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Town Haul Podcast / Episode 10

Town Haul Podcast


Welcome to the Town Haul Podcast


Rubicon’s first and only podcast where we share advice for techies, earth lovers and for penny pinchers!


Think BIG, Win BIG: Ocean Exchange’s Millicent Pitts

Introduction to the Town Haul Rubicon Podcast

AK: Hey guys. My name is Amy Koonin and I am your host for the Town Haul, Rubicon’s first and only podcast where we share advice for techies, for earth lovers, and for penny pinchers.

AK: As much as I love the sound of my own voice, this broadcast is going to rely heavily on guests who are subject matter experts on everything ranging from how to get your small business up and running, interviews with some of the brains behinds your favorite apps, and even how to remove garbage from outer space. You never know who’s going to pop up and join me next in studio. So, make sure to subscribe to the Town Haul on iTunes to get our episodes downloaded directly. And if your boss is making you work through lunch or your commute is just too short and you miss something awesome, don’t worry, we’ve got your back. You can check out our blog for recaps, reviews, and all things Town Haul.

AK: Hey everyone and welcome to another episode of the Town Haul. I am super excited to roll out another episode around ocean conservation, leading up to World Oceans Day, and today I am joined via Skype by Millicent Pitts, the CEO and Executive Director of The Ocean Exchange. Thank you so much for hopping on to talk to us today.

Millicent Pitts Introduction & Background

MP: Thank you for allowing it. I want to thank everyone at the team, Rubicon, for allowing me to speak today.

AK: Absolutely. Oh, thanks. Millicent, let’s start small. How did you get to where you are today and how did you develop your passion for sustainability, ocean conservation, philanthropy?

MP: Well, I spent 30 years in the chemical industry and you may think that that doesn’t fit with being with Ocean Exchange, but actually it does. So I’ve spent many years working on chemicals and materials, many of which had quite a green component to it and we operated big sites that were big energy consumers, and we thought about energy conservation long before it was fashionable and before we all talked about sustainability.

MP: I wanted a change in my career to give something back in the latter part of my career. I met the founders of Ocean Exchange in 2012. That’s when Ocean Exchange had just finished year one and I was a good fit for their organization and I joined it at that time.

AK: And for those listeners unfamiliar with the foundation, what is The Ocean Exchange? What’s the big mission?

About Ocean Exchange

MP: Ocean Exchange is a 501(c)(3), and for those of you that don’t know that terminology, we’re a nonprofit under US tax law, and we have one mission only and that’s to help advance the adoption of solutions that relate to sustainability. Yes, the ocean is a big part of it, but there are many things in land and air that also impact the ocean and I think we’re going to talk about some of that later.

MP: So working in the field of sustainability, we’ve become a bit jaded about the information that we’re surrounded on by a daily basis, and I read an article this week entitled, “Our oceans are drowning in plastic.”

AK: We know what’s going on but for a lot of our listeners who don’t, what is happening in our oceans? How bad is it?

MP: Well, the data really is quite compelling, and I’ll quote a few things for you but once you hear it you’re going to agree and your listeners will agree. So about somewhere between 60 and 80% of all marine debris is composed of plastics. Wow. And about 80% of the marine debris originates from sources on land. So the idea that ships throw off garbage or things fall off of ships and that is the major contributor really is false, and there are parties that have gone out on expeditions and have actually collected samples from these big garbage patches and they have characterized it. So this data really comes from that type of exploration and real facts. One of the big problems in the ocean are micro-plastics, and they only account for 8% of the total mass but-

AK: Will you explain a micro-plastic?

MP: Well, they’re tiny, tiny fibers, let’s say, that even comes out of your wash. I mean, I own some pretty fancy fleeces and every time I wash them, some of those tiny fibers are going out of the drain. They’re going into water treatment plants, but they’re actually then being discharged into big bodies of water and a lot of that ends up in the ocean.

MP: So it is a huge problem. What’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch … and Google that if you haven’t heard of that … it is now the size of Texas. And I’m a girl from Texas and I know Texas is big.

AK: It’s huge.

MP: And it’s estimated to be three times the size of France. So it’s a big problem …

AK: Wow.

MP: … and it’s not going to go away easily.

