Niall McGrath, Engineering graduate and founder of Robocean stands with crossed arms smiling to camera

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Revolutionising seagrass restoration

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How a concept for an underwater seed-planting robot by an Edinburgh graduate could spark a sea change in blue carbon storage solutions.

Niall McGrath and his team of fellow engineering graduates have developed a subsea robotic prototype with the potential to transform seagrass meadow restoration methods, capture carbon and tackle climate change.

A photo of Niall McGrath, Engineering graduate and founder of Robocean
Niall McGrath, Engineering graduate and founder of Robocean

What makes seagrass special?

Seagrass is a rare flowering saltwater plant. Its dense meadows are found in shallow coastal waters and cover less than 0.2 per cent of the seafloor. However, as well as providing an essential home for marine life, protecting shores during storms and absorbing polluting nutrients created on land, seagrass also accounts for 10 per cent of the ocean’s organic carbon storage.

Like trees, seagrass uses carbon to grow. However, it can capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests.

Despite the clear environmental benefits of this plant, throughout the last century 92 per cent of the British seagrass has disappeared and replanting the meadows is a long and laborious process – it takes six months and 2,000 volunteers to plant one hectare of seagrass.

Niall McGrath, who graduated with an MEng in Mechanical Engineering with Renewable Energy in 2022, has been focusing on a solution.

“To date, seagrass restoration has not received the same attention and PR investment as other nature-based climate solutions like forestry, or kelp farming,” he explains. “Through our technology we aim to bring seagrass restoration processes up to parity with those of alternative ecosystems and make it a more attractive option for meaningful climate action.”

An underwater photo of a school of fish in seagrass
A source of carbon capture, seagrass is also home to marine life including fish and turtles

The seed of an idea

The chance to improve seagrass carbon sequestration caught Niall’s attention while he was studying at the University.

“I remember reading a news article about seagrass restoration trials in the UK, which described the entire process from seed to sapling,” he says. “To me it seemed slow and expensive, so I began wondering about how the process could be mechanised like in every other industry.”

The seed was planted in Niall’s mind to produce a cost- and time-efficient robotic alternative. When the coronavirus pandemic brought life to a standstill in March 2020, Niall and a group of friends, also fellow engineering students at Edinburgh, took the initiative to focus on nurturing this idea into a reality called Robocean.

“Initially, Robocean started during the first COVID lockdown as a way to keep ourselves busy,” Niall explains. “I had come up with the idea about mechanising seagrass restoration a few months prior but had yet to do anything about it. We were then presented with this unique opportunity to work on something creative yet challenging without any real distractions. I think that aspect of Robocean’s early days, as well as its meaningful environmental goals made it such an inspiring project for all of us to be a part of.”

A prototype with potential

At the heart of the Robocean company Niall founded and now runs with his cofounding fellow graduates (Isobel Harris, David Kong, Caroline Gallan, Harry Doyle, Anushka Joglekar,  Hiro Onishi, Charlotte Edge and Joe Ralphs) is a prototype subsea crawler that has the potential to completely transform seagrass carbon capturing methods.

The prototype is designed to move along the seabed depositing and burying seagrass seeds into sediment as it goes, as Niall explains: “This ideally positions them to germinate and greatly reduces the manual labour needed to restore seagrass. In addition, it also lets us operate both subsea and intertidally to maximise our restorative capabilities.”

Photo of a Scottish beach showing pebbles, the shore and hills in the background
Seagrass is found in shallow coastal waters

A team effort

For Niall, who has always wanted to be an entrepreneur, Robocean has “the perfect blend of engineering, innovation and climate action that make for a fun yet challenging startup.”

Setting out on this journey with like-minded friends and engineers has given Niall and his team the collective drive to rise to the challenge of making a meaningful impact within global marine rewilding efforts: “That potential impact is what makes Robocean so important to us.”

This vision has bonded the group together and their connection, both personal and professional, has proved to be a powerful force.

“I think the best part about working with friends is being able to comfortably express ideas and concepts without any judgement,” explains Niall. “We are all on a level playing field within Robocean, and we all have each other’s backs. I think over the course of the last few years, running this startup has actually made us a tighter knit friend group too. This lets us really dig deep to leverage those strong relationships that we’ve built over the years to do something special with Robocean.”

Niall McGrath, Engineering graduate and founder of Robocean stands with crossed arms smiling to camera
Niall came up with the idea for Robocean while studying at the University

Success through support

Founding a startup company is time consuming, particularly while studying for a degree. As well as having a supportive group of friends involved in Robocean, Niall also turned to the expertise of the University’s commercialisation service, Edinburgh Innovations (EI).

EI’s services for students include a Student Enterprise Hub complete with business advisors and meeting spaces, and the data-driven enterpreneurship programmes, which offer workshops and events to boost the potential of new startups.

“Edinburgh Innovations and the wider startup ecosystem in Edinburgh have played a key role in Robocean’s success to date,” says Niall. “During my time both as a student and a graduate, I’ve been heavily involved with the Student Enterprise team and have greatly benefited from their support.”

He continues: “With Robocean, we’ve taken part in brilliant programmes through EI’s Summer Accelerator and Venture Builder Incubator, among others. In addition, we have also enjoyed a range of support from their business advisors who have helped us apply for grants, build our value proposition, and connect with prospective investors. The entrepreneurial support within the University is honestly second to none.”

For Niall, tapping into the University’s services has helped deliver real results, including helping Robocean to achieve essential promotional opportunities and accolades: “Honestly, without the support that we have received from EI and the Student Enterprise team we likely wouldn’t be where we are today. With their help, we have been able to compete in and win Scottish Young Edge and Converge Net Zero awards in the last year.”

Finance for the future

By taking home £30,000 from the Net Zero Challenge, an annual fast-tracking competition for climate-themed entrepreneurial ideas, the team has been given some of the financial backing needed to move forward:

“Winning Converge Net Zero was vital to Robocean’s commercial trajectory. We were able to realise our plan of using the prize money as matched funding for a SMART Scotland grant application which hopefully will take us to the next step in Robocean’s journey. In addition to this, the validation we received for our business model, team and value proposition through Converge has proven immensely valuable and has enabled us to gain great traction in our business.”

With this kind of investment, the cofounders are moving closer to realising their mission of “revolutionising seagrass restoration to make it accessible, affordable, and efficient” and giving the attention needed to this currently overlooked nature-based climate solution in the field of blue carbon storage.

As Niall sums up: “In the future, Robocean aims to leverage its technology to empower global seagrass restoration efforts for the purpose of rewilding our oceans and turning the tide on climate change.”

Photo credits: Images of Niall Mcgrath by Callum Bennetts/Maverick Photo Agency, sea photo by Getty Images/_548901005677, coastal photo by Getty Images/keremberk