eco eco interview with Coral Vita co-founder Sam Teicher
Key words: Oceans, reef restoration, assisted evolution, entrepreneurship.
Philip: Today with us is Sam Teicher, cofounder of coral vita, tuning in from the Bahamas ,
Sam: That's correct
Philip: How has your day been Sam?
Sam: Well it's in the Bahamas so I can’t complain too much, bit of a rainy one but had a good day down at the coral farm.
Philip: Before we get started you said you’re in the Bahamas, how does your typical day look like?
Sam: It really depends on the day. For those of you who don’t know I started a company called Coral Vita, with my friend Gator, and we grow corals to restore dying reefs, so there are a lot of different things that go into that, creating a business, helping to scale up coral reef restoration, not just here in the Bahamas but all around the world. While also turning our coral farms into education centers and tourism attractions, and I’ll be happy to tell you that later but just as a way of contextualizing a day at the office could consist of. Scrubbing algae, cleaning tanks like what was happening earlier this morning, to doing a bit of landscaping, taking tourists around our coral farm, giving them a chance to see how and why we grow corals. Tomorrow we’ve got a group of about 60 students coming through, sometimes I’m travelling with Gator to different conferences or raising money from investors, it really can vary a lot, and it's exciting.
Philip: Nice, it must be quite different. I’m tuning in from Zurich, my business partner and friend Jacob is just touching down in Zurich, but is based in Copenhagen. Compared to most people you are living such a different life. Moving on, you mentioned a bit about your company Coral vita, the reason were talking, from our research what makes it special is this “ micro-fragmenting”, the ability to accelerate coral growth of up to 50 times the natural growth rate. Could you expand on this?
Sam: We teamed up with some of the world's leading scientists to grow coral up to 50 times faster, which translated into months instead of decades, while also working with those who are at the forefront of assisted evolution techniques to strengthen coral resilience to climate change. So what were doing is growing more diverse and resilient coral. A lot of coral farming projects around the world, there's been an amazing group of individuals organizations, showing how we can bring reefs back to life for the past 20 years or so. But often these projects are small-scale and they can only grow limited of species of coral that naturally grow really fast. There are some coral the sizes of your thumb that grow to the size of your hand and wrist in 6-9 months. There are many species that are bouldering and massive that are really important for reefs health that naturally go from the size of a bottle cap to a dinner plate, and that could take 25 to 50 years.
So now with micro-fragmenting, so what you can imagine is coral gets cut up into little pieces, and they have a natural healing process and so they’ll fuse back into themselves, so you can cut them up, fuse them up together, cut them up, fuse them up together… now we can grow the coral in 6-12 months as opposed to several decades. Also the growing conditions in our tanks, which we have in our farms on land, allow us to acclimate corals to different temperatures, in a sense training the corals, like taking them to the gym, so when we out-plant them they can survive changing ocean conditions.
Philip: that's amazing, how is it with this methodology, is this something that has existed since a long time or how was this discovered?
Sam: The micro-fragmenting with the coral was discovered by our advisors Dr.David Vaughan, he sort of took these methods that had already existed and realized they could be applied to reef restoration. The assisted evolution was pioneered by Dr. Ruth Gates, one of the leading scientists who tragically passed away from cancer last year. But she really helped stimulate the field, in ways of figuring out a way to strengthen coral resiliency to climate change threats. Her research continues by other people around the world, many of whom we collaborate with.
Through micro-fragmenting, diverse coral species (including slow-growing ones seen here) can be raised in months rather than decades. Photo credit: WeWork
Philip: Amazing, that kind of leads on to another question I had, thinking of the oceans, they are so large and so vast, I did some reading, there are some frightening predictions you have on your website. If I recall correctly, 90% of all coral reefs will die by 2050 if nothing changes. It seems the method you just described presents a good solution, but is that really scalable? If we were to give you, or international institutions or governments were to give you 100 million dollars, could you scale this, or is it too early for something like this.
Sam: I was gonna say, you can give me 100 million dollars, that sounded pretty good.
Philip: Well maybe one day eco eco will be able to facilitate that.
Sam: Our whole intention is to scale reef restoration, the best things to do for coral reefs is hands down, to stop killing them. That's pretty obvious but unfortunately our leaders in all locks of life, in politics, in media have really failed us in terms of ensuring that the ecosystems that not only are incredible but that humanity depend upon, don’t get trashed. So we need solutions for ending pollution, and bad fishing practices, as well as addressing climate change, but we're at the point where we need adaptive solutions at the same time, and that's exactly what coral reef restoration is.