AK: Well, let’s talk about some of the things that you guys are doing to help combat those issues. Those numbers and those stats are stunning. I was recently in Paris and I thought, “How could a city get any bigger?” So to know that there’s ocean debris that’s the size of the whole country is really a hard pill to swallow.

AK: But no pun intended, let’s dive into the BIG Pitch Awards. It’s a huge deal for you guys. This is really where I think all of the creativity, the innovation, and really the brilliance behind what you guys are doing come together to create those solutions. But a lot of people aren’t familiar with the BIG Pitch Award, so before we go into some of the past winners, which I’m really super curious about, explain a little bit about the process and how the BIG Pitch Awards work.

BIG Pitch Award & Winners

MP: The BIG Pitch Award is in its fourth year. I didn’t mention that Ocean Exchange now is eight years old but we added in the BIG Pitch. It is open to university students anywhere. We are international in scope in Ocean Exchange. Undergraduate and graduate students. We award $10,000 cash, and for those students, that’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of money for anybody, but it certainly is for these students.

AK: Absolutely.

MP: And you will hear that we very specifically talk about solutions and that we don’t talk about research, so we’re not funding research. Often research leads to the solution, so we put out a call for solutions that are available now. You can find it at The BIG Pitch Award is anything about sustainability, and certainly oceans and plastics are part of that, but we’ve seen some fabulous solutions that are land-based, air based, and we have a holistic view of oceans. Everything impacts the ocean and the ocean impacts everything.

AK: Can you give me a couple examples of some-

MP: So that call for solutions is open today.

AK: Oh, great. I’m sorry I cut you off there but can you give me some examples of some solutions that have been either submitted or even some that have won?

MP: Yes. Our first-year winner was a Ph.D. candidate from Stanford talking about his solution, and he’s part of a three founder team called Opus 12, and they have a process to capture carbon dioxide and to convert it into energy and to convert it into raw materials that will replace fossil fuel based materials. They’re just a fabulous group. They’re doing great things. Their big prototype is available or will be available very soon. They’ve told me it will be about the size of a household dishwasher.

AK: Wow.

MP: Wow. And a lot of companies and countries, of course, have great goals for the reduction of greenhouse gases. One way to do that is to capture what’s already out there and to convert it into something useful. I will brag about the young man who presented at Ocean Exchange. About six months after Ocean Exchange he was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 in energy. So these solutions are the real deal.

MP: Another example, a team from Valdosta State … that’s a state university in Georgia.

AK: Yeah, that’s in our backyard.

MP: Yes. They have solutions for artificial reefs and it’s a concrete material and it allows oysters to grow and it allows the real reconstruction of oyster beds, and they have a small milli-grant. This team also went through a National Science Foundation I-Corps program, which is fabulous for students and it teaches them how to take their idea and how to take research and [inaudible 00:08:54] actually create businesses out of it.

MP: Another winner, last year’s winner, was a team from MIT. The co-founder there also was named Forbes 30 Under 30 in industry. So I’m telling you, these awards are at a very, very high level of innovation. That group invented a soft bodied drone. They’re called Pipeguard Robotics, and that soft bodied drone goes through municipal water pipes and can detect water leaks within one foot.

MP: Amy, if you had a leak on your street today, they might have to dig up 100 feet to find that leak, and we often see these big public works projects out there. They’re awful. They disrupt traffic. It’s terrible. Within one foot … and they’re out there doing key pilots with municipalities right now. Fabulous team.

AK: That’s amazing. I know that the ideas are super innovative, but what do you look for when choosing a winner? Because there’s a lot of submissions, there’s a lot of solutions. What makes one team’s idea better than the other ones?

MP: For all of Ocean Exchange, BIG Pitch including, we look at the level of innovation. We look at the impact. And because we’re about sustainability … I mean, impact as it relates to sustainability, so in these cases, it’s either how much carbon dioxide is recycled or how much water is saved or how many oyster beds can be reconstructed.

MP: The third thing is the ability to execute. So we’re not just about having a cool idea. We’re not looking for students who did something for their senior project but then they file that away and they’re walking away from it. We really want solutions that can be implemented and we want them to have a convincing argument how they can be successful.

AK: Is there a panel of judges? Who’s on that panel?

