Alumni startup counters coral loss with world’s first commercial land-based coral farm
The vision that two alumni shared as graduate students for a startup to meaningfully address declining global coral reef health is taking shape on the island of Grand Bahama. The cofounders of Coral Vita, Sam Teicher ’12 B.A., ’15 M.E.M, and Gator Halpern ’15 M.E.M., are opening the world’s first commercial land-based coral farm in the Bahamas. There, they will grow coral up to 50 times faster than in nature by utilizing research from leading coral scientists working with their mission-driven for-profit. Through what is known as “assisted evolution,” they will also enhance the resiliency of corals to help them adapt more quickly to warming and acidifying oceans that threaten coral health.
To launch their pilot farm, Coral Vita has partnered with the Grand Bahama Development Corporation and Grand Bahama Port Authority. They also are receiving significant support from local tourism operators, real estate developers, and the Bahamas’ government, which is eager to find solutions to the widespread loss of the island’s reefs. More than 80% of local reefs have died. These thriving underwater worlds rich in biodiversity are vital to the country’s economy and ecosystem, powering eco-tourism, sustaining critical fisheries, and sheltering coastlines from storm surge. If they are successful in the Bahamas, the cofounders hope to replicate these farms in other coral hotspots around the world.
The timing could not be more urgent. Half of the world’s coral reefs have already been lost to pollution, overfishing, and a phenomenon driven by global warming known as coral bleaching. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points to an even more dire future should warming trends continue. The IPCC found that if global warming rises 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, coral reefs will likely decline up to 90% by 2050; if by 2C, 99% of the world’s corals will likely be lost.
“A lot of people are looking for hope right now,” says Teicher. “Restoration is not a silver bullet, but until our leaders step up now to stop killing reefs and the ecosystems that sustain us all, it’s a necessary strategy to help keep them alive.” Teicher compares Coral Vita’s methods for growing corals to growing new plants from cuttings. They take fragments of living corals to tanks pumped full of seawater which they modify to reflect future water acidity and warmth, building the corals’ resiliency. Using a method called micro-fragmentation — splitting corals into tiny pieces that soon fuse back together — they are able to massively accelerate the growing process — with corals ready to be replanted in as little as six to 12 months, versus 30-50 years in the wild. Once the corals are replanted using an epoxy glue and underwater drills, Teicher says the impact is almost instantaneous. “You immediately see more fish and marine life,” he says. “Plant it, and they will come.”
Traditionally, coral restoration has been small-scale and mostly grant- and donation-funded. Recognizing the immense value generated by coral reefs and the potential loss of that value due to global degradation, Coral Vita is rolling out a business model to support necessary large-scale restoration. “Reefs exist in nearly 100 countries and territories, conservatively generating $30 billion annually through tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection while sustaining the livelihoods of up to one billion people and 25% of global marine life,” says Teicher. “We plan to sell restoration services to resorts, developers, governments, coastal insurers, and everyone else who depends on these benefits. Simultaneously, our farms function as eco-tourism attractions, where people can experience coral farming, adopt corals for restoration, and even plant corals with our teams.”
Their pilot farm in the Grand Bahamas, doubling as an educational center, will grow approximately 10,000 corals per year. Once they prove their model works, the cofounders plan to launch farms globally that can grow up to a few million corals at each site. “In addition to our commercial model and cutting-edge environmental science, we take a community-based approach,” Teicher says. “Local communities depend on reefs the most, so involving them is critical. We’ll provide education for both students and fishermen, along with job training and capacity building to promote long-term environmental stewardship.”
Inspired at Yale
Teicher spent a gap year after Yale College on the small island of Mauritius off the coast of Africa through Experiential Learning Initiative (ELI) Africa, an educational and environmental organization founded by Yale football player Vedant Seeam ’11. There, he helped launch a reef restoration project in partnership with the Mauritius Oceanography Institute with funding from the United Nations. It was the first time Teicher participated in coral farming — and saw the remarkable impact. “Reefs were dead, and after restoration, fishermen were setting up their traps near once-barren lagoons again,” Teicher says. “I saw that we could bring the reefs back to life.”
When he returned to Yale to attend the School of the Environment, he teamed up with Halpern, who had worked on fish-farming and environmental restoration in the Peruvian Amazon while he was an undergraduate at Pomona College. The two launched Coral Vita with support from Yale School of Management’s Studies in Grand Strategy program, and the student entrepreneurship incubator now known as the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale. Starting out with nothing more than a bold idea and a $1,000 student grant, they’ve since raised $1.6M in seed funding from Silicon Valley angels, environmental pioneers, and passionate ocean advocates like professional baseball player and Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. They’ve also won numerous prizes for their environmental leadership and innovation, including the J.M. Kaplan Fund 2017 Innovation Prize; Echoing Green Climate Fellowships; the Halcyon Incubator; and a $100,000 prize from the Ocean Exchange. The cofounders were also recognized in the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 for social entrepreneurship and helped launch an XPRIZE to save coral reefs. Halpern was selected last year as one of seven UN Young Champions of the Earth, and Teicher was acknowledged as one of 22 Climate Trailblazers at the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit.
They are currently living in Grand Bahama with their Chief Science Officer Stephen Ranson, hiring additional staff, and looking to open their farm this coming spring. Teicher says big changes in policy, industry practices, media coverage, and human behavior are still needed to stem the future loss of coral reefs, but he has confidence that their restoration efforts can help keep corals from disappearing until more far-reaching global solutions are enacted. In addition to the critical importance they have for humanity and biodiversity, corals and their future health is of personal importance to him. “I’ve been a scuba diver since I was 13,” Teicher says. “And I was lucky enough to dive in many different regions. It’s very apparent what’s happening: places that were once colorful, diverse, marine wonderlands have been reduced to rubble fields. There’s years of hard work left to do, but I’m determined and hopeful to see a world with healthy coral reefs for future generations. And I am excited for folks to come down and plant corals with us someday soon.”