The whole reason why we started coral vita as a business as opposed to a traditional non-profits, is because we felt that there needed to be a new model to do larger scale restoration projects. So as an example, a lot of the coral farming projects that exist are funded by a grant or donation, and prior to grad school which is where I founded coral vita with my friend Gator I had helped launch a United Nations funded coral farming project for my friend's NGO in Mauritius, and saw how a reef can come back to life, saw how fishermen were setting up their traps 100 yards from the restoration sites because there was so much more fish, and they had abandoned that lagoon a decade before because the coral had died. But what was also clear is that not only could you not grow more diverse resilient corals with this method because these farms are out in the ocean they are in the water, there are limitations in terms of all of the science you can do.
One grant from the UN let us grow 5000 corals at one time, and a country like Mauritius needs something like 5 million corals every year. So I was thinking about how science works and the ability to do this has been shown to be beneficial, but we need to figure out how to take it to the next level.
In addition to it being incredible, i've been a scuba diver since I was a kid, and I love the oceans and coral reefs and that's enough for me, but that environmental argument does not work for a lot of people. Reefs are really valuable, and up to 1 billion people and 20% of all ocean life are reliant on coral reefs. We conservatively generate 30 billion dollars per year from tourism, fisheries and coastal protection. Our thought, well, over 90% of all reefs are project to die by 2050, this is pretty much 30 years away at this point, we’ve already lost half of the world's reefs. So all of these stakeholders that depend on these stand to lose out tremendously if reefs die and there are no solutions.
So what if we create a business where we sell restoration to hotels, governments, coastal property owners, insurers, international developmental agencies, they can hire us to restore the reefs they depend on, so then we can unlock a sustainable source of financing to do large scale projects, to address that scaling issue that you were talking about, and then together with the land based system not only does it let us do this assisted evolution and micro-fragmenting techniques, but if we have enough land we can continuously add, tanks to grow the coral in, we could potentially supply an entire country's reefs from a single site.
Philip: That's super interesting, sorry to interrupt you. I think one point that is very interesting is the structure of the company. There are a lot of examples that NGOs or governmental efforts, or countries sending money to different projects, there are a lot of restrictions and inefficiencies and I feel that one thing you guys are doing quite well is really being more efficient and coming up with creative ways of connecting different stakeholders. I think a lot of people frown upon not forming a nonprofit, but I think in certain regards it can be more effective and I think that's important to analyse.
Sam: Well listen, if you would have asked me five years ago, are you going to start a business are you gonna be a coral farmer, I would have given you a pretty funny look, probably as that's not what I saw ahead of myself. I came from the policy space and working for NGOs. And listen, there are amazing nonprofits and organizations that are doing great work and continuing to do great work including those who work in coral restoration - we just felt that on their own it wasn't enough. So we had to do something bigger and better, and you know in our world money talks, we thought the best way to mobilise capital and resources to unlock the large scale of restoration projects that are really needed to keep reefs alive required a for profit approach. A mission driven for profit, but still one that took a different line than some of these mission-driven initiatives often do.
Philip: I just want to throw in a little example, I was discussing with a friend the other day, it seems that in a way you're the most altruistic if you commit your whole life to charitable things, helping the environment, conservation. But, then on the other hand, you take someone like Bill Gates, he focuses on tech and kills it in his career, ending up with an insane amount of money, and hopefully what he’s been saying comes true until the end, and that he does good with his money and his connections. It's interesting how this can pan out, it's hard to tell which approach will give the most benefit to the Earth.
Sam: It’s a great way of thinking about it, granted it's worth calling out the fact that a lot of the impact that Bill Gates is able to make is by channeling his money often to other NGOs, and scientists, and often to mission-driven organisations, and it's not that we need to completely transform things. It's just about how we evaluate achieving the impact we all want, what are the vehicles to get us there, that's what should be considered, and often times that comes from good science, and often that comes from a nonprofit, and sometimes it has to come through a business so that's really what drove us as a mission driven for profit, considering how we can make the difference we want to make in the best way possible for the reefs and for the communities that depend on them.
Philip: A lot of people that will be listening to the blog and tuning in hopefully also have ambitions to do similar work like you have been doing, but from our own experience it seems rather tricky to make a living, earn money while doing conservation work, while doing charitable things, so how was it for you and Gator, do you have any other tips for other people of how you started or other good things for people to keep in mind.
Sam: In no particular order, as far as for a person, to get people excited about what we are doing, that ultimately people really want to invest in you, there's an expression, you bet on the jockey not on the horse. Again, as a business we raised an investment to do our work, and often times people were fascinated by Coral Vita, but there was also a belief in myself and Gator that we were thinking of things in the right way, we have the skills and passions to achieve this goal. So really telling the story of who you are and why you care about whatever you're interested in and how you're gonna address it, really can go a long way. I'm coming from the environmental background and I think in general environmentalists have dropped the ball in the past several decades in using more than just facts, to get people passionate and committed to taking care of these issues.
