Reimagining Reef Restoration with Coral Vita
Merlin Chacko
SME Stories

Reimagining Reef Restoration with Coral Vita

Reef degradation is an urgent crisis. Merging innovative technology with their deep love for the ocean, Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern are on a mission to restore the world's coral reefs with their incredible startup - Coral Vita.

We are all drawn to the allure of ocean or seaside adventures. There is a palpable excitement in underwater exploration and witnessing the beauty of coral reefs with our own eyes. It is an entire ecosystem that feels simultaneously connected yet detached from the mainstream world. The stark reality is that these “underwater rainforests” are declining at an alarming rate, bringing with it a devastating loss to marine biodiversity, creating a domino effect that might be truly irreversible. 

Recognising the urgency, many organisations around the world are in a bid to restore and preserve these reefs. Today’s spotlight is on Coral Vita, a startup on a noble and hopeful mission to deploy the use of innovative technology for restoring the declining coral reefs to their glory. In an exclusive conversation with Sam Teicher, co-founder of Coral Vita, we discuss the inception of this startup, their remarkable symbiotic relationships across all societal levels - from local communities to government organisations - address funding journey, and explore their vision for the future - both for Coral Vita and the world’s coral reefs.

Humble beginnings with a shared passion

“I remember the first time I saw a coral reef. I was six years old and that stayed with me my entire life”, recalls Sam. 

Coral Vita was founded by Sam Teicher and his high school friend, Gator Halpern, during their time at Yale School of the Environment. They had a shared passion and love for the ocean, which translated into a decision to tackle the urgent issue of coral degradation and loss around the world. 

Armed with a $1000 grant from their alma mater, the duo set out on a mission with their revolutionary sustainability startup. This was more than just a conservation project for them; it was conceived as a business with a resilient model capable of scaling and funding for impactful restoration. Sam shares, “We recognised how valuable they are. They sustain the livelihoods of upto a billion people and 25% of marine life while generating $2.7 trillion every year through tourism, coast protection, and fisheries.”

Innovation and impact

The innovative methods used by Coral Vita distinguish it from traditional restoration approaches. Teicher explains, “We use land-based coral farms, aquaculture facilities, where we have high degrees of control over the waters that the corals are growing in''. This approach allows them to incorporate cutting-edge technologies and open-source scientific methods in their restoration practices. Techniques like microfragmentation and assisted evolution are used to accelerate coral growth rates up to 50 times faster than natural processes, unlocking critical species diversity. 

Their first coral farm was launched in Freeport, Grand Bahamas, in 2018. The initial journey was fraught with challenges, starting from the devastating Hurricane Dorian and followed by the global pandemic. Yet, they left a positive impact through their work. “One restoration site in Grand Bahamas had nearly twice as many fish compared to pre-restoration surveys, about a year after our work. Coral survival rates in one reef was 75% and in another it was over 95%. This was really encouraging to see when compared to their regular rates of survival in the Caribbean, which is only about 30-50% maximum.”, exclaims Sam. 

Their success was more impactful because of their social involvement with the local community around them. He elaborates on this - “We have also had a good social impact as well: educating thousands of Bahamian students and community members along with tourists at our coral farms, building local capacity, providing land in our farms to local NGOs like Waterkeepers Bahamas, to establish a mangrove nursery to restore forest damage by Hurricane Dorian. They have planted almost 30 thousand mangroves in the past year and a half”.

Traditional vs land-based coral farming

No effort towards restoration ever goes to waste. Restoration practitioners around the world are making a substantial difference towards ensuring that our coral population is not lost. “I personally helped establish such a nursery while I was living in Mauritius for an NGO called ELI Africa, where we partnered with the Mauritius Oceanography Institute (MOI) and we got a grant from the UN to establish that project.”

However, there are a few drawbacks to these methods, especially when the world is running a race against time to save the environment. “An underwater garden has a number of key limitations. It has to be set up and maintained near every reef that has to be restored. When thinking on a global scale of reef degradation, that is unfortunately not practical to meaningfully combat this urgent threat. You're typically limited to only growing fast-growing species which limits the amount of ecological impact you can have. This will be subject to the whims of the ocean, for example if there's a spike in temperatures, if fishermen drop their anchors, if there's a storm, the whole project could be at risk. And they are typically reliant on one-off grants or donations. They don't have a sustainable financial model to achieve a larger scaling impact.”

