When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas last September, the small island of Abaco was among the hardest hit. Dorian stalled over the island for two days, unleashing some of the strongest winds ever recorded in the Caribbean.
Shortly after the storm died down, and long before Bahamian government aid arrived, an American disaster assistance response team arrived onboard a high-speed super-yacht. Access crews set to work clearing roads with chainsaws, so that survivors could find their way to the team’s medical staff. Their doctors and paramedics ultimately helped triage or treat nearly one in 10 of the island’s population.
The team’s marine specialists used sonar systems to survey the sea floor for hazards, while aviation experts set up an air traffic control system at Abaco’s damaged airport. The operation allowed over 1100 civilian and military aid flights to land, and many evacuees to escape. The team claims to have even provided detailed satellite images of the devastation to Bahamian authorities.
But Abaco’s islanders did not have the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders to thank for these rapid interventions. Some of the first responders were employed by Global Support and Development (GSD), a secretive disaster charity that The Daily Beast has learned was founded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Nearly half of GSD’s employees have military backgrounds, and the force is being run by Brin’s former bodyguards.
For the past five years, GSD has been quietly using high-tech systems to rapidly deliver humanitarian assistance during high-profile disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic. These range from drones and super-yachts to a gigantic new airship that the outfit apparently hopes will make it easier to get aid supplies into disaster zones.
And just as Google famously treats—or, pre-COVID-19 lockdown, treated—employees to catered lunches, free gyms, and on-site massages, some of GSD’s humanitarian workers have enjoyed strawberry ice cream and freshly laundered clothes on board Brin’s super-yacht during disaster deployments.
GSD is emblematic of a trend among Silicon Valley billionaires, who increasingly see philanthropy as just another industry they feel uniquely placed to disrupt with new techniques and technologies. Whether it is Elon Musk’s attempt to rescue Thai schoolchildren with a high-tech submersible, or Brin’s co-founder Larry Page organizing flu vaccinations in the Bay Area, tech billionaires are here to do good—whether we like it or not.
The idea for GSD was born in March 2015, when Cyclone Pam pounded Vanuatu, leaving many communities without homes, water, or power. Brin owns an $80 million, 15-cabin super-yacht called the Dragonfly that had been sailing near the island chain, without him on board, when the cyclone struck.
“Having spent the past few years cruising these beautiful areas, we have made many friends and developed relationships with the local communities,” the Dragonfly’s captain, Mike Gregory, said in a video made shortly afterward. “It was a horrible feeling knowing that the people of Vanuatu were suffering, and we felt compelled to assist.”
Gregory says he contacted the yacht’s owner (Brin), who in turn talked to Grant Dawson, an ex-U.S. Navy lieutenant and for many years an employee of Brin’s family office. Dawson, now GSD’s CEO, gave a speech at the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health in Maryland last year in which he detailed the charity’s operations. He did not identify Brin as GSD’s patron, but a filing with regulators in California shows that Brin was the charity’s sole donor in 2018, the latest year for which public records are available.
It was agreed that the Dragonfly, which had a doctor and five paramedics on board, should sail to help—with Dawson in charge. “So I grabbed a number of Air Force para-rescue guys I’d been affiliated with from the security world, and a couple of corpsmen out of the [Navy] Seal teams,” Dawson said in his speech. “We raided every Home Depot and pharmacy we could find and on about 18 hours’ notice, we launched.”
Making landfall at remote islands north of Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, the Dragonfly’s team reportedly moved 62 metric tons of fresh water ashore, treated over 250 patients, facilitated three medical evacuations, and built shelters in multiple villages.
When other aid groups started to arrive, Dawson’s team patted themselves on the back and returned to the United States. About two weeks later, however, a large earthquake hit Kathmandu and Dawson recalled a phone call from his boss: “[Brin] called me up and said, are you guys ready to go?”
In 2016, Dawson’s rag-tag team of operatives responded to a powerful magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Ecuador, and Hurricane Matthew in the Bahamas. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, GSD made space on its relief flight to the Turks and Caicos Islands for World Hope International, a faith-based organization working for clean water and global health. “They did a really great job of scoping out the landscape of who’s who, and integrated us into the relief effort with other NGOs, and the local government,” said World Hope CEO John Lyon. “I don’t know of another NGO able to get in as quickly as they do, and open the way for other NGOs to provide relief.”
At the end of 2018, following deployments to a volcanic emergency in Vanuatu, a drone mission to Haiti, and another storm in the Pacific, Brin finally set up GSD as a non-profit charity. Brin would have sole responsibility for selecting GSD’s board of directors, and was the charity’s sole donor. Eric Powell, another of Brin’s former security staff, was chosen to join Dawson as a director.
