Today’s guest on #MWL is Sam Teicher. He and I discuss why coral reefs and the climate crisis matter to everyone everywhere.

We also talk about starting up a social business and integrating communities into projects to address major environmental challenges.

Where to watch live:
https://youtube.com/marcuswhitneysvideouniverse
https://facebook.com/marcuswhitney
https://linkedin.com/in/marcuswhitney
https://twitter.com/marcuswhitney

MW-Socials
Get The Full Episode Transcription

MW

what's good happy monday how's everybody

doing out there

another episode of marcus whitney live

uh we're continuing our conversation

series

around the blue economy around climate

change around innovation

around how uh brave entrepreneurs and

scientists are coming together to come

up with novel ways

uh to keep our shoreline safe to keep

our community safe to keep us

being able to enjoy the ocean and living

where we currently live and enjoy and

find so much value in

uh today my guest on that topic is sam

teicher sam

is the ceo of coral vita

uh he is talking to us today from the

bahamas so

uh there's some recent news about the

bahamas last night uh that that uh will

be interesting to talk about but

uh for now sam thanks so much for

joining the show man 

 

ST

thanks for having

me on marcus and thanks for everyone

 

MW

absolutely man thanks for being here so

let's just kind of uh you know dig

jump right in man first of all let's

give a quick background on you

and you know sort of how you came into

this work of of farming coral reefs

 

ST

so i definitely did not grow up

imagining i was going to be a coral

farmer i'm from dc originally and my

background was in

education reform and national security

so obviously i ended up going into coral

reef restoration

while i was in grad school my friend

gator and i

were thinking about a lot of the biggest

environmental problems

that we as society and and the planet

are facing

that governments and nonprofits and

academia weren't solving at the pace and

scale

needed to really make the the difference

that is is required

and i've been a scuba diver since i was

a kid oceans are my favorite places on

earth

and i had had an experience doing coral

reef restoration while living out in the

country of mauritius in the indian ocean

and saw how a reef can come back to but

also saw that the existing

model for refrustration doesn't cut it

for the scale of the problem and that

problem is

we've lost half the world's coral reefs

since the 1970s

and are currently on track to lose over

90 percent in the next 30 years

now when people think of coral reefs

 

MW

yeah yeah yeah

i was about to say let's just stop right

there um

those are big numbers so can you 

 

Can you

 just talk about the importance of the

 coral reef? I feel like, you know, we're

 all so

 separated from nature. Like we may not

 really understand like

 what a big deal that is, so let's talk

 about just coral reefs.

 

ST

So if you want to just think about it

 from a pure inspiration and majestic

 perspective, I

 am biased, but I think coral reefs are

 one of the most incredible ecosystems on

 the planet. Whether it's from Finding

 Nemo or Blue Planet, whatever,

 you are a diver, if you've ever been by

 one, you think of just the range of

 colors

 and organisms and life that exists there.

 They take up less than 1% of

 the ocean floor, but coral reefs support

 a quarter of all marine life. So

 they're pretty damn important for the

 environment. But then if we just strip

 away

 that personal connection that I, and you,

 and many people have to nature

 and think “oh what do we really care

 about it,” they're really important to

 humanity. So on the conservative

 estimates,

 they generate $30 billion a year

 through tourism,

 and fisheries, and coastal protection. A

 healthy

 reef reduces wave energy by 97%,

 so reefs save lives, they create jobs, they feed

 people.

 And they support and total of up to a

 billion people around the world.

 So as reefs die, they

 put a lot of people's lives -a lot

 of industries, a lot of nations- on the

 line. And

 in the context of COVID, even there are

 already drugs

 made for antiviral or cancer treatments

 that are derived from compounds

 found on coral reefs. So losing these

 reefs -which is happening right now

 before our eyes- it's not a prediction

 for the future. It’s

 one of the greatest challenges that’s

 facing our planet and

 our species right now.

 

MW

wow okay that that

was that was what i

that was what i wanted to get let's get

back into into your story and how you

got here but

i just wanted the context because i know

even you know the first time we talked

uh it was a question i had you know um

about the importance of coral reefs and

and once you think about it like that

it's like yeah of course

of course this is really really

important

 

