MIT Entrepreneurs Think Globally, Act Locally | MIT News
Born and raised amidst the natural beauty of the Dominican Republic, Andrés Bisonó León feels a deep motivation to help solve a problem that threatens the Caribbean island nation’s tourism industry, economy and people.
As Bisonó León discussed with his longtime friend and mentor, mechanical engineering professor Walter M. May and A. Hazel May (MechE) Alexander Slocum Sr., ugly mats of toxic Sargassum seaweed have encroached on beaches. immaculate from the Dominican Republic. and other beaches in the Caribbean region, and public and private organizations have fought a losing battle using costly and environmentally damaging methods to clean it up. Slocum, who was part of the US Department of Energy’s Deepwater Horizon team, has extensive experience with systems that operate in the ocean.
“Over the past 10 years,” says Bisonó León, now an MBA candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management, “Sargassum, an invasion of toxic algae, has cost the Caribbean up to $120 million a year in cleanup and has meant a 30-35% reduction in tourism, affecting not only the tourism industry, but also the environment, marine life, local economies and human health.
One of Bisonó León’s discussions with Slocum occurred within earshot of MechE alumnus Luke Gray ’18, SM ’20, who had worked with Slocum on other projects and was at the time on about to start his master’s program.
“Professor Slocum and Andrés happened to be discussing the Sargassum problem in Andrés’ home country,” says Gray. “A week later, I was on a plane to the Dominican Republic to collect Sargassum samples and study the problem in Punta Cana. When I returned, my master’s program was underway and I already had my thesis project. !
Gray had also entered into a working partnership with Bisonó León, which the two said went seamlessly from the first moment.
“I feel like Luke immediately understood the magnitude of the problem and the value we could create in the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean by teaming up,” says Bisonó León.
Bisonó León and Gray also say they felt responsible for working to help the global environment.
“All of my major projects so far have involved machinery for restoration and/or climate adaptation,” says Gray.
The technologies that Bisonó León and Gray arrived at after 18 months of R&D were designed to provide both local and global solutions.
Their Shoreline Collection Module (LCM) skims Sargassum seaweed from the surface of the water with nets that can be mounted on any boat. The device sits across the boat, with two large hoops holding the nets open, one on each side. As the boat moves forward, it cuts through the seaweed, which runs down the sides of the ship and through the hoops into the nets. Effective at sweeping algae from the water, the device can be used by anyone with a boat, including local fishermen whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the damaging effects of algae on tourism and the local economy. .
The sargassum can then be towed out to sea, where Bisonó León and Gray’s second technology can come into play. By pumping the algae into very deep waters, where it then sinks to the ocean floor, the carbon in the algae can be held captive. Other methods of disposing of algae usually involve putting them in landfills, where they emit greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide as they decompose. Although some seaweed can be used for other purposes, including as fertilizer, Sargassum has been found to contain hard-to-remove toxic substances such as arsenic and heavy metals.
In the spring of 2020, Bisonó León and Gray formed a company, SOS (Sargassum Ocean Sequestration) Carbon.
Bisonó León says he comes from a long line of entrepreneurs who have often expressed their commitment to social impact. His family was involved in several different industries, with his grandfather and great uncles opening the first cigar factory in the Dominican Republic in 1903.
Gray says the internships with start-ups and undergraduate projects he did with Slocum developed his interest in entrepreneurship, and his involvement with the Sargassum problem only reinforced that inclination. During his master’s program, he says he became “obsessed” with finding a solution.
“Professor Slocum let me dream very big, and so it was almost inevitable that the distillation of our two years of work would continue in one form or another, and setting up a business turned out to be the right one. My master’s experience of solving an essentially intact problem like Sargassum, then a year later designing, building, and shipping 15,000 pounds of custom gear to be tested for three months on a Dominican Navy vessel m made me realize that I had discovered a recipe I could repeat – and machine design had become my core skill,” says Gray.
During the initial research and development of their technologies, Bisonó León and Gray raised $258,000 from 20 different organizations. Between June and December 2021, they succeeded in removing 3.5 million pounds of Sargassum and secured contracts with Grupo Puntacana, which operates several tourist complexes, and with other hotels such as Club Med in Punta Cana. The company contracts with the Punta Cana Fishermen’s Association, employing 15 fishermen who operate LCMs and training 35 more to join as the operation expands.
Their success so far demonstrates “mens et manus” at work,” says Slocum, referring to MIT’s motto, which in Latin means “mind and hand.” real that affects very real people who have no other choice for their livelihoods, and they react by inventing a solution so elegant that it can be easily deployed by those most affected by the problem to solve the problem.
“The team has always focused on the numbers, from physics to finance, and hasn’t let hype or doubts deter its resolve to rationally solve this huge problem.”
Slocum says he could predict that Bisonó León and Gray would work well together “because they started out as good, smart people with complementary skills whose hearts and minds were in the right place.”
“We are working to have a global impact to reduce millions of tons of CO2 per year,” explains Bisonó León. “Through Sloan’s training and spirit of cross-disciplinary collaboration, we will be able to further expand the environmental and social impact platforms that the Caribbean so badly needs to be able to drive real change at regional levels. and global.”
“I hope SOS Carbon can serve as a model and inspire similar entrepreneurial endeavors,” says Gray.