On the other hand, land-based coral farms can counteract these drawbacks with the incorporation of high-tech methods. They can supply an entire region or nation’s reef supply from a centralised facility. Complete control can be exercised over factors like temperature and light, which helps promote growth rates by mimicking future ocean conditions. It is also easy to incorporate innovative scientific methods like microfragmentation to facilitate restoration processes. From a social lens, these farms can also serve as training centres for local communities and act as a tourist attraction to generate more revenue. 

Breaking into the Middle East

Coral Vita has begun to expand their operations to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. There could already be commercial land-based farms in both these countries, but it could be for science or supplying aquariums. Commercial land-based farms for reef restoration is a unique approach that their startup is bringing to the region. 

Sam states, “We are bringing that new approach to the Middle East, partnering with Dubai Ports World and having launched a pilot coral farm in Dubai at COP28. We recently signed a contract with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to help grow corals at their forthcoming coral farms in NEOM in Saudi Arabia. Our approach is to collaborate and work with existing coral scientists, restoration practitioners, the government, local community members, the private sector - all working hand in hand.”

In fact, community engagement is integral to their success. In his own words, "The projects will have the best chance of success when the communities we rely on the most benefit from our work and are involved."

Funding, collaborations & the reliable model of success

Funding, a critical aspect for any startup, has been a rollercoaster journey for Coral Vita. Teicher reflected on the challenges and successes of securing financial support - “We started off with a $1000 grant from Yale University in 2014 and now we've raised three investment rounds for nearly $5 million while winning another nearly $4 million through prizes, grants, and fellowships. And now looking ahead to 2024, we are planning to raise a Series A round. It's been difficult. It's been inspiring. It's been creative. And it's essential. It's our view that we need to inject massive amounts of capital that typically don't go towards nature and to protect the ecosystems that nurture us all.”

Close collaboration with governments and hospitality sectors has helped actualise their vision of global expansion. In the Bahamas, they are working with the government of the Bahamas, the Grand Bahamas Port Authority as well as with the Global Fund for Coral Reefs. In terms of the Middle East, Sam informs, “We are looking at countries like the UAE, where we have got approvals through our partnership with the Dubai Ports World, alongside Dubai Municipality to start this project.”

“In other countries that we are working in, we always have to work with the government from a regular tourist standpoint, getting the permits we need, potential for partnerships, getting these opportunities that benefit the reefs and so on. It's good for the private sector, it's good for fishing communities, and it's good for governments. There is also a potential like in the Bahamas, where the government is a customer, hiring us to restore reefs. We look forward to using more events like COP28 to continue building our network as we have been doing with island nation leaders, coastal nation leaders, financiers, industry titans who appreciate how critical coral restoration is for biodiversity and for community. They are willing to step up and lead by funding scaling and impact.”

The future relies on protection & restoration

Sam believes that the future of coral reefs is equally reliant on protecting them and restoring them. “Just like we can plant trees for reforestation, we can plant corals - and we need to. But this should not be an excuse to keep destroying the ecosystems that sustain us all. We should protect forests and do reforestation. We should protect coral reefs and do reef restoration.”

The vision is expansive, with plans to establish large-scale land-based coral farms in every nation with reefs worldwide. In a statement that encapsulates it beautifully, he concludes, “Ultimately, we hope to be put out of business when there are no longer coral reefs that need to be restored. Unfortunately we are not headed in that direction considering we have lost half of the world's coral reefs since the 1970s and we are on track to lose 90% by 2050. So we believe that there needs to be a thriving restoration economy that can fund ecosystems, scale impact, where investment dollars go into nature, into frontline communities, into innovative solutions, that again will hugely benefit biodiversity, and the planet, and good economic growth. Our mission is to ensure that coral reefs in other ecosystems survive and thrive with future generations working alongside other restoration practitioners, private sectors and governments to sustain the ecosystem that takes care of us all.”