Doing the Work: Shopify + Running Tide in Conversation

In late July, Shopify's Head of Sustainability Stacy Kauk and Running Tide's CEO Marty Odlin met to discuss the delivery of the first ever ocean carbon removal credits, and the role that Shopify has played in catalyzing climate innovation.

You’re invited to listen in to their conversation via the video below, read the print version below - or both! 

A big thanks to Stacy, Marty, and interview moderator Brad Rochlin, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Running Tide.

[Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Bradley Rochlin: Thanks to Stacy Kauk and Marty Odlin for joining us. We’re here today because Running Tide has delivered our first ever ocean-based carbon removal credits to Shopify, who was our first ever carbon removal customer. For those who are not familiar, I’m hoping you both can share a little bit about your organizations and your roles there. 

Stacy, starting with you, can you explain a little bit about Shopify’s Sustainability Fund, and the theory of change that has informed the way this fund has been built? 

Stacy Kauk: I'm the Head of Sustainability at Shopify, and one of our main areas of focus is our Sustainability Fund. It was launched back in 2019, where we committed to spend a minimum of five million dollars every year on the most promising solutions and technologies out there with the objective of reversing climate change. It's a pretty broad mandate, and what we ended up focusing in on was carbon removal. We quickly realized in 2019 that there were a lot of ideas, but there was not a lot of actual carbon removal being conducted in the field, and we came to the realization that this is an industry that the world will definitely need. 

We need carbon removal now, and it needs to be supported early on with some catalytic capital so that we can make sure that we're supporting new solutions that can try their technologies out in the field by having a first customer. We wanted to be that early customer that would then unlock funding rounds and research grants, and all the other things that you need in order to really build out a climate solution. We wanted to play that one piece in the puzzle for an early climate company.

Bradley Rochlin: Fantastic. Marty, over to you.

Marty Odlin: I'm the Founder and CEO of Running Tide. We started in 2017 as an ocean health company to design interventions that can improve ocean health, quantify the results, and then make that data available. The dream for us was always to get into carbon removal, but that dream didn't become real until Stacy's organization stepped in and made that first opportunity available.

Our job at Running Tide is to engage with the complexity of this problem, specifically around carbon removal in the ocean, build up all the systems needed to fully account for the impact of the system, and add that all together to figure out what the net impact is and deliver it to market. Running Tide’s engaged in the effort of pulling that team together and then going and executing. But the catalyst for all of that, besides the dream, was to have a market signal from an organization like Shopify. It wouldn't be able to happen without them.

Bradley Rochlin: Kicking it off with you Stacy, Marty mentioned that market signal, and I think when Running Tide was first added to the Sustainability Fund in 2020, it was a team of about 12 people. Nothing like our current work had ever been conducted in a meaningful way in the ocean, and the industry was in its very early stages in a lot of ways. Can you talk a little bit, now a couple years on, about what the process of working with Running Tide has been like, especially as we were moving from a very small, early-scale research organization into these larger scale pilots, and eventually delivering credits? 

Stacy Kauk: It's been wild, and it's been an unbelievable journey. When I met Marty on a call in the spring of 2020, I heard about what Running Tide was working on, and everything came from a place of sound science and a deep respect and appreciation for ocean health. Those two things really struck me. We thought, they're the ones that we're going to want to take a bet on. This is the ethos of an early stage company we want to work with, because they're looking to build in a responsible way. 

When it comes to the ocean solutions, for us, there's so much that needs to be done in terms of monitoring, measuring, quantification, reporting, and making sure you’re also not just worried about the carbon and selling that credit, but that you're monitoring the ecosystem that you're doing the intervention in. And that was where that trust for Running Tide came from right out of the gate. What we've observed over these three years walking alongside, is Running Tide always thinks about driving innovation and moving forward and going quickly, but at the same time doing it in a way that brings in the necessary experts, and is transparent and focused on making sure that at the core, the health of the ocean is what matters. It's been a privilege to be able to go along on this journey as your first customer, to be able to see how you've built out the technology, and innovated, and scaled, and actually gone and now done the first field deployment. It's pretty remarkable that that's what's happened in such a short period of time. Three years is not very long to go from where you were with 12 employees to where you are today. It's very exciting.

