James Dyson Award past winners: SafetyNet (International winner, 2012)
The world’s ocean covers over 70% of the planet. It supports humanity and Earth’s organisms, big and small. Not only does it support our existence scientifically but through global economies it’s estimated 40 million people will work in ocean-based industries by 2030. [Source: United Nations].
The industrial impact on our oceans and drive to sustainable fishing caught Dan Watson’s eye, the 2012 winner of the James Dyson Award , when studying at university. His winning entry, SafetyNet is a light that fits onto fishing gear to combat unwanted fish and marine creatures trapped in commercial fishing nets. Over 10 years on, “SafetyNet is global now, we work all over the world. We’re starting to lead I would say in the fishing industry”, says Dan. Casting the net wider, he’s founded his company SafetyNet Technologies[, delivering pioneering technology and support to build a better, sustainable fishing industry.
World Oceans Day , 8th June, is a time to inform and educate on the effects humans have on the ocean and promote the steps towards sustainable management. “A lot of the time our seas are out of sight and out of mind. Now people care a lot more about the ocean because they know what's out there”, Dan expresses. On this day we hear from Dan and Nadia Laabs, SafetyNet’s COO, to learn about their work since winning the James Dyson Award and what the future of sustainable fishing looks like.
Tell us about SafetyNet Technologies and the invention that won you the James Dyson Award in 2012.
Dan: Our invention we submitted to the James Dyson Award is now called Pisces , however it wasn't called Pisces at the time. The idea was a light created to fit onto commercial fishing gear, responding to the problem of unwanted fish and marine creatures trapped in commercial fishing nets. We designed this light to help attract and repel different species of fish, to encourage them to leave the fishing gear and make the fishing process much more selective. Pisces is now a product within our wider company offering solutions to enable sustainable practices in the fishing industry, SafetyNet Technologies.
Nadia: This was of course well before I joined SafetyNet Technologies. But at the time Dan also encountered a lot of news articles, I think back around 2009, of Scottish fishermen getting arrested and fined for discarding their fish in Norwegian waters. These regulations were already starting to be more strictly enforced, but not necessarily having the right tools to be able to mitigate that in the first place.
"We designed this light to help attract and repel different species of fish, to encourage them to leave the fishing gear and make the fishing process much more selective."
Back in 2009, was this issue in the fishing industry such a hot topic as it is now?
Dan: You know that's really changed actually. Initially, this was around the time of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the fish fight. He did a lot of work to raise the publicity around the fishing sector and what was going on, putting pressure on EU regulators to change their policy. We started to see the fishing sector on the front page of newspapers because it was getting the public’s attention. I think over the last few years what has been surprising are the peaks and troughs of where that recognition of the fishing industry has changed. We've seen things like during Brexit when the fishing industry really came to the forefront. And then recently we've seen media highlighting the commercial fishing sector again and bringing that into public consciousness, which has led to this increased conversation around ocean, sustainability and health.
On a more positive side, you've seen things like Blue Planet where these incredible images that can now be shared with the public really increases that engagement and understanding of what's out there, because a lot of the time our seas are out of sight and out of mind. Now people care a lot more about the ocean because they know what's out there.
What influenced you to engineer for a better fishing industry?
Dan: The headlines in newspapers were a big factor. I had no connection to the fishing industry before, no uncles on a fishing vessel or anything! It was a timely problem that looked interesting to try and solve as part of a university project.
Nadia: With Dan’s background in design engineering, he was able to put forward a very user centric design to solve problems too.
"Knowing your project would be reviewed at many different stages, and ultimately James Dyson, was very exciting."
What prompted you to submit your idea to the James Dyson Award?
Dan: It was a well-known competition, even though in its earlier years in 2012. And knowing your project would be reviewed at many different stages, and ultimately James Dyson, was very exciting. I think one of my tutors at university introduced me to it and encouraged me to enter.
How did you find the application process?
Dan: It was something I personally worked quite hard on, so I made a video that described the concept for the application. Pisces is such an abstract solution for a problem happening that far under the water, and that far out at sea. Visualizing it made the idea a lot more real and contextualized our solution so people could see its worth. I'm sure any of the Award’s past winners would say the same, you put a lot of effort into the competition because it's a high-profile opportunity!
The process that followed was quite hands off from my side, as you watch your application progress through the different judging stages. I remember I had to keep the International prize to myself for a while, which was really hard and I'm not good at keeping secrets; this was probably the toughest part of the whole process!
What was your biggest learning from winning the Award?
