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How startup Coral Vita is making a business case for restoring reefs

Its business model includes a role for local farmers, ecotourist operators and developers.

The mission of Project Drawdown is to encourage innovations and solutions that can help the world draw down atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases — either by avoiding emissions or sequestering carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The coalition includes researchers, scientists, graduate students, business leaders and others dedicated to this cause. What might these solutions look like?

GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing a series of Q&As with entrepreneurial Yale alumni and students working on startups and technologies inspired by the Project Drawdown agenda. Here is one of those stories, edited for length and clarity. 

Coral Vita is a reef restoration company leveraging cutting-edge science and business model innovation to protect and restore vulnerable coral reefs that are facing unprecedented damage from climate change.

In the past 50 years, mass bleaching of coral reefs has escalated in both frequency and severity, going from being a freak event to becoming the "new normal." As ocean temperatures rise, coral reefs undergo a stress response and repel the microalgae, zooxanthellae, that provide them with energy and their color via photosynthesis. They are further weakened by ocean acidification and local pollution.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre predicted that in a "business-as-usual" emissions scenario, all 29 coral reefs containing World Heritage sites will stop functioning by the end of this century — constituting an estimated $1 trillion cultural, ecological and economic loss.

Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern met at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and founded Coral Vita to address this massive crisis.

Mikaela Bradbury: Tell me about where this project started and how you came together as a team.

Sam Teicher: We were both were interested in business solutions for environmental challenges. I was a more of a policy and NGO guy, and Gator had more of an academic background, plus some international development work in Peru, Brazil and South Africa. We immediately started thinking, "What are some big environmental problems that quickly need to get solved that the policy, nonprofit and academic communities aren’t yet able to implement the right solutions for?"

Coming to the Forestry School, Gator and I both had a passion for the ocean: I've been scuba diving since I was 13, and Gator grew up in San Diego by the ocean. We started talking about my experience working on a U.N.-funded coral farming project at the Mauritian non-profit ELI Africa and thought that starting a company was a possible avenue to help scale up coral reef restoration to protect reef health.

We got into the Yale Entrepreneurship Institute's Venture Creation Program and got a $1,000 grant to go down to the Florida Keys, where a scientist, David Vaughan of the Mote Marine Lab, had this breakthrough to grow corals 50 times faster. We approached him about commercializing his techniques through the model we were developing in a School of Management class, and he agreed and came on board as an adviser. Eventually, we brought in another world-class scientist as an adviser, Ruth Gates of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. She is also the president of the International Society of Reef Studies and is at the forefront of a new technique dubbed "assisted evolution," looking how to advance coral resiliency to better survive changing oceans.

We are basically taking the science of Dr. Vaughan and Dr. Gates to grow corals faster and stronger and putting a business model on top of it to create a sustainable means to finance large-scale restoration. Right now, we are getting ready to launch our first coral farm down in the Bahamas in the next few months. We are also excited to have brought on a new chief science officer, Steven Ranson, who previously built and ran the state of Hawaii's coral restoration facility.

Bradbury: I would imagine that coral reef restoration is quite capital- and infrastructure intensive, with largely a shared, public benefit. Why do you think sectors, such as the non-profit or public sector that you would think are appropriate for this type of problem, aren’t working and how do you see entrepreneurship bringing advantages?

Halpern: Over one-third of coral reefs in the world have already died and, by 2050, 75 percent of our world's coral reefs are predicted to die. Ecological wonder aside, reefs are incredibly valuable, generating $30 billion annually through tourism, fisheries and coastal protection while sustaining 25 percent of marine life and 1 billion people. In order to address something that large, we need to develop an industry that is directed at solutions to preserve coral reef health and to restore these extremely valuable ecosystems.

NGOs have done a great job of laying the framework for a reef restoration movement and developing some of the techniques necessary to do this type of work, but they haven’t been able to scale up to make a significant impact when you're thinking about global reef degradation. And a lot of that is because they simply don’t have the funding to do so. We are trying to create a for-profit model where we can offer the service of reef restoration to many stakeholders around the world that benefit from having a healthy reef — like the tourism and fishing industries — and hopefully prove that there is a market for this type of work and inspire others to scale up reef restoration efforts because no one actor can solve this issue alone.

Bradbury: Can you talk about how you identified the stakeholders you’re interested in working with?