When I worked for that NGO in Mauritius I had a stipend to live on. I barely had enough money to do much beyond buy groceries and grab a beer every now and then. So whenever I get the chance I think that this is not so much for the individuals that are trying to raise funds but for the people who have the money, especially in the non profit, philanthropy space, I think there needs to be a rethink of how people from nonprofits are willing to spend money on overhead and salaries. I often hear: “I want my grant dollars only 10% can go to salaries” as an example… just making that number up, but if you can't live well as you do good work then they're likely not to continue to be doing that work, and you're not going to be able to attract the best talent for issues like conservation. There needs to be greater flexibility and a change in mindset for how the nonprofit funding community allows more money to flow towards taking care of the people doing the work.
As a last piece, often times the help we've been getting hasn't come in the form of dollars or cents. But people who were really inspired by the work we're doing. Some film makers like what we do and they just wanted to produce something for us be it at a discount or sometimes for free. There are so many talented people out there in our generation that want to help out somehow. So if you're giving them an opportunity to do so, you can find a lot of talented people that can provide you with immense valuable assets in ways that a traditional business would have to pay the normal rate for.
Philip: I was on you blog the other day, I’m not certain if this was initiated by Coral Vita, or another organization in the Bahamas, a collective doing shark research and shark tagging. The organization was connecting yacht owners with research projects. Similar approach, here it's just a yacht owner lending his yacht when he does not need it.
Sam: That was different than the normal scientific expedition, so Gator and I have this friend Austin who founded this company called “Beneath the Waves” which is doing incredible research around sharks but then together with the research they are developing ways of how to tell the story of why sharks matter and what's happened to them in cool videos, media and using that to advocate on behalf and ecosystem that benefits from having healthy shark populations.
They teamed up with a team called international sea keepers, who work with yacht owners who often are not on their yachts most of the year, get them to donate them to science for 1 or 2 weeks. It's a fascinating concept, compared to the average research trip brown paper bags and sandwiches and going out on a boat for a few hours and sleeping in an airbnb or a hostel, was pretty nice being in a 142 foot yacht. There are ways for people to contribute to scientists and environmentalists with their dollars but also beyond ways of deposits in the bank account.
Philip: Should give people a lot to think about all the creative ways we can use what we have, that isn't being used efficiently. Moving on, a problem that I recall from looking into climate change and the whole environmental problem is that it's a very large issue and independent nations are not able to change much by themselves. I just thought it would be interesting to hear your take on this, and how you're planning to export your approach and company into other countries. Do you see a good future for this or has it been hard to find international cooperation?
Sam: It's a mix and match and the tides are turning, you see a lot more investment creative financing mechanism coming online, policy shifts to promote a healthier planet, not enough is being done by far, especially when it comes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and that is by far the most important, most critical, most urgent thing for governments to do. But you also see things like in the Seychelles, they had like 40 million dollars forgiven in exchange for that money being allocated to conservation and sustainable development initiatives.
In the case of Swiss Re – you know you're in Zurich – one of the biggest re-insurances in the world is piloting a scheme, where they're saying: “look, hotel owners, these coral reefs off of your property, forget about them being valuable, tourism attractions, they are the best natural sea walls you can think of. If those disintegrate, the coral reefs die, the property is going to be much more exposed. That's not only bad for you but we're going to have to have bigger payouts. So they're basically incentivising hotel owners to pay for restoring coral reefs and then they would see their insurance premiums going down.
So there are these interesting things emerging that I think could unlock a lot of resources and capital and hopefully things like quicker permitting processes and whatever it takes to implement these initiatives, I think things are starting to trend in the right direction. Especially as a lot of these family offices and high net worth individuals are sort of seeing the younger generations come into the fold, who are more impact minded than instead of looking for the traditional investments that you might see.
Philip: Coming to an end, I hope we will be able to chat again or organize an event in the near future. We saw there is a cool program on your website called "Adopt A Coral." I would be interested to hear how this works, and any donation is a good donations but, what would be a good amount and what would that translate into.
Sam: So what we're basically doing is giving people the opportunity to help restore reefs themselves, and they can either do that by coming to the Bahamas by actually planting corals or they can do it by sitting at their computer in Switzerland, Kansas, Mozambique, it doesn't matter, you can contribute to the growth and out-planting of corals to bring reefs back to life.
Any amount makes a difference, right now if you donate 100 dollars that supports the full growth and out-planting of that coral and at that amount we would send you a certificate for the coral that you helped adopt and maybe it's just something you want to do because you believe in it, or maybe it's a gift you want to give for the holidays or for a friend or family member's birthday, that's available now, and later in the fall most likely we will be starting a crowdfunding campaign centered around the adopt a coral activity, so I can share more info about that, but if people want to follow along, we will be posting on social media which is @coralvitareefs and www.coralvita.co.
Philip: We will be rallying up our community in Switzerland and Denmark and as I said it would be nice to further promote this mission driven company you have started.
Sam: I really appreciate you having me on and the listeners for their interest and look forward to continuing the conversation and hopefully getting you down to the Bahamas to plant some corals with us some day.
Philip: All the best Sam ,speak to you soon.