Coral reefs are vitally important ecosystems, sheltering coastlines from storm surges and erosion, sustaining a quarter of all marine life, and providing food and livelihoods for up to a billion people across the globe. But our world’s coral reefs are in crisis. Pollution, overfishing, ocean acidification, and warming oceans are taking a deadly toll. Scientists predict that 75% of all coral will be gone within the next 30 years, and over 30% have already died since the 1970s. Coral Vita is an innovative for-profit social enterprise with a mission to restore threatened reefs to help protect the people, aquatic life, and habitats that depend upon coral reefs for survival.
Coral Vita co-founders Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern launched the company in 2015 while receiving their master’s degrees from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. This year Teicher and Halpern were named on Forbes’ list of 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs. Their venture is working to preserve our world’s critically endangered reefs for future generations by building a global network of land-based coral farms and transplanting more resilient corals in the ocean.
Coral Vita was awarded a SOCAP Scholarship to SOCAP17, where Halpern spoke as part of the panel session The Front Line: How Millennials are Shaping Solutions to Tackle Climate Change, and SOCAP16, where Teicher was featured in the Innovation Showcase. Halpern and Teicher both were selected as Echoing Green Climate Fellows and JMK Innovation Prize winners in 2017, took part in the Halcyon Incubator, and were regional winners in the WeWork Creator Awards. And they’ve been helping elevate the cause of what’s happening to reefs, why they matter, and what must be done to protect them through invitations to present at major international conferences like The Economist World Ocean Summit and Our Ocean.
At the beginning of this year, Coral Vita announced they have formed a collaborative partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory to scale coral reef restoration efforts globally, and they also work with one of the world’s leading scientists out of the Gates Coral Lab. And this spring, their team is moving to Grand Bahama to launch the Caribbean’s first commercial land-based coral farm for restoration. We recently had a conversation with Halpern and Teicher to learn about their approach to coral restoration and their journey through the social impact space from idea stage to present day.
SOCAP: How did you first learn about the growing coral crisis and become co-founders of an organization with a mission to solve it?
Sam Teicher: Before going to graduate school I helped start a UN-funded coral farm with ELI Africa and the Mauritius Oceanography Institute. That gave me the opportunity to see a reef come back to life and work with local communities who were directly impacted, not only by reef degradation, but also the benefits of reef restoration. It was amazing to fishermen setting up traps a hundred yards away from restoration sites because there were so many more fish. Gator and I met in graduate school at Yale, where we connected about our shared love for the ocean and desire to solve pressing environmental challenges. I’d been a scuba diver since I was a kid, and Gator grew up in San Diego, California by the ocean. He had been working on a number of environmental projects over the years before grad school in Brazil and Peru and South Africa.
We developed the vision for Coral Vita together, starting with my experience in Mauritius and adding in our vision for a healthier, more equitable and sustainable future in the world. Coral Vita snowballed from an idea we had in class at Yale. It is something that aligns deeply with our personal passion and interests. It is a lot of fun to be able to create something that is not only an innovation in the space of coral reef science, but also a startup that effectively creates a market and an industry at the same time. It has been a really incredible opportunity. Obviously we owe a great deal of thanks to our families and friends and supporters along the way who have helped us make this happen, as well as the countless coral farmers around the world who help pioneer the practice.
…we also want to raise awareness about the fact that this is also a socio-economic catastrophe. You’ve got a billion people around the world that depend on healthy reefs with $30B, conservatively, generated annually through tourism, fisheries, coastal protection.
SOCAP: Coral Vita has been developing an innovative new business model that you hope will scale coral reef restoration globally. Can you tell us about how it works?
Gator Halpern: We developed our model in the context of global coral reef degradation. Over 25% of marine life depends upon coral reefs for survival. We’ve lost 30% of the world’s reefs since the 1970s and are projected to lose 75% by mid-century. That is clearly an ecological crisis. But we also want to raise awareness about the fact that this is also a socio-economic catastrophe. You’ve got a billion people around the world that depend on healthy reefs with $30B, conservatively, generated annually through tourism, fisheries, coastal protection. There are a lot of stakeholders, people, nations, and industries that depend on healthy reefs for survival.
Our aim is to build a scalable business model around coral reef restoration. Other coral farming efforts have been largely financed by grants from international development organizations, government funds, and charitable donations. Those efforts have demonstrated that the science and practice of coral restoration works. But what is also clear is that the most commonly used model won’t be able to scale to meet the scope of this global challenge.
