Boyan Slat was a 16-year-old high school student when he devised a system to rid the oceans of plastic waste. Instead of a massive undertaking projected to take 79,000 years, his system would only take 10 years.
Three years later in 2013, just six months into his degree in aerospace engineering, he dropped out of his course and founded The Ocean Cleanup to pursue this vision full-time.
He became the youngest-ever recipient of Champion of the Earth – UN’s highest environmental accolade, and also made it to Forbes’ 30 under 30 Europe list for science and healthcare (2016).
Last week, Boyan was in Singapore to speak at a public lecture (co-sponsored by S.E.A. Aquarium) and symposium at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He took time to speak to us about his experiences and how students can turn their passion for the oceans into real solutions to existing problems.
You are described as an inventor since birth. What was your first invention?
When I was two, I made myself a wooden chair when I couldn’t find one that fits. At 13, I simultaneously launched 213 water rockets and set a Guinness World Record. That experience taught me how to get people to join me in my venture, and how to approach sponsors.
In your opinion, is being an inventor nature or nurture?
I think human beings have an innate urge to create stuff. So I believe it is largely nature.
What are some of the problems our oceans currently face?
Plastic pollution, climate change and ocean acidification (sea water becoming more acidic due to increased carbon dioxide emissions on land).
Why did you choose to target plastic pollution?
Back in 2011 when I was diving in Greece, I saw more plastic bags than fish. It was shocking, and even more so when people said there was no apparent solution. But I’m always looking for solutions. That’s how The Ocean Cleanup came about.
Being an inventor-entrepreneur means having to undergo countless trial and errors and face rejections. How do you stay positive?
I just keep pushing myself. In the beginning, I contacted 300 companies for sponsorship but only one responded, which also resulted in a dead end. But I pushed on. My TEDx talk went viral and things started to take shape, including a crowdfunding effort that made $80,000 in 15 days.
Now that you have founded The Ocean Cleanup, what are some of the challenges you face?
It’s more of a personal challenge, having to deal with the organisational aspect of my work and making public appearances. I would prefer to work at The Ocean Cleanup headquarters in Delft without too much distraction.
How do you deal with that?
It’s something I have to do, so I just do it. I believe in order to do the fun things, you have to do the not-so-fun things.
For students who wish to pursue their passion in marine-related issues, what skills or knowledge do they need?
Depending on the issues, knowledge ranging from cleantech engineering to organisational skills may be necessary. Other valuable skills are holistic thinking, testing assumptions, persuasiveness, tenacity, optimism, willingness to learn and entrepreneurship. They will also need to learn how to gain additional skills by attracting the right talent.
How can students turn their beliefs and passion into a business opportunity and career?
Dream big, hold on to your dreams and pursue them relentlessly. Learn by doing, test early and fail quickly so you’re on the fastest track to success.
Boyan’s first prototype system was deployed in June 2016, and his team at The Ocean Cleanup is currently preparing to launch the first working pilot system in late 2017. Follow them on Facebook for the latest updates.