Since then, GSD has grown rapidly. It now has around 20 full-time staff, most of whom have medical training, and another 100 contractors. Dawson noted that special forces veterans (comprising about a quarter of GSD’s workers) are very good at living unsupported, establishing communications, and problem-solving.
But the use of ex-military personnel for humanitarian and conservation work is also controversial, according to Rosaleen Duffy, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Sheffield. “They can arrive in complex situations with little understanding of the local context. They bring with them modes of thinking and acting, such as seeing certain groups of people as ‘the enemy’ to battle against.”
Through a spokesperson, GSD declined to comment on the record for this story, and attempts to reach Brin personally were unsuccessful.
GSD has recently raised its profile—slightly. The force now has a website, and Dawson’s team got its first press mention in the New York Times in an article about Hurricane Dorian, where GSD was credited only as “an American non-government group.” Sergey Brin has generally been very low profile in his philanthropy, focusing on basic science and economic mobility, although he has publicly funded research into Parkinson’s disease.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, GSD says it helped set up the first two drive-through test centers in California, and subsequently carried out thousands of tests, including at elder care facilities. It says that it also offered mental health counseling to first responders, and provided food, cleaning supplies, and PPE across eight U.S. states.
The GSD’s team’s headquarters, which The Daily Beast identified through charity filings, is the very last property on a breakwater at a ritzy marina on the San Francisco Bay, surrounded by million-dollar yachts. On a visit in February, a small sign on a security fence carried the initials GSD. Visible inside the compound were stacked shipping containers, off-road vehicles, and a large hangar containing jet-skis and flags showing some of the countries GSD has deployed in.
It is no accident that GSD focuses on dramatic interventions such as parachuting into unknown dangers, and operating in the shadow of smoking volcanoes. “[We have to bring] things that spark [Brin’s] interests,” said Dawson. “We need to find those things that really are exciting for [him]. And that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily doable. Trying to find projects that [he] gets excited about and wants to push forward is something we’re really keen to do. It needs to be things that inspire [him].”
For example, Brin has long been fascinated by the idea of kickstarting a new era of airships. In 2014, he hired an aerospace expert from NASA to build a luxury airship over twice the size of any today—the airborne equivalent of his Dragonfly super-yacht. That effort is managed by a company called LTA Research and Exploration, based in Silicon Valley, where LTA rents the world’s second-largest airship hangar at NASA’s Moffett airfield. A sister company, LTA Galactic, carries out research and development in Akron, Ohio, near the largest active airship hangar in the world. According to emails obtained via public records request, LTA has been interested in leasing this hangar since at least 2018.
A recent job listing at LTA says that it is now developing airships that can improve humanitarian aid delivery in areas struck by natural disasters. Last year, LTA registered an airship called Pathfinder 1, powered by 12 electric motors and able to carry 14 people. LTA’s airships may use hydrogen gas, not for buoyant lift as in the ill-fated Hindenburg, but as fuel to avoid carrying heavy batteries.
Since the onset of COVID-19, LTA says it has also produced over 250,000 face shield kits for medical workers in Ohio and California. LTA declined to comment on the record for this story.
Brin is far from the only billionaire whose technological and philanthropic ambitions intersect. The Gates Foundation draws deeply on Bill Gates’s enthusiasm for technological solutions to the world’s biggest problems. Elon Musk was convinced that advanced manufacturing techniques his engineers had developed for SpaceX rockets would enable a custom-made submersible to rescue Thai soccer players stranded in a flooded cave in 2018. And Page has been quietly funding vaccinations for schoolchildren against the flu, and is also developing a universal flu vaccine.
However, Brin’s disaster response charity is perhaps the most hands-on, high-tech philanthropic venture since Richard Branson used his own airship to hunt for unexploded mines in Kosovo in 2001. It is also one of the most mysterious.
“The basic idea of disaster relief is certainly a worthy one,” said Rob Reich, co-director of Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. “But it’s not as if this space is lacking responsive entities. There should be an expectation of transparency, to understand how his charity interacts with existing efforts at disaster relief, and so we citizens can examine whether it’s consistent with what democratic institutions want to accomplish.”
In his speech last year, Dawson said GSD had also worked with Care International and the U.K.’s Department for International Development: “What almost every group is lacking is people that can survive in truly austere environments. That’s something we can bring, do their life support for them, and get those people to where they need to be.”
Should governments come to rely more deeply on groups like GSD, the effectiveness of large relief efforts may prove just another aspect of modern life dictated by a secretive Silicon Valley billionaire.