MP: Every year, the panel is a little different. It’s a secret until they pick the finalists. You can go to our website, which is, and you can see last year’s panel. It’ll give you a bit of a flavor for that.

MP: Because we see so many different types of solutions, and just the three examples I showed you are all quite diverse, we have a diverse set of people on the panel. They have different technical skills, they have business backgrounds, they know something perhaps about intellectual property. In the case of things that go in the ocean, we might put an oceanographer on that panel so they understand the impact on the water.

MP: If the solution requires the change of human behavior, and some do, we put a social scientist on those panels so they really understand, are humans really going to adopt this if it requires a change that something that you and I might do.

AK: And there’s another award for solutions, too, a grant that has a pretty nice price tag to it, the Neptune Award. So let’s talk about that and then talk about some winners, too. That seems like a really fantastic grant for them to receive.

Neptune Award & Winners

MP: Yes. In fact, we have two $100,000 awards. I can’t miss the opportunity to talk about that. So I will talk about Neptune. $100,000. It’s cash. That one is funded by a group of our sponsors, including the Little John Family Foundation, Gulfstream, and some other board members.

MP: It is anything about solutions, anything about oceans and sustainable coastal systems. That’s pretty broad. We typically see things about ocean data. We might see things about removing plastics from the ocean. We might see things about healthy fisheries. We might see things about the built environment on the coastline so that the coastline stays sustainable for storms or rising waters.

MP: A couple of examples. The Neptune Award is quite new but I’ll refer to some examples from our prior award. The Neptune Award replaced the Navigator. Last year’s Neptune winner … and that was the first year for Neptune … is a group out of Mobile Bay, Alabama, and it’s called the Wing Trawling System. You would think that trawling for shrimp, you couldn’t find new ways to do it, but that’s not the case. Randy Skinner and his team there developed a set of trawling doors that are really quite innovative. They started off with a small grant from NOAA and they applied to our process three different times and the third time really was a charm for them and they won the $100,000.

MP: These doors are quite innovative in that they don’t drag on the ocean floor the way traditional trawl doors drag, and that allows the boat to have less drag and therefore it uses less fuel. So number one, the shrimper can have a more sustainable business. He can lower his fuel costs. And he’s burning fewer fossil fuels, which is always a good thing.

MP: The second benefit is that the nature of these trawl doors capture less finfish and if you’re trawling for shrimp, finfish is what’s called by-catch, and you don’t really want it, but in the way it’s done today, they capture a lot of it anyway. They bring it onto the boat and by the time it gets all sorted out and thrown out, that finfish is dead and it’s just thrown back. It’s a total waste.

MP: Therefore, the wing trawler door, it allows the fisherman to have a more sustainable business. It burns fewer fossil fuels and it reduces the finfish by-catch. So they are a fabulous example. He’s a small businessman. It’s a great thing.

MP: Another example … this goes back several years. It was under our old Navigator Award but it would have certainly qualified, had we had the Neptune Award at that time. It’s an Israeli company and I want to use an example because we are international. It’s called ECOncrete and it’s a special form of concrete that its morphology, its shape, is different. It has additives and it attracts filter feeders to attach to it, and this concrete is to be used anywhere that land and water come together. So breakwaters, ports, if you can imagine … by the filter feeders actually attaching to the concrete, they make the water cleaner. Just the nature of what these shellfish do. And their attachment lays down chemicals into the concrete, and the concrete actually gets stronger. It’s a fabulous solution. Shimrit Perkol is one of the co-founders. She presented at Ocean Exchange. They went on as part of a larger consortium to win a big grant from HUD and the State of New York for [inaudible 00:16:01] remediation in Raritan Bay in Staten Island.

MP: So those are two great examples of things that have a direct impact on the ocean and the coastlines.

AK: That is so beyond cool. Having this conversation is very familiar to when I sit at home on my couch and watch Shark Tank. I always just hit my head. I’m like, “Oh, why didn’t I think of that?”

MP: Yes.

AK: But obviously this is-

MP: Most of these have a lot of technology and are great engineering design, so of those three elements that we judge them on, that level of innovation also has to be very, very high.

AK: Yeah. These are just brilliant ideas that deserve the recognition, and more importantly, they’re going to save the planet.

