By Jennifer Ganapathy, MPP ‘16
Dr. Alex Dehgan, former Chief Scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development and co-founder of Conservation X Labs, has returned to Duke as the Chanler Innovator in Residence with the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative.
Dehgan graduated with his B.Sc. from Duke in 1991, and received his Ph.D. and M.Sc. from The University of Chicago’s Committee on Evolutionary Biology. As USAID’s first chief scientist in two decades, Dehgan created the independent Office of Science and Technology (OST) from scratch, establishing an 80-person office and $100 million dollar budget. He also conceptualized and helped launch OST’s successor, the US Global Development Lab, which serves as the Agency’s DARPA for development. He has held multiple positions within the Office of the Secretary at the Department of State and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. As the founding Afghanistan country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, he stewarded the creation of Afghanistan’s first national park and put in field teams to conduct the first significant surveys of Afghanistan’s biodiversity since the Soviet Invasion.
It’s great to speak with you today Alex. What do you hope to accomplish in your role as Chanler Innovator in Residence?
My goal is to integrate what Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative is currently doing and apply it to the world’s biggest conservation challenges. This is because conservation actually needs a major re-think. We need to consider how we broaden the tent and how we bring in new sets of solutions that are fundamentally transformative. This means bringing in people from diverse disciplines that have not been involved in conservation before, reorienting conservation’s approach to an engineering model, and using entrepreneurship to scale up the solution.
Also, as a graduate of Duke, I understand what it is like to be in academia. I received my Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at The University of Chicago, but made an explicit decision to turn down a position at Yale University to take on some of these big challenges by serving in government, by working to create new national parks around the world and then by starting up one of the first conservation technology companies. I want to bring that knowledge and experience from the last 25 years and share it with the students and community at Duke, and support Duke’s amazing Innovation & Entrepreneurship program. I don’t just want Duke to be the best in the world, but I want it to be the best for the world.
How would you like students to engage with your role at Duke?
One way that Duke students have already done so is through a conservation technology club. This club, set up by Connor Guest, an undergrad engineering student, has been looking at how to harness engineering to come up with new solutions. I would love to work with teams of students – across business, engineering, law and science – who want to create innovations and find new ways of solving these problems.
The other thing I want to say is that I’m not just limited to students. I am equally excited about working with postdocs, faculty, and others. There are amazing thinkers on this campus, Missy Cummings, Doug Nowacek and Robert Malkin for instance, who are really thinking about how we engineer solutions for these grand challenges and have involved teams of students to do so. People like Eric Toone and Matt Nash have done tremendous work in addressing how we bring such innovations to scale.
You have had amazing experiences across the world. What is the most compelling experience for you?
USAID gave me the experience to create a DARPA-like institution for development. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is where incredible inventions such as the internet, drones, and self-driving cars got their start. Their job is to focus on revolutionary advances over evolutionary ones, so things that are transformative rather than incremental.
We created a model at USAID that was inspired in part by DARPA and ARPA-E. Setting up the Global Development Lab helped me to understand how we could use exponential technologies, open innovation and entrepreneurship for conservation. Conservation has been extraordinarily successful in creating protected areas and new laws, but unsuccessful in stopping the sixth mass extinction that is currently underway. It is clear we need to harness a new set of tools and to broaden the discipline. We need as many conservation engineers, biohackers, makers, and conservation entrepreneurs as we do conservation biologists, like myself, who have dominated the field for 30 years.
I’m at the Duke Lemur Center’s 50th Anniversary right now with a focus on Madagascar. Madagascar is a place where 80% of plants and animals are found only there and where there are over 110 endemic primate species, yet near 90% of the forest has been cut down. This means conservation needs a rethink. We cannot keep on doing the same things and expecting different results. But I believe that if we can get a Volkswagen beetle-sized rover on Mars, that we have the capability to address these problems and redirect the pathway we are on. Ultimately, conservation is about human extinction.
You can follow Alex Dehgan on Twitter at @lemurwrangler or LinkedIn, or join the next generation of conservation at http://conservationxlabs.com/jointhetribe/.