Wendy Schmidt does damage control

Wendy Schmidt

The Schmidt Family Foundation, which was established in 2006 by Wendy and Eric Schmidt—he was the longtime CEO of Google—has taken on a very big job: It wants to help transform the world’s environmental and energy practices in the 20th century.

In the meantime, there are messes to clean up.

So in July of 2010, as the BP Deepwater Horizon continued to spill oil, Wendy Schmidt joined forces with the X PRIZE foundation to create the $1.4 Million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, a competition to find better, faster and more efficient ways to capture crude oil from the ocean’s surface.

Today (10-11) in New York, they announced a winner—a private company from Illinois called Elastec that specializes in oil spill recovery. Team Elastec won the $1 million first prize in the competition by developing technology that sucked up oil at a rate of 4670 gallons per minute – more than three times the industry norm.

“The point here is to have a better first response,” Wendy Schmidt told me by phone last week. “We can keep the immediate damage from the next oil spill from being so damaging.”

I spoke to Wendy Schmidt last week because I was curiously to learn more about the Schmidt Family Foundation and its mission. The foundation reported assets of about $168 million, as of December 2009 and it has made about $13 million in grants in 2011.

Why focus on energy and the environment?, I asked Schmidt. She replied:

We look at the world and say we have a 150 year old energy infrastructure that can fail. It’s not designed well enough not to fail, catastrophically. We look at how we can commit our creativity to help safeguard the living systems of the world, to protect them and protect us, from the failures of a system of extraction and combustion that we know will have to end anyway.

To that end, the 11th Hour Project, which was started by Schmidt and is financed by the foundation, makes grants to a long list of  advocacy and educational groups including The Regeneration Project, Green for All, the Rocky Mountain Institute and Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff project. All are designed to help people better understand their connection to the planet.

But changing attitudes takes time, and Schmidt said she felt a sense of urgency to do something as oil gushed during the summer of 2010 from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“We don’t recognize this industry as being as dangerous as it is,” she said.

Elastec's rapidly spinning grooved disk skimmers cleaned up lots of oil

The Oil Cleanup X Challenge attracted 350 inquiries and 37 submissions, which were whittled down to 10 finalists, according to Cristin Dorgelo Lindsey, who managed the competition for the X PRIZE Foundation. “It was a great mix of  entrepreneurs and established industry players,” Lindsey said.

Finalists advanced to field testing at OHMSETT, an oil spill response and renewable energy test facility located on a Navy base in Leonardo, NJ.  Shell financed the testing and has indicated that it will work with the winners to try to bring the new technology to market.

Elastec, as it happens, was part of the BP Deepwater Horizon cleanup. The company’s  fire resistant booms were used to control the burning of oil floating on the water’s surface. To win this prize, the company developed giant grooved disks that slurped oil of the test tank. National Geographic has photos here.

“A million dollars is a lot of money in some ways,” Schmidt said, “but in a lot of ways not that much to generate so much innovation.”

She’s right about that. Prizes like this one seem to be able to spur change that market forces by themselves cannot. [See my 2009 blogpost, The strange power of prizes] Evidently, the creation of a prize—not just the money, but the visibility it brings and competitive spirits it unlocks—focuses companies to do R&D with a sense of urgency that is otherwise lacking.

Still, it struck me as odd that an environmental foundation would work to develop better cleanup equipment that could, at least in theory, make deep water oil drilling more acceptable.

Schmidt said there’s going to be more drilling, whether environmentalists like it or not, and that will mean more spills.

“This is a fundamentally dangerous business, extracting volatile hydrocarbons under high pressure in pristine environments … so with 4,000 active drilling platforms in the Gulf, another accident is just waiting to happen.”

“I don’t think it’s a question of if this will happen again,” she said.  “It’s a question of when.”

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