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 tourism industry, economy and people of the Caribbean island nation.
As Bisonó León discussed with his longtime friend and mentor, Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) Alexander Slocum Sr., ugly mats of toxic sargassum algae have been spreading along the pristine beaches of the Dominican Republic and others Beaches in the Caribbean, and public and private organizations have fought a losing battle with expensive, environmentally unfriendly cleaning methods. Slocum, who was a member of the US Department of Energy’s Deepwater Horizon team, has extensive experience with systems operating in the ocean.
“Over the last 10 years,” says Bisonó León, now an MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, “Sargassum, a toxic algal invasion, has cost the Caribbean up to $120 million a year to clean up, meaning 30 by 35 percent reduction in tourism, which not only affects the tourism industry, but also the environment, marine life, the local economy and human health.”
One of Bisonó León’s conversations with Slocum was within earshot of MechE graduate student Luke Gray ’18, SM ’20, who had been working with Slocum on other projects and was about to start his master’s degree at the time.
“Professor Slocum and Andrés happened to be talking about the sargassum problem in Andrés’ home country,” says Gray. “A week later I was on a plane to the DR to collect sargassum samples and study the problem in Punta Cana. When I came back, my master’s degree was in progress and I already had my thesis!”
Gray had also started a collaboration with Bisonó León, both of whom say it went smoothly from the start.
“I feel like Luke immediately understood the scale of the problem and the value we could create in the Dominican Republic and throughout the Caribbean if we join forces,” says Bisonó León.
Both Bisonó León and Gray also say they felt an obligation to work to protect the global environment.
“All of my major projects to date have been about machines for climate remediation or adaptation,” says Gray.
The technologies that Bisonó León and Gray arrived at after 18 months of research and development were designed to provide both local and global solutions.
Your Littoral Collection Module (LCM) scoops sargassum algae from the water surface 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 algae flowing down the sides of the ship and through the hoops into the nets. Effectively sweeping the algae out of the water, the device can be used by anyone with a boat, including local fishermen whose livelihoods have been devastated by the algae’s damaging effects 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 to very deep water, where they then sink to the bottom of the ocean, the carbon in the algae can be sequestered. Other methods of disposing of the seaweed generally include dumping it in landfills, where it emits greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide as it decomposes. Although some seaweed can be used for other purposes, including as a fertilizer, sargassum has been found to contain difficult-to-remove toxic substances such as arsenic and heavy metals.
In spring 2020, Bisonó León and Gray founded the company SOS (Sargassum Ocean Sequestration) Carbon.
Bisonó León says he comes from a long line of entrepreneurs who have often expressed a strong commitment to social impact. His family was active in various industries, his grandfather and great-uncles opened the first cigar factory in the Dominican Republic in 1903.
Gray says internships at startup companies and the undergraduate projects he’s done with Slocum developed his interest in entrepreneurship, and his preoccupation with the sargassum problem only strengthened that inclination. During his master’s degree, he says, he became “obsessed” with finding a solution.
“Professor Slocum made me think extremely big, so it was almost inevitable that the distillation of our two years of work would continue in some form, and starting a business happened to be the way to go. My Master’s experience of taking an essentially untouched problem like Sargassum and then a year later designing, building, and testing 15,000 pounds of custom equipment on a Dominican Navy ship a year later made me realize I was discovering a recipe had that I could repeat – and mechanical engineering had become my core competency,” 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 managed to remove 3.5 million pounds of sargassum and struck deals with Grupo Puntacana, which runs several tourist resorts, and with other hotels like Club Med in Punta Cana. The company works with the Punta Cana Fishermen’s Association, employing 15 fishermen to operate LCMs and training 35 others so they can join as the operation expands.
Their success to date demonstrates “mens et manus” at work,” says Slocum, referring to the MIT motto, which is Latin for “mind and hand.” “Geeks hear about a very real problem affecting very real people with no other option for a living, and they respond by inventing a solution elegant enough to be easily understood by those most vulnerable to the problem.” can be used to address the problem.
“The team always focused on the numbers, from physics to finances, and didn’t let hype or doubt deter them from their determination to rationally solve this huge problem.”
Slocum says he could predict 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 reduce millions of tons of CO worldwide2 per year,” says Bisonó León. “With Sloan’s training and collaborative interdisciplinary spirit, we will be able to further expand environmental and social sustainability platforms that are sorely needed in the Caribbean to drive real change regionally and globally.”
“I hope that SOS Carbon can serve as a model and inspire similar entrepreneurial endeavors,” says Gray.