Halpern: It has definitely evolved over time. We brainstormed which stakeholders have a role in the movement of restoration or conservation of marine ecosystems, and coral reefs in particular, which ranges from the non-profits and marine institutes that develop the techniques that we use, to tourism operators and hotels that benefit from having a healthy reef, to cruise lines that have their entire industry based on the waters usually in tropical coral reef areas. Governments have a stake in it, in terms of economic prosperity and food security, with a lot of fisheries depending on coral reefs.

Once we started delving into this, the stakeholders became a little more nuanced. One that we didn't initially have but which we have gotten a lot of traction with is development corporations. Some own tens of thousands of acres of undeveloped land in tropical islands and are interested in working with us to create coral farms as part of doing their development in a more eco-friendly, sustainable manner. Reef restoration can serve as a PR and marketing tool, a guest attraction, a natural seawall for coastal property and boost real estate value. Another set of stakeholders is mitigation banks, which are something that is well established for wetlands in America, and the reinsurance industry, given how vital coral reefs are for sheltering against storm surges.

We are starting in the ecotourism space because we think it's the easiest entry to market. This farm we are building in the Bahamas will not only be there to do restoration — the farm will be an ecotourism center where guests can have an educational experience about coral reefs, the state of reef decline and our project. They can even support our project by donating to an "adopt a coral" campaign that we will be running, and eventually enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving on the reefs that we restore with the unique experience of planting coral themselves.

Bradbury: Can you talk about your methodology? With the project in the Bahamas, are you using corals that you cultivated in land-based farms and then transplanting?

Halpern: A lot of the infrastructural base will be land-based farming systems. Imagine sort of a fish farm aquaculture set-up with tanks pumping seawater through to the corals. When the farms are operational, we will collect corals from local reefs, so that we always use native corals.

The two main ways we go about collecting corals are, one, we prioritize "corals of opportunity" — corals that are living but broken and lying on the sea floor from a ship grounding or a big storm. So, we can take those corals and bring them to our farm. The other thing that we can do is take cuttings from living colonies, much like you can take a cutting from flower or tree. Once they are in our facility, depending on the species, we will be using these methods to grow the corals up to 50 times faster and also strengthen their resiliency to climate change. The cycle can typically be six to 12 months before they are ready to be taken out into our designated restoration sites.

NGOs have done a great job of laying the framework for reef restoration and developing some of the techniques, but they haven't been able to scale up to make a significant impact.

Bradbury: Are the land requirements for your farms a challenge?

Teicher: Part of the selling point has been highlighting the economic value of coral to people that have skin in the game. So, if you're a developer and have free or discounted land for our farms, you are going to benefit from our work. You have the ability to restore these ecosystems that help draw tourists and help feed local communities. The same thing goes if there is government land available or a hotel that has space on their plot. We have actually talked long-term with governments if there can be things like rebates but, for now, we are leveraging the socioeconomic value of reefs to incentive people to help us acquire these lands, because ultimately, it's a win-win for everyone.

Bradbury: Are you able to think about climate mitigation, as well as adaptation, both in terms of your own carbon footprint as a company and in conversations with your clients?

Halpern: We will be the first to say that the best thing you can do for reefs is to stop killing them. And there is also the point where not every reef can be restored and brought back to life. Before we start any project, we look at the baseline conditions of the coral reef that we would potentially be restoring, so that stressors like local pollution and overfishing can be actively managed to improve the likelihood of success. We look into areas where actors are doing things like setting up a reef protected areas and fisheries management, so we can work to restore reefs in places that are likely to survive and thrive in the future. As a company ourselves, we are hoping to outfit our farms with solar panels to mitigate our own carbon footprint, and definitely are talking to potential clients to set up best management practices for marine conservation and reef health. 

Teicher: A final piece is integrating the local communities into our projects as much as possible because ultimately, they are the ones that benefit and suffer the most from reef health. So, we would like to create job opportunities, potentially have the farm managers be trained reef scientists from the country, and work with local fisherman. We would like to use our farms as education centers for school children and university students to promote that long-term stewardship, which in turn can reduce local stressors. As Gator said, the best thing we can do for coral reefs is to stop killing them. But we're at the point where adaptation solutions must be implemented right now even as our leaders continue to enact meaningful mitigation measures.

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