AK: Speaking of saving the planet, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity because World Oceans Day is coming up pretty soon and people want to help but you’re in Savannah, right?

MP: Yes.

AK: So a lot of people don’t always have the ability to get to a beach cleanup event or a march or something like that. What are some things that people can do to get involved on World Oceans Day, and then how can they also participate in the Ocean Exchange?

How to Participate in the Ocean Exchange

MP: Okay, I’ll start with that second one first, participating in the Ocean Exchange. Our calls for a solution are open now, so if you know innovative startups that have working prototypes, please refer them to me, refer them to our website. I’ll repeat that again. It’s The calls for solutions for the Neptune Award and our other award, which is the Orcelle Award, are open until July 31st. The call for solution for the BIG Pitch collegiate award is open until early September and you can find all that information on the website.

MP: For qualified parties, we’re not open to the public but we do have an event. But if you are an expert in some of these technologies, you’re a former entrepreneur, you are an investor, you’re an intellectual property expert, I would like to talk to you about attending our event, which is October 7th through 9th in Savannah. We bring together a very unique set of … we call them delegates, the audience members that hear these pitches. They will actually vote who receives the cash awards that I’ve described. So I would love to talk to any of you who could be qualified delegates.

How to Get Involved with World Oceans Day

MP: So those are the two best ways to interact with us. Yes, World Ocean Day is coming up June 8th, and if you don’t live near an ocean, I think there are several things you can do. Litter contributes to all of this ocean debris ultimately. You could have a community litter cleanup, which is a good thing anyway. Do that even if it’s not World Ocean Day. A lot of that litter washes off into creeks. It gets into these storm water catch basins and then it ends up in rivers and a lot of those rivers ultimately flow into big bodies of water. Not only is it an eyesore, it’s a human health problem as well.

MP: So anyone can do that. I would say the other thing that anyone can do, even if you live in the middle of the country, you can start thinking about the use of single use plastic items. There’s quite a program or a project going on right now about straws and if you go to a restaurant and they automatically give you a straw and you haven’t asked for it, perhaps you can educate them that that is not a great thing to do. Straws have a place. Maybe some people need a straw, but if you don’t need one or don’t want one, they’re just a fabulous example of something that is single use that probably is overused today and contributes to litter.

AK: Millicent, before I let you get back to saving our planet one brilliant idea at a time, I wanted our guests to get to know you just a little bit better. I’m going to ask you 10 quick questions and you just blurt out the first thing that comes to your mind. Cool?

Q&A with Millicent

MP: Okay.

AK: All right. If you could be any sea creature, which would you be and why?

MP: Oh, I would be a lobster. I love that shell but if I do get caught, how delicious would that be?

AK: Very true. What was your first concert?

MP: Three Dog Night.

AK: I listened to them on the way to work this morning. What are you reading right now?

MP: Oh, Applications.

AK: I should have known that one. Who is someone that you really admire?

MP:  Sylvia Earle. If you don’t know who she is, Google her. She’s considered one of the great leaders about the ocean. She’s part of the Ocean Elders. I saw her recently in Dallas. So I admire her quite a bit.

AK: What is your dream vacation?

MP: Galapagos Islands.

AK: What do you typically have for breakfast?

MP: Steel cut oatmeal.

AK: What does success mean to you?

MP: Ocean Exchange helping great solutions succeed.

AK: What was your first job?

MP: Babysitting.

AK: What is the last movie that you saw?

MP: Oh, that’s interesting. I can’t remember the last movie I saw. Hmm. You know, I might have to pass on that one. I’m going blank.

AK:  What’s your favorite movie?

MP: My favorite movie probably is On Golden Pond.

AK: And lastly, what is one piece of advice that you’ve heard in your life that’s really stuck with you?

MP: Oh my goodness, it’s clear. That there is no such thing as a one-sided win, that other than if you’re selling a used car, most of our business and personal relationships it’s important that both sides win in those relationships, and I’ve found that in business and I find that in Ocean Exchange.

Conclusion & Goodbyes

AK: Millicent, thank you so much for being here. It was a pleasure and an honor, and for all of our listeners, don’t forget to go to and to do your part on June 8th, World Oceans Day. Thank you so much, Millicent.

MP: Thank you, Amy.