go all the time. We are obviously going to go farther together than on our own...
My husband, Eric, has observed that in the past two months, we've all catapulted 10 years forward in our use of technology, so there are trends already underway that are likely accelerated and will become part of the fabric of the post-COVID world—like working remotely; online learning; increased online shopping, even for groceries; telemedicine; increasing use of AI to create smarter delivery systems for healthcare and many other applications in a world that has grown more virtual overnight.
"Our deepest hope is that out of these alarming and uncertain times will come a renewed appreciation for the tools of science, as they help humans to navigate a world of interconnected living systems, of which viruses are a large part."
We fully expect these trends to continue and expand across the sciences, sped up by the pressures of the health crisis. Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures have been pressing in these directions for years, so we are pleased to see the expansions that should help more scientists work productively, together.
Editors: Trying to find the good amid a horrible crisis, are there any other new horizons in science, philanthropy, and/or your own work that could transform our world for the better that you'd like to share?
Wendy: Our deepest hope is that out of these alarming and uncertain times will come a renewed appreciation for the tools of science, as they help humans to navigate a world of interconnected living systems, of which viruses are a large part. The more we investigate the Ocean, the more we look deeply into what lies in our soils and beneath them, the more we realize we do not know, and moreover, how vulnerable humanity is to the forces of the natural world.
Philanthropy has an important role to play in influencing how people perceive our place in the world and understand the impact of human activity on the rest of the planet. I believe it's philanthropy's role to take risks, to invest early in innovative technologies, to lead where governments and industry aren't ready to go yet. We're fortunate at this time to be able to help those working on tools to better diagnose and treat the virus, and to invest in those working to improve information systems, so citizens and policy makers can make better decisions that can reduce impacts on families and institutions.
From all we know, this isn't likely to be the last pandemic the world will see. It's been said that a crisis comes before change, and we would hope that we can play a role in furthering the work to build systems that are resilient—in information, energy, agriculture and in all the ways we work, recreate, and use the precious resources of our planet.
[This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."