Designing Technology for Environmental Resilience

With the support of Griffin Catalyst, the San Francisco-based venture studio Good Machine is developing new technologies and companies to solve significant environmental and climate-related challenges. Among its early successes is Reefgen, a company developing a new unmanned, underwater robot that can replant coral reefs and seagrass—which are crucial to the survival of the world’s marine life—much faster and cheaper than humans.
From its workshop on the San Francisco waterfront, the climate-innovation start-up Good Machine, under the leadership of CEO David Solomon, is developing an array of technologies and companies.
Key Takeaways
  • Griffin Catalyst is investing to develop and scale climate technology through a partnership with Good Machine, a venture studio that develops and repurposes technologies to address urgent environmental challenges.
  • One of Good Machine’s first companies, Reefgen, has developed and tested an underwater robot that can replant coral up to 100 times faster than human divers, at a fraction of the long-term cost, making it possible to restore reefs and replant seagrass, which are essential to the planet’s marine ecosystem.
  • Good Machine aims to acquire and re-purpose existing technology to increase environmental sustainability and resilience, while improving the lives of people worldwide.

I have seen the greatest impact from my philanthropy when I have supported organizations led by brilliant social entrepreneurs focused on innovative and timely solutions that can be measured and scaled.

In late 2019, David Solomon—a Bay Area-based tech entrepreneur and self-described “telecom nerd”—founded Good Machine, a venture studio that develops new technologies and incubates companies for the common good, especially in areas of climate resilience and the environment.  

The premise was simple: Good Machine would look for urgent, large-scale environmental problems in need of a solution. Projects would be realized in a short timeframe—about 18 months was typical—scaled up globally and then spun off into profit-making companies once the technology had been developed, tested and proven practical. 

With support from Griffin Catalyst and other partners, Good Machine set up shop in a bright and airy 20,000-square-foot workspace near the San Francisco waterfront—a combination machine shop, electronics laboratory, and fabrication and 3D printing facility.  When it was founded, Solomon envisioned Good Machine building two or three new companies a year. Today, it is looking to help more than a dozen companies develop and scale.  

We built Good Machine with the idea that we can work on the problems that need to be solved,” said Solomon, “and once we’ve demonstrated that it works and that there’s a market for it, build a team around that solution.” 

The idea is that the things that we build are going to be obvious after we’ve built them.

The Reefgen system, featuring an automated underwater robot controlled from the surface, can replant coral reef one hundred times faster than a traditional human diver.

Photo Credit: Coral Vita via Reefgen

Solomon continued, Here we can make almost any idea come to life in a few days. We have everything set up so that we can take ideas and turn them into physical products very quickly. We do a lot of work to help other companies get to scale. 

In 2020, the team immediately took on one of the most urgent challenges confronting oceans today: the disappearance of the world’s coral reefs.  

Coral reefs are crucial to the survival of Earth’s marine ecosystem—protective nurseries for fish and barriers against wave damage. Covering less than one percent of the planet’s surface, they are home to 25 percent of life in the ocean. But over the past three decades, thanks to rising temperatures, bleaching, and pollution, nearly half of all the coral reefs in the world have disappeared, and within another 17 years an estimated three-quarters of the remaining reefs will be gone. Nearly 2.5 acres are disappearing every minute.   

The good news is that coral reefs can be replanted; the bad news is that replanting by hand, as is the current practice, is painfully slow and expensive. An experienced diver can plant a few hundred corals a day. At that rate, the coral lost in a single minute would take a decade to plant back. 

Everything else in the world is being automated, so somebody should automate planting corals. We’re that somebody.

Enter Reefgen, a new company created by Good Machine, which has developed a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) that works faster and for longer periods than human divers. Tethered to the surface by cable, the ROV drills holes in existing coral and quickly attaches new coral to build a reef. Having successfully tested its prototype and planted corals in the waters of Oahu, in Hawaii, Reefgen is now scaling up for large-scale production and shows every promise of significantly slowing the long-term destruction of the world’s coral reefs.


Of ocean life supported by coral reefs, compared to the 1% of the Earth’s surface they cover  


Of all the coral reefs in the world have disappeared in the past thirty years


Speed up to which Reefgen’s underwater robots can plant coral compared to the most experienced human divers

For Good Machine, that’s just the start. As its team realized, Reefgen’s ROV can also address a no-less-urgent global problem—the catastrophic loss of the world’s seagrass beds—by planting seagrass on ocean floors at a rapid clip. Next up, a land-based effort: deploying electric tractors to improve the lives of the millions of low-income people worldwide who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Like all Good Machine’s efforts, this initiative can be turned into a self-sustaining company. 

We’ve grown from three people to 30 people during Covid,” said Solomon. “We’ve outgrown three facilities in the process. We just keep building things. People keep coming to us with new things to work on and that’s it. 

Photo Credit: Reefgen

Controllers operate the underwater robotic vehicle remotely by way of a cable tethered to the ocean surface. Viewing the seabed through a camera, the pilot controls thrusters to precisely maneuver the robot around the coral reef, drill holes in the dead substrate and, using a gantry system, insert new coral into the holes, bringing the reef back to life.