Only a limited number of coral species can be grown through traditional coral farming methods, which involve building and maintaining underwater gardens near each degraded reef. Little can be done to enhance the resilience of corals to climate change in those traditional underwater gardens. And they are also vulnerable to risks such as storms and bleaching events.
We work with two of the world’s leading coral scientists, integrating their methods to take reef restoration to the next level. Dr. Ruth Gates, who is the President of the International Society of Reef Studies and works out of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, is at the forefront of a field dubbed assisted evolution, which is figuring out ways to strengthen coral resilience to climate change threats. For example, we can modify the temperature in our tanks to reflect predicted future ocean conditions, acclimatizing our corals, which when outplanted have already shown higher survival rates. Dr. David Vaughan of the Mote Marine Laboratory developed the microfragmenting technique we use to grow corals up to 50x faster. This translates into months instead of decades, dramatically increasing species diversity and improving cost effectiveness for large scale restoration.
What Coral Vita is doing with our land based farms is not only introducing the breakthrough science developed by our advisors to grow the corals faster and make them stronger and more resilient, but also selling the service of coral reef restoration to organizations that depend upon the continued survival and health of their reefs. Organizations such as hotels that depend on dive tourists, governments facing food security challenges, coastal property owners and the reinsurance industry that are worried about how coastlines can be exposed to storms as reefs die.
At the same time we will also turn our coral farms into ecotourism attractions that will generate revenue from guests visiting our farms and sponsoring coral planting. People on cruise ships and tourists who are visiting Grand Bahama and future farms will be able to come out our farm and learn about what is happening with coral reefs and how we are trying to restore them, eventually being able to participate in our restoration projects. The plan is to offer scuba diving, snorkeling, and hands-on opportunities for visitors to help ensure that coral reefs continue to thrive in the future. While serving as attractions, they also can function as education centers for local communities, offering students the chance to get first-hand experience with marine ecosystems and providing jobs for native marine scientists and fishermen. Community-based engagement is a critical part of our model, as it helps ensure long-term capacity building for the people who most benefit (and suffer) from the health of their coral reefs.
By creating a fun activity, our farms will attract revenue that we will be able to to reinvest into greater restoration. That is something that has never been done at-scale before. We believe this will be critical for delivering large scale restoration, where we can really restore reefs at the ecosystem level and help protect them for future generations.
What organizations in the impact ecosystem have played a helpful role in the development of Coral Vita and how?
Gator Halpern: We definitely wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are today without a number of people and organizations that have helped us. There is a strong group of social impact organizations that help entrepreneurs who are just starting out to really organize their mission and create a company that can scale. One of those that has been invaluable to us was the Halcyon Incubator in Washington D.C. It is a residency program, and the time we spent living there, working on our company, and getting to know the other social entrepreneurs really helped us focus and understand what it took to get our company to the next level. The Echoing Green Fellowship is also invaluable for us particularly in the extensive network of entrepreneurs that they have built over the past three decades. Getting to know and being able to lean upon different members of that community that have been able to make incredible impact in the world has been really useful. We were really honored to have been awarded the J.M.K. Innovation prize this past year. In addition to funding, the prize comes with some really hands on help.
Sam Teicher: Another organization that supported us is called Wild Gift, which is a fellowship specifically for environmental entrepreneurs. We definitely cannot give enough praise and thanks for the organizations and communities that have helped us along the way. I would also add that we also got tremendous help from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. I think we were one of the first social ventures they had ever taken a leap of faith with. I would definitely encourage people who are in college or graduate school to explore whatever opportunities and resources are available at your university. That was a big help to us when we were getting started.
SOCAP: Are you facing any challenges within the social enterprise ecosystem that seem to be systemic?
Gator Halpern: One thing I would say is pretty prevalent throughout the social impact space, and something that we’ve definitely experienced, is particularly relevant to companies that, like us, are mission driven for-profits working in the environmental space. We are a for-profit company. We think that by making a profit we are going to be able to achieve our mission in a better and more scalable fashion. During initial conversations when we start telling people what we do, they often assume we are a non profit. The standard thinking seems to be oh-you’re a non-profit because environmental work is done through grants and donations. For-profit mission and impact driven organizations and companies are relatively new in the business space. Assumptions like these are common hurdles we must jump over. You’ve got to keep breaking down these barriers and change mindsets so that people begin to think of environmental and social issues as something that can be solved by mission driven companies.
