Doug Menuez is always in search of the latest innovators; those people that become the voice of a generation. Fearless Genius, which chronicles the visual history of Silicon Valley technology boom allowed him to witness to key moments in the career’s of leading innovators, such as Steve Jobs, as they worked to create the digital world as we know it today.
The Fearless Genius project furthered his desire to continue sharing the stories of unique, passionate and influential individuals. Boyan Slat is just that. Boyan is a 23 year old Dutch inventor and entrepreneur who creates technologies to solve global issues. He is the founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, which develops advanced systems to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. Below, Doug writes of Slat’s work and its connection to Fearless Genius.
Tell us about Boyan Slat, your photographs of him and The Ocean Cleanup project he’s leading:
Boyan is this outwardly serene yet deeply passionate 23-year-old Dutch aerospace engineering school dropout and entrepreneur who’s driven to fulfill the dream he’s had since he was 16: to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – there’s 87,000 tons of plastic out there! And I absolutely believe he’s going to succeed. At such a young age he’s already raised 40 million dollars and built a team of 70 of the world’s top marine engineers. These are mature people who left successful careers at oil companies like Shell to switch sides – from polluters to environmental innovators – and follow this kid in order to try to engineer something that every leading scientist has declared impossible. I’m astonished at what he’s done and doing, it reminds me so much of the young Steve Jobs. He told me that with his fail-fast iterative design process, he’s confident they can clean half of the Pacific in five years.
What motivated you to find and photograph Boyan and his team?
My recent Fearless Genius book and project chronicled Steve Jobs and the great innovators of Silicon Valley during the digital revolution when they built the technology that runs our world and lives today. And now there is a huge new wave of radical technology coming fast that will drive a massive new tech revolution. I became curious about who out there is going to lead this next revolution. Who are the contrarians, outliers and iconoclasts who will change everything again? So with my team we began looking for the most compelling stories of next generation entrepreneurs and innovators around the world. The idea was to include them in a documentary but we have shifted into focusing on a tv series featuring the best of the new generation. And our criteria is that they have to be pushing the boundaries of technology in their fields while innovating something that can improve lives with a sustainable business model. Once we found Boyan it was instantly apparent we needed to tell his story.
So given the history you witnessed during the digital revolution, how are things different today for Boyan and this new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs?
Today’s dreamers face a tough battle if they want to tackle anything challenging like climate change or that involves hard science. They can easily get funding for short-term projects like apps or games but this generation is not supported to dream big – despite the constant rhetoric you hear about changing the world. Our government funding for science is down and so what true innovators like Boyan are doing is finding new sources of funding such as through philanthropy or in Asia or unexpected sources outside the VC world. They need to find “patient” money because great innovation is long-term process.
The early innovators were actually super idealists. They wanted to invent new technology that would actually improve our lives. And they had long-term investors that were as crazy and determined as they were. Money was secondary back then in the early 80’s believe it or not. They were like hippie humanists. Success and money shifted the idea of the “nobel cause” thinking into a Wall Street driven short term mentality that led to an unsustainable gold rush. Of course that was unsustainable and we had the dot-come crash of 2000.
What impact is your Fearless Genius project having and where do you see it going in the future?
At my talks I’m always approached by young people who don’t know the history and stories of sacrifice I share about the early innovators. They are sometimes in tears actually and telling me their dreams, it’s very moving. They say they are inspired and want to great things with their lives.One young entrepreneur from India told me that the Fearless Genius book helped him overcome serious depression after his startup failed. He was able to see that failure in Silicon Valley is merely a speedbump, not an endgame. Today over 100 million people have now been exposed to Fearless Genius through my book, which is now in 6 countries and 17 languages, our continuous exhibitions and the crazy worldwide press coverage these past few years. So I’m inspired myself to see that the work is useful – I mean what more can you ask of your photographs?
In my commercial work, I feel the impact has been through the insights I gained documenting Steve Jobs and other amazing innovators into the creative process and this core human need to invent tools. Another benefit was learning about how teams form, the importance of developing the right culture to support great innovation. It’s a lot of fun bringing my experience and storytelling skills to totally new challenges and projects.