Exclusive: Philanthropist Wendy Schmidt on Scientific Innovation During the Pandemic

Schmidt Ocean Institute co-founder Wendy Schmidt is backed by 32 screens in research vessel Falkor's control room where most of the science takes place on the ship, from mapping to live streaming of underwater robotic dives.

(Photo credit: Credit: Dana Edmunds)

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.]

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.
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