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Why Peter Thiel believes in this 22-year-old's dream to clean up the oceans

With his tall, thin frame and tousled mop of dark brown hair, Boyan Slat looks more like a guitarist in an indie rock band than the founder and CEO of a foundation determined to clean up the world's oceans.

Yet that mission was precisely what Slat, 22, wanted to talk about during a recent Skype interview from his nonprofit's headquarters in the Netherlands. The entity he started when he was just 17 is called The Ocean Cleanup. As the name implies, it is an audaciously bold attempt to fix a rather overwhelming problem: ridding the world's oceans of the trillions of pieces of plastic and other debris that now threaten the health of sea life and, if left unchecked, eventually humans as well.

For Slat, the scope of his undertaking makes perfect sense. "Big problems require big solutions," says the college dropout who once studied aerospace engineering. "There is this notion that is quite popular in the environmental scene that every little bit helps, or 'Think global, act local.' I disagree with that. I think you have to start with how big the solution needs to be to solve the problem and then reason backward from there."

A Different Approach

The idea that acres of plastic and other garbage now litter our vast oceans isn't a new discovery, of course. Slat's idea of how to tackle the problem is. Rather than trying to round up discarded plastic using boats and nets — a solution that oceanic experts say could cost billions of dollars and take thousands of years — Slat's solution has the plastic coming to him.

The Ocean Cleanup's technology uses long floating rubber barriers with nets below the surface that act as a sort of artificial coastline, passively catching and concentrating debris using the power of the ocean's natural currents. Once corralled into one location, boats can then transport the plastic from the ocean and it can eventually be sold as recycled material to, say, auto, furniture and consumer electronics manufacturers.

If all this sounds complicated, it is — and Slat is the first to acknowledge it. "When I started, I thought I would likely fail, and I still might, but considering the scale of the problem, it was important to at least try," he says.

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The Ocean Cleanup got its official start in 2013, and the following year Slat raised $2.2 million through a crowdfunding campaign that attracted 38,000 donors in 160 countries. Over the past two years, he's raised another $10 million in cash donations from entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, including Salesforce.com's CEO Marc Benioff, and in Europe. A new round of funding is now under way to raise the money needed to cover future testing. Though Slat says he's received money from the Dutch government, that's not the kind of funding he prefers. "Our testing cycles are faster than any government subsidy cycle, so it's not something we want to be reliant on," he adds.

The testing of Slat's technology began in earnest last summer and will continue in various phases over the next several years. Last June The Ocean Cleanup reached an important milestone when it tested a 100-meter-long segment of the barrier for four months in the North Sea, about 14 miles off the coast of the Netherlands. Slat says the purpose was to see how the barrier fared in open ocean water as well as its durability during strong storms and turbulent waves. "We released a bit of plastic in front of the barrier to see how it did, but the real purpose was to see how the system did in the ocean," Slat explains.

Later this year the next iteration of Slat's system will launch in the North Pacific Ocean. This pilot program will, for the first time, test how successful the barriers are in actually trapping the plastic. The barriers will be one- to two-kilometers in length (a little over a mile long) and will once again need to withstand the brutal conditions that can occur with extreme storms out on the ocean.

"There is this notion ... in the environmental scene that every little bit helps, or 'Think global, act local.' I disagree with that. I think you have to start with how big the solution needs to be to solve the problem and then reason backward from there." -Boyan Slat, founder and CEO, The Ocean Cleanup

All of this is leading up to the ultimate test of Slat's concept in 2020. That's when a full-scale, 100-kilometer (about 62 miles) barrier will be deployed in what's known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This area is a collection of marine debris — including all that plastic — that's accumulated over many decades in the North Pacific Ocean that's located between the West Coast of North America and Japan. Internal estimates show that if the barriers are successful they can reduce the trash by more than 40 percent over 10 years. They can also be deployed elsewhere. There are five so-called garbage patches in the world, including those in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, but the Great Pacific is the largest, oceanographers say. Slat says the plan is to clean up the worst one first and then move on to the others.

Slat says he's always been a bit of an inventor. As an only child, he spent a lot of time making things, including a chair when he was just two, and later his own zip line and tree house. When he was 12, he entered a contest where he launched 250 model rockets simultaneously because he says he "thought that was fun." At 16, he was on vacation diving in Greece and was shocked to see more plastic than fish in the water. "My first thought was why can't we clean this up," Slat says.

The Ocean Cleanup's technology uses long floating rubber barriers with nets below the surface that act as an artificial coastline, catching debris using the power of the ocean's natural currents.
Source: The Ocean Cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup's technology uses long floating rubber barriers with nets below the surface that act as an artificial coastline, catching debris using the power of the ocean's natural currents.

Back at home in the Netherlands, he used that idea as the topic of a high school science project. He graduated and went on to college to study aerospace engineering. After six months Slat says he was "still obsessed" by this idea of cleaning up the ocean and decided to drop out to get his venture off the ground. "I thought if it didn't work out, I could always re-enroll in school," he says. A TED talk explaining his idea went viral and enabled him to start the initial crowdfunding campaign and to begin to put a team together. Today The Ocean Cleanup has 65 full-time employees and a scientific advisory board.

As a result, Slat's recognition as a millennial setting out to solve the world's biggest problems has only grown. Last year he was selected as a Thiel Fellow, the program started in 2011 by venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. It gives $100,000 to entrepreneurs 22 years old and younger who have left or postponed college to work on their start-up.

Right now much of the plastic that Slat is looking to capture is still large and intact. But over the next few decades, all those plastic soda and water bottles — and the chemicals used to make them — will begin to break down into smaller, microplastics that are then consumed by sea life and eventually get into the food supply. "The worst is yet to come, because all the plastic that is already out there is going to become more hazardous if we don't clean it up," he says.

Despite his youth, Slat is sharp enough to know that good intentions are no guarantee of success. Still, he hopes that by tackling a huge environmental problem head-on, the Ocean Cleanup "can be a symbol of how we can use technology and high-risk/high-reward projects to solve these big world challenges we're going to face in the next few decades."

— By Susan Caminiti, special to CNBC.com