Bradley Rochlin: Agreed, and I think that that innovation was a big thing that brought me to Running Tide as well. Marty, building on that, Stacy mentioned a bunch of different components there in terms of building out the innovation, and monitoring and measurement. From your perspective now, looking back at these three years since that initial catalytic partnership began, can you share some of the specifics around how Shopify’s support helped to accelerate our work and advance the best available science behind it?

Marty Odlin: At the time we were a really small company. We literally sat on buckets because we didn't have chairs and buckets are cheaper. Shopify’s investment helped us kickstart our very initial project. Before that we were basically doing tests off the back of my boat and a ton of research, reading everything we could about carbon removal, trying to understand what the science was, understanding ocean health, building on a lot of years of working in that environment. Their investment allowed us to make that first step to actually start to generate some meaningful data for ourselves.

The signal of having Shopify involved also allowed us to reach out to more experts than were in our initial orbit, and then, as Stacy outlined at the beginning of the conversation, that allowed us to go get other contracts, apply for grant funding, etc. Shopify’s investment was that burst of energy that put us out into the world and allowed us to increase our orbit, ask better questions, get better answers, and consolidate all that learning into our development path. 

It was really thrilling. And then we started getting better, and then as we got better, we were able to attract investors and further customers. That brought in more expertise, which helped inform the system design, and then it was this chain reaction of growth and understanding. Our job was to take that fuel, learn, and then develop new technologies to support that system as it moved forward. 

Bradley Rochlin: Yeah, it was multiple learning loops that got kicked off at the same time, off that initial push. And, Stacy, to zoom out a bit because – obviously, Running Tide was going through this maturity and this growth to learn about the system intervention, but the carbon market was as well, right? And based on where Shopify and your Sustainability Fund sits, you've been able to hear about virtually every potential solution, and what their challenges and benefits might be. 

Can you talk a little bit about what was so appealing to Shopify about the ocean space, but also some of the key challenges there that were so important to overcome, and that we still have facing us? What does it mean for an actual ocean-based carbon removal credit to be delivered in the context of those challenges?

Stacy Kauk: There's a lot to unpack in that question. We were originally interested in the ocean space because we wanted to make sure that we had a diverse selection of solutions. There's so many things as you're scaling up engineering that you can't necessarily anticipate, so we weren't sure a lot of these solutions were going to work out and we wanted to make sure we had a big range.

What's particularly exciting for us about the ocean space is it has several advantages. We're not competing with agricultural land, we're not competing with where people live. There's a big swath of ocean out there that we can use for climate solutions that don't compete with land use. So that was a big thing, but then I started to dig in and realize that if we start optimizing this massive carbon sink it actually improves ocean health. If we can deal with the acidification issue then we're actually pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere. And so you're not just addressing climate change, but you're also finding ways to address the effects of climate change for the ocean systems themselves. And that's where the co-benefits really started to get exciting. When we look at technologies and interventions from a climate perspective, we obviously want them to be net negative – but when you go beyond that, we really want to understand what the co-benefits are and make sure that we're picking solutions that have those benefits. And the ocean space really does deliver significant co-benefits. 

In terms of the key challenges to overcome, I think there's two things happening when it comes to ocean solutions. One, if I tell my mom or my kids that we're doing this in the ocean they're like, ‘what about the fish?’ We already put plastics in the ocean and all these other things in the ocean, why would we put more things in the ocean? There's this perception issue around ocean solutions that we need to overcome, and we need to overcome that by doing things in a very smart way, in a very transparent way, in a very informed data-rich manner that enables us to understand the benefits and possible risks of the intervention.

The other thing was that it hadn't been done before in the actual open ocean. One of the things that I say a lot is that you've got to ‘do the thing.’ You have to do the thing. If you don't do the  thing, you don't actually know what’s going to work or not work. We can do all the tests, we can do all the paper stuff, but it's not the same as doing the thing. And when it comes to ocean solutions, especially ones that rely on weather data and ocean currents and modeling and all of that, you only get something that is statistically significant if you've done the thing enough times. So for me, it's about getting out there and doing this, and doing it on repeat, and increasing the data, so that we can have a more robust understanding of the intervention and the benefits. So you have to do the thing, and that's why oceans need to overcome that perception.

