Branson’s Learning Curve, Virgin Earth Challenge

This is the first of four posts in a series.

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Sir. Richard made a career out of improvising around putting people first.

ir Richard Branson is a self-described business newbie, a virgin, which reflects two things about him. First, he is often the first person into a category where there are no role models. Second, this means he typically improvises until he has a solution and often it’s something new or at least creative. For example, in airlines he rediscovered the virtues of treating passengers as people, not cargo. The marketplace rewarded this simple creativity with an empire of multiple airlines, now part of the Virgin Group, and made him a rich man.

There are many other endeavors where Branson entered markets late, applied people skills, and reaped rewards. But one place where Branson’s brand of creativity and innovation has yet to provide measurable results has been his effort to slow climate change. His Virgin Earth Challenge (VEC) was designed to recruit talented innovators from around the world to tackle a seemingly simple problem, remove one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year for ten years, and keep it out.

Is a billion tons a lot? No, not really; there are between 5 and 7 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere right now and humanity is putting more than 40 billion tons there each year. But removing a billion tons would be a credible demonstration project as long as it could scale, which is Branson’s point. In that case the eventual winning innovators could pocket some, or all, of the $25 million prize that Branson put up for the challenge from his considerable wealth.

After more than ten years the VEC has not yielded a solution and the prize has not been awarded in part because Branson’s team has ruled out some of the more inventive approaches to a solution, approaches that would require the governmental buy-in on a global scale even to produce a demonstration project. But without international cooperation no effort to stabilize climate can succeed. The four posts in this series contain condensed excerpts from “The Age of Sustainability.”They paint a picture of big-time research and development as well as the iron laws of nature that can’t be overcome and must be finessed for any solution to succeed.

The challenge

There was a provocative headline, “A Cool $25 Million for a Climate Backup Plan,” in the Science Times section of The New York Times on February 13, 2007, above a story by John Tierney. British entrepreneur and Virgin Enterprises founder Sir Richard Branson had just made the cash offer in his Virgin Earth Challenge (VEC) to “…anyone who figures out how to remove a billion tons of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere.” It was a noble effort and people may have thought it a fine statement, but its lack of precision provided insights into the nature of private internationally focused efforts that would later haunt the enterprise.

The article noted that Al Gore was on hand for the announcement. Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their work alerting the world to the dangers of global climate change. Gore also won a 2007 Academy Award for a documentary based on his book, and later would be a VEC primary judge.

Referring to global warming at that announcement, Branson said, “Man created the problem, therefore man should solve the problem” and he positioned his offer as “the largest ever science and technology prize to be offered in history,” similar to the one offered by British Parliament in 1714 — the Longitude Prize — for a solution to the navigation problem of determining longitude at sea.

Longitude, as it was known, was the great challenge of the age. Without a way to determine east-west position along with north-south position (latitude) navigators were always at a risk of losing their way and adding weeks to sea voyages, which challenged sailors’ health — nutrition was always a problem in the era before refrigeration, and scurvy was endemic in the maritime trades. In the 18thcentury, sailors could die slow deaths from lack of vitamin C or quick ones from losing their way and hitting reefs and running aground.

For an emerging maritime nation like Britain, this was a crisis that demanded a solution and Longitude became the Manhattan Project of its time. But the Longitude Prize was not the only such challenge in history. Some people may recall that Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig prize, worth $25,000 in 1927, when he flew the Atlantic nonstop from New York to Paris.

So, the VEC was off to a good start in February 2007, with plenty of historical precedent. But four years later another New York Times story, “Cash Prize for Environmental Help Goes Unawarded,”told a very different tale. Richard Branson and his team had reviewed more than 2,600 challenge submissions and found none of them worthy. What happened in the intervening four years is a lesson in large-scale research, development, invention — and expectation setting.

The VEC award was shelved in part because Branson and company discovered how hard and risky it would be to pull off. Under the rules of the competition, the winner would need to provide a “commercially viable design for removing at least one billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year for 10 years.” Given the huge amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the goal, while impressive, asked for not much more than a prototype so the winning entry would have to scale significantly to meet the larger needs of a planet bathed in too much carbon dioxide.

But in the intervening years, Branson and company discovered how squeamish the public could be about geoengineering, which many submissions advocated, and for good reasons and he shared those concerns. Geoengineering is an approach that attempts to change some large features of the planet to achieve a desirable result, such as reducing global temperature increases. Some proposals included seeding the atmosphere with chemical aerosols to reflect solar radiation back into space; others called for fertilizing the oceans with dilute iron solutions that would stimulate plankton growth resulting in carbon capture. As Branson later noted in a blog, “Changing the chemistry of the oceans to promote plankton growth however feels very risky, seeding clouds likewise.”

In fact, many submissions avoided the difficult parts of the challenge completely. Notice that one plan to reflect sunlight back into space, while interesting for lowering planetary temperature, has nothing to do with removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, such blurring of the requirements by competitors was allowed but it did not contribute to any solution’s worthiness.

The real value of such a challenge is to promote thinking outside the box, to spur innovation and experimentation in an effort to solve a problem — that’s what Branson’s career approach was all about, at least in part. But disqualifying possible solutions because they may be risky doesn’t make sense.

Prize or not, the essence of scientific and technical advancement is found in thinking differently to produce pioneering — even radical — solutions to intractable problems. This approach has a pedigree of success that includes Alexander Fleming (penicillin), the Wright Brothers (fixed-wing aircraft), Edison (incandescent light and the modern electric utility, sound recording, motion picture recording, and more), Louis Pasteur (the germ theory of disease), the Enlightenment thinkers (capitalism and modern democracy), and many others like Henry Bessemer and his eponymous steelmaking process. Risk wasn’t part of their vocabulary unless it was tightly coupled with reward.

So what, exactly prompted Branson to hit the brakes? In the next installments we’ll examine what two very different successful challenges had in common and how the VEC could get back on track.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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