Sam Teicher: Early stage financing for social ventures. Getting early stage financing is obviously difficult for any startup–tech, healthcare, it doesn’t matter–early stage investment is one of the most difficult things to get. But I think social ventures face an extra barrier.
Impact investors often recognize they are going to get less financial return because of the mission, but many seem not to recognize that ways to de-risk that early stage don’t yet exist. A lot of folks need to prove out their theory, but there is always this chicken and egg problem. Many of my friends in the social venture space keep finding potential investors who love their ideas, but want to see the proof of concept. But these entrepreneurs need money to do the proof of concept.
A number of impact investors are willing to make scale investments, Series A or later, but not as many beyond the Echoing Greens and J.M.K.s and Halcyons who are willing to put in the resources to get people off the ground when it is an early stage idea. We raised a lot of our funding from people I call impact angels–people who believe in the mission, who can afford to take that risk, who aren’t traditional funders or funds. I think that is a systemic challenge and definitely something that I hope will and believe can change quickly. We need more and easier funding for early stage social entrepreneurs.
SOCAP: What tool or resource has been most valuable to the development of your venture?
Gator Halpern: I would say that the number one resource that has helped us along the way is other entrepreneurs. Reaching out and talking to friends or people we meet at conferences through these different incubators and fellowship programs. Really the most useful tool is the people who have been there and done it before, so reaching out to different friends who have started other organizations and getting to know people within the social impact scene to learn from their mistakes and their experience has been invaluable.
Sam Teicher: I’d add that the mentality of reaching out to anyone you think can be helpful is very important. It comes with the acceptance that you are not always going to get a yes, but if there is someone you want to connect with directly or if you want to connect with someone who knows someone who would be helpful, they themselves can offer great advice. Whether that is from the perspective of science, or funding, or partnerships-whatever it may be. The worst that can happen if you ask someone is that they will say no. So you might as well ask, because not asking is the same as a no. I think the drive to ask is one that most entrepreneurs already have, but I still encounter a lot of entrepreneurs who are hesitant about reaching out to people. As long as you do it respectfully, I think it is a very useful tool to employ.
SOCAP: What advice would you offer to the 2018 cohort of SOCAP entrepreneurs?
…people really care most about investing in people. Make sure that your personality, your vision, and your passion shines through
Sam Teicher: One of the things that really stands out to me is that people really care most about investing in people. Make sure that your personality, your vision, and your passion shines through whether you are applying to a program, or reaching out to investors, or trying to recruit staff, whatever it may be. The idea behind a company is a great thing, but people want to know who they are investing in just as much as what they are investing in. This is especially true for social entrepreneurs. People aren’t in it for the profit (even if it is a for-profit company).
The other major lesson that I have learned is that it is very important to be able to chart out your path to financial sustainability. Present a plan that shows how you’ll be able to make your operation self-sustaining. A model is as good as a model can be, but it still is important to be able to articulate how you plan to become financially self-sufficient through your organization in at least a medium term timeframe.
Gator Halpern: Try to speak at as many events as your schedule allows. Whether it be a keynote speech, or talking on a panel, or putting a poster up and standing by it. Whatever it may be, just getting yourself out there and talking in front of groups of people has definitely helped us get better at articulating what we do and our cause and mission, but also, you never know who is in the audience. We have connected with a number of potential partners and customers who we weren’t directly seeking us out, but getting out there and using whatever platform we can to tell our story has led us to a number of great connections.
SOCAP: What call to action would you issue to the SOCAP community?
Gator Halpern: Get outside as much as you can. Jump in the ocean and connect with nature. And please continue to follow along our story. Hopefully you’ll be able to come out and visit our farm in Grand Bahama soon and snorkel and scuba dive in our reef and help us plant coral. We are launching an Adopt-a-Coral campaign later on this year and we would love your support in helping us restore the world’s coral reefs.
Sam Teicher: To entrepreneurs I would say make sure you invest, if not a ton of money, then at least the right amount of time into telling your story. I think that is one of the most powerful tools people have, especially in social impact. And one of the ways that they can help realize their vision even better is by inspiring other people. Storytelling often doesn’t get the dedication that it should. On that note, if you’re interested in keeping up to date with us check us out on Instagram and Facebook: @CoralVitaReefs!
To others in the SOCAP Community, I would say help build the world of impact angels so that more social entrepreneurs get the early stage funding they need to go solve our world’s most pressing problems.
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