At age 16 (2011), Slat came across more plastic than fish while diving in Greece. He decided to devote a high school project to deeper investigation into ocean plastic pollution and why it was considered impossible to clean up. He later came up with the idea to build a passive system, using the circulating ocean currents to his advantage, which he presented at a TEDx talk in Delft in 2012.
Slat discontinued his Aerospace Engineering studies at TU Delft, to devote all his time to developing his idea. He founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013, and shortly after, his TEDx talk went viral after being shared on several news sites.
“Technology is the most potent agent of change. It is an amplifier of our human capabilities”, Slat wrote in The Economist. “Whereas other change-agents rely on reshuffling the existing building blocks of society, technological innovation creates entirely new ones, expanding our problem-solving toolbox.”
In 2013, Slat founded the non-profit entity The Ocean Cleanup, of which he is now the CEO. The Ocean Cleanup’s mission is to develop advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. After foundation, The Ocean Cleanup managed to raise $2.2 million through a crowdfunding campaign with the help of 38,000 donors from 160 countries. In June 2014, the Ocean Cleanup published a 528-page feasibility study about the project’s potential. Oceanographers Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein published a technical critique of the feasiblity study on the Deep Sea News website, that was cited by other publications including Popular Science and The Guardian The Guardian article reported that as of March 2016, the Ocean Cleanup was continuing to test and refine the concept.
Since The Ocean Cleanup started, the organization has raised $31.5 million USD in donations from entrepreneurs in Europe and in Silicon Valley, including Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce. By developing new designs, Boyan Slat estimates that half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will be gone within 5 years, at minimal costs. The project will start with one system in mid-2018 and progressively make use of additional systems until it achieves full-scale deployment by 2020.
In November 2014, Slat was awarded the Champions of the Earth award of the United Nations Environment Programme. HM King Harald of Norway awarded Boyan Slat the Young Entrepreneur Award in 2015. Forbes included Slat in their 2016 “30 under 30” list In 2016. Slat was selected as a Thiel Fellow, the program started in 2011 by venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. It gives $100,000 to entrepreneurs 22 years old and younger who have left or postponed college to work on their start-up. In February 2017, Reader’s Digest appointed Boyan Slat European of the Year (Reader’s Digest award) and the Dutch Elsevier awarded him Nederlander van het Jaar 2017 (eng. Dutchman of 2017). In May 2018, Boyan was awareded the Euronews award “European Entrepreneur of the Year”.