Welcome to the second in our series ‘Trailblazing Next Gens’. This time we interview entrepreneur and environmentalist Frank Tobé. Frank is also a member of the founding family of, and adviser to, DOB Ecology.
- Tell us about DOB Ecology, and where the idea came from?
My family started DOB Ecology several years ago. It aims to finance initiatives in natural conservation, restoration and knowledge to create a world in which ecosystems and people thrive. We pay for it with the money we made selling a discount pharmacy chain my grandfather started in the 50’s, which included Superdrug here in London.
- What is the mission?
People and ecosystems are strongly linked. Economies and communities, popularly deemed at odds with ecology, fully rely on well-functioning ecosystems. Try to imagine a hotel without water or a democracy without food; for all our lofty ideals, without clean air and water we couldn’t even begin to think about making money. There are two quotes I like that signify this:
“If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while you count your money” Prof. Guy McPherson
“There is no social justice on a dead planet” Douglas Tompkins
The latter quote is more or less why we started our foundation, and what drives me in life and in general. Many ecosystems around the world are under mounting pressure from growing populations and an outdated economic system. The Stockholm Resilience Centre defined 9 planetary boundries, which I invite you to have a look at. We’re pushing some of them. Others we can still mitigate.
- Can you give us an example of an enterprise which DOB Ecology is currently backing?
The World Resources Institute is a Washington based ‘think-tank’ active in this space. They are a data driven, bi-partisan organisation with the aim of propagating a wiser and more sustainable use of resources. To know how well (or terribly) we are using/abusing our resources, we need data. Surprisingly, this data is not always widely available, exists only in Excel sheets, or doesn’t exist at all.
Before Global Resource Watch there was Global Forest Watch. Forests are essential ecosystems for carbon storage, water supply and biodiversity (the fabric of life). Deforestation often happens at such a rate, however, that protecting them (on paper) is often overtaken by reality. Lacking data = free reign for illegal loggers. GFW, using Google’s Earth Engine (a system of satellites that create maps), recognises deforestation with an algorithm and sends a notification to whoever is supposed to protect it.
ResourceWatch is essentially a badass version of Global Forest Watch, stretching across all relevant data related to ecosystems, from forests, rivers and power stations to riots, earthquakes and floods.
Here is a live view of all conflicts and protests in the last 30 days, all floods in the past 24 hours, all earthquakes happening now, all droughts of the past four years.
Making verified data – curated by WRI’s independent experts – available to anyone. Making it free in a visually powerful format, so that change-makers, politicians, conservationists and businessmen can make smarter decisions. Making sure that nobody gets away with plunder. That’s the concept.
We’ve heard stories from government workers in Indonesia and the Phillippines, whose claims that forests were disappearing were done away with as ‘fake news’. They now use ResourceWatch as a weapon.
- A powerful benefactor such as DOB Ecology, with such a wide-ranging mission, must be spoiled for choice when it comes to deciding whom to back. How are such decisions made? Are the things you look out for much the same as an investor contemplating sustainable investing opportunities, or are there key points of difference?
We take quite a low profile and don’t consider any ‘cold’ proposals. What we’re looking for ideally are diligent, preferably locally embedded organisations with a proven track record. These often come via trusted networks or introductions while traveling. There’s lots of traveling involved. The real champions are often on the ground, building something amazing in rural areas.
WRI is, in that sense, a bit of an outcast in our portfolio. We want to go where others don’t – finance what is crucial, even if it is unpopular. We have installed an advisory board with a variety of experts: a scientist, a COO of a large corporation, a philosopher and myself as a family member. Together we review the proposals that come in.
One key difference between commercial investments and environmental investments are the desired returns. We look for a return on social and natural capital, perhaps on inspiration too. The classic private investor will look at money and money alone. The latter is slowly changing. We hope to be able to create more examples of how environmental business models can be woven into private equity, for instance.
- Broadly speaking, do you believe it is more effective to focus (almost) all resources in one area to make a big difference (the Bill Gates malaria model), or better to diversify targets in order to have as wide an impact as possible?
I think we have lots of money for one family, but the Pentagon probably spends it on toilet paper in a year. The role of philanthropic money will be to catalyse systems and models for change. To show the way, innovate and draw in commercial capital with proven interventions. Private enterprise is at the root of all these problems, but it is also where the real muscle for change sits. Friedman thought this model would solve all the world’s problems, and many people still think like that. I created this slide recently:
I would advise choosing something you’re passionate about… as long as you remember there is no social justice on a dead planet 😉
- Has your overall experience with DOB Ecology and RW left you with confidence about the efficacy of public sector-private sector cooperation, or more frustration at the ability of the 2 to work together to achieve good?
I’m optimistic about the individual will I find amongst people I meet, but I’m worried about professional and institutional resistance to actual change (I mean beyond recycling bins in the canteen). Baby boomers have this weird thing where work is work and your beliefs are your beliefs. That’s how they went from all you need is love to building super yachts. There’s always friction when somebody is only interested in money. I think it’s going out of fashion.
- Finally, are there any lessons you’ve learned personally which stand out from being involved in your philanthropic efforts? Have the experiences changed your values?
Let’s stay in financial terms for this question. I would advise everybody to assess what kind of asset they are to this business called ‘Earth’. It continuously invests in everything you are and everything your children will ever be, so what is the world’s return on you? If there’s none, we’ll all just get liquidated one day. Don’t be a waste of resources.
Otherwise, it is immensely satisfying to enter into a field where so much is needed. You’re never just a cog, you’re building the machine!