Dan: What’s always stuck with me is having the James Dyson Award accolade, that people pay attention to, backing our idea, giving our vision a much higher chance of succeeding. The money was great and the reinforcement of the value of the idea was also great. But the result of millions of eyes around the world seeing my idea in newspapers and on TV, giving me the chance to talk about it, really accelerated things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still taking a long time as you’re talking to us quite a few years later, but the impact winning had was gigantic. It meant scientists got in touch, people, philanthropists like Eric and Wendy Schmidt or in a newspaper because of the Guardian article we got from the Award, it all gave us direction and funding to keep the project going. The exposure was huge.
What steps did you take immediately after winning?
Dan: The first thing was building further prototypes, spending money on materials and hiring people who knew what they were doing. And then responding to a lot of emails that came in after winning: is this real? Can we use it now? Do you want to work on stuff together? That’s when it became more of a reality because our idea wasn’t ready to launch yet. But there were people in the science community who were saying, “Let's go try this out”, giving us a real leg up. I even got further funding from the EU to take part in a research project. So that was what cemented the reality for me.
I distinctly remember having a conversation with my parents at the time too, asking if I want to do this for the next 10 years; they were encouraging saying not everyone gets this opportunity. This is something you should really use and I'm glad that I did, we’re still more than 10 years on! I'm not sure I even bought anything nice for myself with the prize money… It was very much, “Let’s build some stuff!”
How much has changed at SafetyNet Technologies from then to now?
Nadia: Even from four or five years ago to now, the technology is a lot more tangible. We were in concept and development stage for a bit and so now it's cool having a production line and our product here in stock on the shelves. Talking to customers that are willing to buy it and try it out, and talking to CEOs of big fishing companies and regulators. Dan’s founded the UN ICES-FAO group too with a bunch of scientists. It's making the change and granted for us it feels slow because it's been a while, but it's taken a lot of effort and persistence.
Dan: SafetyNet is definitely global now, we work all over the world. We’re starting to lead I would say in the fishing industry. We've coined this term of precision fishing, a term which hasn't been used much by the industry. And it's something we're trying to build the technology strategy around and collaborate with other companies to build a network of, what we're calling, ‘Ocean Avengers’ to go and make this happen. We had an idea, we've made it work and now we want to scale it up. And we think we now know what it's going to take. Having that confidence that's developed over the last 10 years, I think, is what's really changed a lot. It's a big change.
What was the moment you realised your invention could really make a difference?
Dan: We did a trial with the UK government and Young’s Seafood. They put our lights on a fishing trawler and took it out to sea with parts in real use for the first time. And then we got the results back and they told us that it had been very effective at reducing juvenile by-catch. Receiving that validation was just like wow, OK, now let's go and do more of this. Let's actually make the products more real, more effective and usable because we've seen that this could have some really good results. That's been part of the driving force behind the last few years of keeping development going.
Did you imagine you’d be where you are now before you entered the James Dyson Award?
Dan: No, I had a very clear idea of what my career was going to look like. I was going to join a design consultancy. I was going to go and live in San Francisco and do stuff out there for a while. I still managed to do that which has been fun, but it wouldn't have been fishing. I really thought all this was going to be a year-long project or so, and I don't know how much further it would have gone. But I'm very glad that I am where I am and I'm glad that we as a company have found our feet.
What advice would you give to someone who was looking to enter the James Dyson Award or just starting out their application?
Dan: Make sure to tell a good story around your invention. I think that's the biggest tip for an application. Give yourself a strong narrative because the first thing is to get people to give a damn about what you've built. People will bend over backwards to help you if they really believe in what you do. You're a student, right? How many resources and facilities do you actually have to make a real working thing? But if you get your idea and mission out there when you apply that’s what people will believe in, and they’ll help you get there because they have the resources. So tell a good story, make sure that you believe in what you're doing. Really give it a go!
So what's next for SafetyNet Technologies?
Nadia: A lot of things on the horizon. Maybe too many things on the horizon at this point! As Dan mentioned, we're looking into this broader vision of how we move along the precision fishing sector, building collaborations to help oceans and people thrive together in a beneficial way. Seeing ourselves definitely more as a movement versus just a one product show. We’ll be building out our portfolio further with different products that we think can help impact the sector. But we can’t do this alone, so we are building our own technologies and tools, but also collaborating with others and combining efforts to really achieve a more holistic solution for the problems that are out there. Big problems out there in the seas and the oceans. As Dan says, it takes a flotilla to be able to tackle these problems properly.
Find out more about SafetyNet via the below channels:
- Website: sntech.co.uk
- Twitter: @SNTechUK
- LinkedIn: SafetyNet Technologies