Bradley Rochlin: Marty, building on that, in terms of ‘doing the thing,’ we have done it successfully in terms of these research deployments. And we've done it in this data-rich environment and in transparent ways, where we're disclosing our work along the way and following a staged progression. But how do you think about learning from this initial success as you continue to advance Running Tide’s system? What comes next after that initial proof point in the market?

Marty Odlin: One of the biggest questions I have is, what does it take to run a negative emissions supply chain, fully accounting for every little bit and piece of the whole supply chain? You can do the math, as Stacy said, sitting in the comfort of the office and be like ‘Yeah, that's going to work.’ But then to actually go out and do it, you learn so much along the way.

I'm really excited about moving forward. Consolidating all these learnings that we've had, sharing them with our Scientific Advisory Board and our internal advisors and the market, Stacy and others that we deliver to, and understanding what the next step is for us — where do we allocate our time, energy, and money to make this better?

Our strategy all along has been to take minimal incremental risk every time we do an action in the ocean. The only reason I do this is to make the ocean healthier for my kids. That's what I think about every day. We try to take the minimal amount of incremental risk at each step, and try to make those steps as quickly as possible. And if you do that right, you're only limited by how quickly you can consolidate your learnings, generate the feedback either from your data gathering systems, from your partners, etc. 

What I'm really excited about is that now that the thing is happening, now that we are ‘doing the thing,’ in Stacy's words, I just can't wait to do it again. I'm literally so excited to do it again this much better. And then the next step, a little bit better. And hopefully we can do it fast enough that we can save what's left for our kids.

Bradley Rochlin: I love that vision. Thank you both so much for the time, and a quick last question for both of you. We're having this conversation in July of 2023, over a background of historic flooding in the US Northeast, an all-time heat spike in the Atlantic Ocean, historical temperature records dropping literally all over the globe. So to put an optimistic spin on this, if you're looking ahead 10 or 20 years – what does this industry need to achieve? What does the victory condition look like? Stacy, I'll start with you.

Stacy Kauk: To zoom out and hit that fast forward button, beyond just ocean solutions, but all climate solutions, I imagine a world with totally revamped systems: all of our waste being handled in a way that actually acts as a carbon sink and sucks carbon out of the air. Every stream and function that we have is optimized in a way that we're doing drawdown. We've changed our whole system just to focus on drawdown.

Running Tide has come up with novel ways to take three different pathways to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere using the ocean as its big tool. But that's only one system. We need all of the different shapes and forms of carbon removal that are being considered today, being tested today to be brought to bear. So I think Shopify, with our Sustainability Fund, has a long future of continuing to pick out those early-stage companies who prioritize innovation and speed in a responsible, transparent way to try to scale even more climate solutions. We've got a long way to go, but I just see this futuristic world where all the knobs are dialed in so that we're always doing drawdown.

Bradley Rochlin: It's a great vision. Marty, how about you? 

Marty Odlin: The vision Stacy just said is beautiful. I see something similar. Everywhere you go, you see carbon removal happening – because right now, everywhere you go, you actually see the opposite. You see carbon going up into the atmosphere. Everywhere you drive, everything you look at is emitting carbon. 

So what I see over the next 20 years, is in everything, everywhere you look, you come in contact with carbon removal. You’ll see carbon removal in action, ecosystem restoration in action, and it becomes this thing that kids grow up in. 10 or 20 years from now, my kids are going to be engaged in this effort. I hope that they're doing less carbon removal and more ecosystem restoration and biodiversity work. I hope that we crest that hill and then the new exciting thing is like, putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. I think everywhere you go, every industry is engaged in this effort, on the ocean side every port is engaged in this effort, every house, every office building, everything is engaged in this effort in some way. Like Stacy said, I think it's possible. I think the market mechanisms are clicking into place where you can incentivize the activity. I think the data systems are clicking into place where you can measure the activity. I think the technology is getting there where we actually know exactly how to do it, and then the optimization, those dial turnings that Stacy mentioned, that happens over time. I'm very inspired by Stacy's vision. I can't wait to be a part of it.

Bradley Rochlin: Yeah, me too. Thank you both so much for the time. Please go check out Shopify’s Sustainability Fund on their website. We're And of course, reach out if there are any questions. 

Marty Odlin: Thank you to Shopify so much for the support.

Stacy Kauk: My gosh, thanks to Running Tide for doing the thing.

Doing the Work: Shopify + Running Tide in Conversation
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