Story by Katie Jansen | Video by Pilar Timpane
This package was originally published on Duke Today.
Alex Dehgan ’91 is known as the “lemur wrangler” on Twitter. His love for lemurs began when he was an undergraduate at Duke, where he spent a lot of time at the Duke Lemur Center.
“I was so taken by this idea that there could be this place that exists that was like no other, that was literally a laboratory for evolution and had these amazing things called lemurs. I had to see it for myself,” said Dehgan, who was inspired by the lemurs after taking a class on primate conservation.
And he set out to do that, camping out in front of his professor’s office for a week until she finally relented and allowed him to come on the trip to Madagascar – which departed three days after Dehgan received permission to go.
Dehgan later returned to Madagascar to complete his Ph.D., and he’s now back at Duke, serving as the Chanler Innovator in Residence within the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative.
“Duke is a special place,” Dehgan said. “It’s a university that’s not only trying to be the best in the world in something, but the best for the world.”
Dehgan said he views his role at the university as inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs, as well as helping to connect different people in the university who can work together to solve large problems across the globe.
Returning to Duke also gave him the opportunity to be an entrepreneur himself. He co-founded his company, Conservation X Labs, to figure out how to “source, develop and scale technologies that can improve and change the reality of what is possible for conservation,” he said.
Dehgan has been committed to conservation since he was 9, when he read a National Geographic about endangered species, such as the California condor and the black-footed ferret.
“I got so concerned that I said, ‘I really want to spend the rest of my life figuring out how to stop extinction,’” he said.
But the idea to found a conservation-focused company didn’t come to him until he was working as chief scientist at USAID.
“One of the things I realized at USAID was the fact that conservation had, in some ways, been left behind other fields like global health or food security,” he said.
Founding the company “was a recognition that conservation has tended to be technophobic, backwards looking and had failed to use entrepreneurship,” he said. “Thirty years after conservation was created as a field, thirty years after we coined the word biodiversity, we’re failing. And I felt the need to come up with a new set of solutions for how we do it.”
In the past, conservation has been based mainly on philanthropy and has been successful in some regards, such as increasing the number of national parks across the world. But Dehgan said more needs to be done, and technological advancements in other fields lead him to believe that “we have the ability to take on this problem and make a profound difference.”
The problems facing conservation are exponential, Dehgan said. By 2050, there will be 9.6 billion people in the world, which means the world’s food production will need to double.
But the solutions thus far have been mostly linear. Now, scientists like Dehgan are faced with challenges such as finding ways to use modern technology to replace traditional food sources with sustainable alternatives.
Solutions to problems like these, Dehgan said, lie in innovative approaches through the private sector.
“We’ve got to find a way that uses the private sector to come up with things that will make a difference for conservation,” he said. “Governments, as we know, can come and go, and their commitments to solving these problems can come and go, but the power to use the private sector to scale and sustain what we’re trying to do is incredible.”