Boyan Slat’s success shows a few things: One, meeting a pressing need is a good idea for a business. Two, getting rich does not have to be the primary goal. Three, young people – even teens – can come up with world-changing ideas.
Slat is the 26-year-old founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup; a Dutch foundation that develops advanced systems to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. The idea for the business was formed when he was 16 years old and scuba diving in Greece – he was disgusted to see so much plastic in the ocean. When he dug deeper, he was surprised to find little evidence of serious attempts to solve the plastic pollution problem.
The question “Why don’t we just clean it up?” lingered in Slat’s mind, according to his website, and that led him to devote his high school science project to understanding the problem, as well as researching why a cleanup was considered impossible. It became clear that a cleanup using vessels and nets would take thousands of years, cost tens of billions of dollars, be harmful to sea life and lead to large amounts of carbon emissions, the website continues.
While Slat’s school friends were watching Disney videos, he “was really interested in basic calculus,” he said in an interview with Reader’s Digest magazine. “I enjoyed creating things. When I was two years old I made my own chair. After that it morphed into tree houses and zip-lines. I’ve always had my little projects and there’s still no better feeling to me than having an idea and seeing that idea become a reality.”
At 18, Boyan devised a concept that utilizes the natural oceanic forces to passively catch and concentrate ocean plastic, which could reduce the theoretical cleanup time from millennia to mere years, his website states. After graduating high school, he was invited to present his initial idea at a TEDx conference in 2012.
In February 2013 he dropped out of his Aerospace Engineering study at TU Delft to start The Ocean Cleanup.
As The Ocean Cleanup’s CEO, Boyan leads a team of about 80 people, but spends most of his time on research and engineering. He has co-authored about a dozen scientific papers and multiple patents, his website states. After four years of reconnaissance expeditions, testing and many design iterations, the world’s first ocean cleanup system was launched in 2018 from San Francisco, and was soon followed by deployment inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The task of Ocean Cleanup is enormous. According to the project’s website, every year, millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans, of which the majority spills out from rivers. A portion of this plastic travels to ocean garbage patches, getting caught in a vortex of circulating currents.
If no action is taken, the plastic will increasingly impact our ecosystems, health, and economies, the website states.
But although Ocean Cleanup’s task is enormously important, Slat is not seeking enormous wealth. The organization’s website states:
“The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization developing advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic. To achieve this objective, we have to work on a combination of closing the source and cleaning up what has already accumulated in the ocean and doesn’t go away by itself. This goal means we plan to put ourselves out of business – once we have completed this project, our work is done.”