Leveraging Green Technology with Protei’s Gabriella Levine

December 18, 2013

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JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Gabriella Levine. Gabriella, welcome to Green is Good. GABRIELLA LEVINE: Thank you. Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gabriella, you’re one of the most fascinating individuals we’ve ever had on this show, and we’re so honored for your time today and we could spend the whole hour with you, but we’ve only got 15 minutes. Gabriella, I’ve read all about you, but our listeners haven’t and I want our listeners to understand your fascinating journey and how you became not only a creative technologists and interactive artist but really you are a technology and ecological savant and I want you to show how you’ve merged both technology and ecology into the amazing work and art that you’re working on right now. Talk about your journey. GABRIELLA LEVINE: So, I started my career as a child. I was doing classical piano and then I eventually went to school, graduated from college, and was doing cancer research. Both of these fields weren’t enough combining both the technical and the creative and I ended up moving away from both classical piano and cancer research and ended up moving into a field that was really both technical and creative and so I started working with hardware. I started programming, started to teach myself programming and just working hands on with kinetic sculptures and what I eventually moved into was this field of physical computing and interactive design and really programming and doing hardware design, but really bringing in my passion for organic motion, for biology, and my passion really has to do with making biological motion in hardware but I also have this passion for exploring outside and really want to adventure and explore every I can, and so a lot of this stuff that I’m building is these hardware kits for robotic vehicles that can explore the environment, collect environmental data, send it back, and so I really am working in this context of making robots or making environmental field kits to collect data, send it back, and really about exploring, being creative, working hands on, and being very technical. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So, I read about you. You were working on and are working on open hardware robotic shape shifting sailboats. The keyword in that beyond robotic is sailboats and I read that you’d just come back at some point from going around the earth via sailboat? GABRIELLA LEVINE: Yeah, so actually we were going around the earth on a big ship. It was on a fellowship program that was an accelerator for the company, called Protei, and Protei, as you said, is a shape shifting sailing robot. Originally, it was designed to clean up oil spills and to enable local communities to take a hands on approach by releasing all the hardware in the technical design so it’s an open hardware project and it was started in 2010 by Cesar Harada and he eventually started publishing online this idea, really formed a community of people, and I joined in 2011 once he crowdsourced fundraised some money so we got together then and it was a team of about ten people, designers, engineers, marine biologists from all over the world and we were building the sixth prototype of a ten foot robotic sailing vessel. We kept working on the project and just this past May, I returned from this accelerator program called Unreasonable at Sea and what that is is a partnership between Semester at Sea, which is a floating university for college undergrads, typically American college students, and about 600 of them were there and it’s also a partnership between the Stanford D School, which is out in Stanford. It’s part of a design school but not really a design school and not really a school even, in and of itself. People come from all sectors from Stanford to really unlock the potential from this design thinking technology to really have big impact and so we were going around the world on this accelerator program doing community outreach, field testing, user research. We were building vessels under the boat on the second floor of the boat that was sort of under the water. we sort of set up a workshop and really made smelly fumes and I don’t know if the captain really liked us very much but we made three prototypes in four months on this vessel on the boat. We tested in Vietnam, Japan. In Japan, we worked with a company called Safetest. They’re proliferating open source diver counters and so we worked to measure radioactivity off the coast of Fukushima with these diver counters and tested our sailboat, then tested it in Barcelona. we really went west from California, from San Diego to Ensenada, then to Hawaii, Japan, China, all around India, around the coast of Africa, and then ended in Barcelona, and then finally flew to Washington, DC, for our final culminating event, which was at the Department of State and it was a pitch event called Unreasonable at Sea so we did a lot of pitching, working with amazing mentors, like Tom Chi from Google or people from Microsoft or the founder of WordPress, Matt Molanzig, so it was an amazing experience, really developing things and thinking about things critically with regards to the company and how we can develop an open-source hardware project yet still be a sustainable company. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What was your biggest lesson that you pulled out of that whole journey though, just yourself? How did that whole journey shift your thinking for future work that you wanted to do and what you wanted to accomplish? GABRIELLA LEVINE: Well, I think the two main things that I really got out of that are really to think organizationally about how much time I need to be spending hands on, field testing, developing, and how much time I want to be creating this business model because it’s very hard to sort of balance both, do managerial tasks, be really creative, and work hands on to proliferate something so that’s something that I think has really taught me to plan ahead and also, I work very technically and very creatively but never did I really work so much so from a business perspective and so really thinking about things and how they fit into the world and the world as this global place and really going around and working with people all over was the most amazing thing so I think that just working hands on, I really saw how universally needed hands on engagement with technology but not necessarily technology, just really working creatively hands on, that’s a lot of what we did with people around the world and I realized how meaningful that is. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just tuned in, we’re so excited to have Gabriella Levine on with us right now. To learn more about her amazing work way beyond this show, please go to two website: Protei.org or GabriellaLevine.com. Gabriella, you just brought something up that’s very important. Where does art, technology, and business intersect in what you’re doing, all three of those? GABRIELLA LEVINE: Well, everything that I’m doing actually has to do with art and I guess by art, a lot of the work really has to do with humans communicating with each other through technology because I really work in this technical interactive field but also, I think that that really has to do with being entrepreneurial as well because I want to have impact. Therefore, I want to proliferate the work I do so I deal a lot with technology as a means to allow people to communicate better with each other so also, like some of these robots that I’m building and Protei and other exploratory hardware kits, they also have to do with connecting people to the environment but I don’t just want to work in an area where I’m proliferating kits and selling them. I find that working in a creative field and exhibiting at sort of art festivals but also really exploring theoretically what the potential is of these technologies, what the potential of people using creative technologies is going to be, that has to be done not just in a scientific or entrepreneurial field but really thinking about things creatively and so I think that’s where that exploratory nature comes in and that’s why I work in an art field, not just science or oceanography or entrepreneurial. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What’s the next thing for you? You’re still very, very young and you’ve had already some amazing experience. I would take the rest of my show to share with our listeners all the amazing awards and everything, how you’ve been honored around the world. You’re truly one of the great thought leaders right now, where technology is intersecting with art and creativity, robotics and the environment. What’s the future? Where do you want to now spend your next evolutionary time on changing the world? GABRIELLA LEVINE: As I just said, there are these sort of three or even more things to balance; entrepreneurship, artistic development for theoretical research, and ten proliferating these scientific tools and allowing people to themselves take a hands on approach to exploring the environment or connecting with people so I am trying to balance all these three. What I’d like to do, I think I’d like to do a lot of things but one is spend some more time doing more critical research and perhaps, that has to do with being connected with an institution and some institutional backing and maybe actually studying more but also, I want to also be connected with sort of the corporate world, which has a lot of power and finances behind it and has the ability to outreach and so that’s why I want to maintain this entrepreneurial aspect and the last thing is just to continue to make, continue to do, continue to engage people. I guess my goal is to really have through being entrepreneurial, through being critical and maybe academic, and then through being connected with some sort of corporate either company or business, really being able to have the most impact that is able to make the tools I make reach people, allow them to be able to work hands on and really find meaning in exploring the environment and communicating with other people using creative technologies as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, I believe we’re becoming and it is a women’s world now and your generation is really going to break through every glass ceiling that ever existed anymore, whether it’s in politics or business, and I believe that and I’m so thankful for you coming on today. We’re down to the last three minutes. Given what you just said, do you have some sort of burning desire? Are you going to do a startup? Are you going to co-venture with some other young creative folks and do something that’s going to break and shift our paradigms and do something disruptive or are you going to become part of a greater organization? Are you going to go back and do something with Microsoft or Google or Stanford or Harvard. Take the thread and tie the dots together here for us. GABRIELLA LEVINE: Right. Protei is really proliferating and it is really a startup. Right now, my goal currently is to work as much hands on with the hardware and the environmental exploration because that’s what I’m passionate about. I think that in my life I’m going to continue to go back and forth from a big organization and then my own thing because I thought for a long time that I was just going to proliferate a startup but I do see a lot of power in working with corporate backing as well and I have a feeling that I’ll just keep penduluming back and forth and so I think that I’m going to try to do as much as I can to start my own thing, definitely do work on a startup and probably a few startups that have to do with robotics, robotic sailing kits, proliferating kits, but then also connect with bigger organizations as well, so I do see my life going back and forth between working with big organizations and then working on my own to proliferate what I have personally to offer. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gabriella, we’re down to the last minute or so. For the generation behind you, for the young women around the world that are listening to this show today, share with them two or three pearls of wisdom and how to become the next Gabriella Levine. GABRIELLA LEVINE: I guess I really work hands on, and I’m afraid to get dirty, but I do it. I get my hands in and I start playing with hardware or whatever and I think that I see a lot of people have trouble taking that step to actually work with their hands and do what’s a little bit frightening and I guess just having some patience and getting over the fear of sailing has been really critical to my being able to survive so far within the last few years with hardware and programming so I guess that’s the biggest thing that I could say. Getting over the fear of sailing has really helped me allow me to sail over and over. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gabriella Levine, thank you so much. For our listeners out there to learn more about the great work she’s doing, it’s Protei.org and GabriellaLevine.com. Gabriella Levine, you are an inspirational technology and ecology savant and truly living proof that green is good.

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