Serial entrepreneur aims to build one million square metres of tolerant reef

Serial entrepreneur aims to build one million square metres of tolerant reef

A telecommunications entrepreneur who has founded companies with enterprise values of more than $5 billion has his sights on an audacious and likely controversial project to build new reefs to combat the effects of coral bleaching.

Bevan Slattery is no stranger to large-scale developments. He made a name for himself in 2009, along with Shark Tank's Steve Baxter, by building a 7,000km cable from Australia to Guam which he claims cut the cost of international internet capacity by 75 per cent at the time.

Since then he has founded data centre group NextDC (ASX: NXT), built a submarine cable in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour with Megaport (ASX: MP1) to connect a huge data park as a gateway to China, and now another of his companies Superloop (ASX: SLC) is building a cable between Singapore, Jakarta, Perth and Sydney in a bid to give Australians cheaper bandwidth.

As a "hobby" he also founded Cloudscene, a leading global directory of data centres and service providers.

But Biopixel Oceans Foundation is a totally different kettle of fish.

"Early last year we made the decision to do what we call the industrialisation and manufacturing of tolerant reefs - we're going to completely upend people's thinking about how you actually restore the reef," Slattery says.

"That'll be a big focus for me in 2019. There will be a reasonable investment from the family trust into that foundation."

Having grown up by the reef in Rockhampton, Slattery founded the organisation with childhood friend Richard Fitzpatrick. Biopixel has worked with the likes of David Attenborough, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet to document the Great Barrier Reef's natural history.

"I've always had this passion. Richard's based up there and he caught the second bleaching event we were the first to see it start happening and notify the Great Barrier Reef Foundation," Slattery says.

"It's great that you've got a resilient coral, but how do you deal with that along a reef that's 2,300km long?

"With 1,000 divers you're still not going to get there, so I started thinking of a whole series of ways we can make the reef resilient and now I want to do the science behind it."

Slattery has given himself a target to build one million square metres of reef in the next 10 years.

"I know social licence is vital and I would never do anything that would put anything at risk, but I think sometimes you need to look at things from a different prism," he says.

"You've got to think how do I make a large industrial process to manufacture and logistically deliver and install, then track, nurture, feedback, improve, and then do the same thing over again?"

He adds the project seeks to promote biodiversity "100 per cent", mentioning reef construction could potentially take place in areas where there are no reefs today or restoration could occur on bleached reefs.

"As long as we build the process and industrialise it at scale, it can be applied to either," he says.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens first hopefully it's in Australia, but we might have to prove it in a place like Indonesia or Western Australia versus Queensland."

If successful, Slattery believes the initiative could create new job titles like "reef architect", and potentially be applied for the benefit of responsible fishing, tourism, agriculture or medical science.

Energy challenges from data centres, blockchain

While Slattery seeks a practical solution to coral bleaching, the high energy usage of a sector he has historically been linked to is not helping in the fight against warming ocean temperatures.

The businessman recognises significant advancements have been made to improve cooling and the efficient use of computational power in data centres, but the energy use is nonetheless "massive".

"The real interesting challenge is there is going to be a gigawatt of data centre space in Australia within the next three years - that's two coal-fired power stations," he says.

"So we've got to keep investing in renewables, but the reality is there's going to be a bit of coal burned in the next 10 years.

"Energy companies love it because it's baseload 24/7. But I think the energy consumption is huge and the bitcoin mining has skyrocketed that to a whole other level, not in Australia but overseas."

He emphasises bitcoin mining now requires increasingly harder computational processes.

"It's the blockchain, the transaction of the information. You could have mined a bitcoin on your home computer when it started out but now you need a pretty decent farm to do that," he says.

"You see companies basically picking the warehouses nearest to the cheapest energy source they can find around the world, and they just set up these farms. It's extraordinary to see."

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