ST

it's a pretty reasonable thing to think

oh it's just a pretty thing that's out

there not that it's a socioeconomic

engine that

it you know if you care about refugees

where are people going to go when they

can't feed their families or their homes

are underwater or if you want to go on a

vacation to a beautiful

sandy beach or eat that seafood dinner

on your plate even if you're in the

middle of oklahoma there's a connection

to no matter where you are on the

planet and so all that value in mind and

and the wonder too we need to protect

reefs now the best thing to do

is to stop killing them uh i hope i get

put out of my job

where by the governments and business

leaders responsible for solving climate

change and

doing what's necessary to mitigate these

step

up and actually fulfill their

responsibilities but we also live in a

time where

not only is that not happening but we

also need to rapidly upscale

adaptation solutions to climate change

and that's where we fit in with coral

vita

so what we do is we grow coral to

restore dying reefs we teamed up with

some of the world's leading scientists

uh incorporating breakthrough methods to

grow corals up to

50 times faster which is months instead

of decades

and then strengthen their resilience to

threats that are killing them like

warming and acidifying oceans

and then the other big innovation that

we're doing coral farming has been

around for about

two decades there are ngos practitioners

scientists around the world that have

been working in this space

but it's largely been small scale a

lagoon here

funded by a grant or a donation there

that's what i did while i was

just and given the scale the problem

that's not going to cut it so

we are not only using this breakthrough

science but

creating a whole new business model

looking at that value

the tourism fisheries coast protection

of reefs and basically selling the

service of restoration

to hotels insurers governments corporate

sponsors

anyone with skin in the game can hire us

to restore their reefs and then our

farms are put on land

and that lets us do a number of things

but one the farmers become tourism

attractions that generate

revenue it's a fun experience to to come

see us growing corals in action

and it's also become education centers

for local communities so that's

for coral what we're all about we

launched our first farm in grand bahama

and ultimately we want to launch farms

like this all around the world

 

MW

so uh help us to visualize

what a coral farm looks like like how do

you grow

coral 

 

ST

the simplest

analogy i can provide is if you imagine

like you take a cutting from a tree or a

flower that you can then graft and it'll

grow

so there are two ways to grow coral uh

we focus on one more than the other but

we do do both

um then that is fragmentation

and then sexual propagation so

fragmentation is like that cutting so we

go out from the reefs we take cuttings

of living coral

coral by the way are actually animals

that have plants living inside of them

that make rock for their skeletons so

they're

pretty fascinating creatures but one of

the things is just like

with the fragments you could take from

plants we take these fragments we bring

them to our farm which is on land

and we have tanks that we're pumping

clean sea water through

under a shade cloth so we're basically

creating almost like a spa-like

treatment for these corals

and then using these methods we're able

to

accelerate the growth rates so that we

basically

cut up the corals into little pieces and

that triggers a healing process almost

like scar tissue

and so sometimes one piece of coral from

the size of a coin to the size of your

hand

could take 25 50 years we can now grow

those in

six 12 months maybe 18 months um and

then we also

can control the growing conditions the

water quality and not only make it spa

treatment but also basically take them

to the gym look at what scientists say

the projections for

fusion future ocean temperatures are

crank up the temperature gradually bring

it back down

stressed also six 12 18 months and

they've been growing in our farms

we plant them in the reefs they grow on

their own and then they also have

built in a new resilience to things that

are killing them so it's basically just

like setting up a nursery but we're

doing it

 

MW

that's amazing uh that's that's that's

amazing so so where did where did this

technology uh and this process come from

that that you know you all are bringing

to the market

 

ST

so while gainer and i were in grad

school we were kind of coming up with

this idea for a business model and there

were these methods for growing corals

and

there was a story that came out in the

new york times in 2016

david vaughan he was formerly the coral

restoration

program manager at the mote marine lab

and he had this breakthrough

known as microfragmenting where he

realized using these natural healing

processes

it could be applied for coral

restoration to unlock amazing species

diversity for corals because some of

them really do take decades and decades

to grow to a mature size

and so we reached out to him uh we

actually had a thousand dollar grant

from the school at that point that was

about it so we were able to

fly down to the keys meet with him and

some other scientists and coral experts

rent a car but that was it there wasn't

really airbnb's in the keys so gator and

i were sleeping in our car

as we we made it was worse for gator

because i

might have snored a little bit uh over

the course of the trip

uh but dave dr vaughn ended up coming on

as our advisor we then

uh reached out to dr ruth gates she was

formerly the president of the

international society of reef studies

she's at the forefront

or she have pioneered the the field of

assisted evolution which is how do we

strengthen the resilience of course of

climate change

she joined us as an advisor she uh she

tragically passed away from cancer

recently but we kept on building

relationships

um with more scientists and

practitioners

and basically helping incorporate their

methods and creating our own building

partnerships because ultimately we're

all on the same team in this

to basically take this science that's

proven and then apply our

model on top of it to help scale it up

because one of the big things that's

held back coral farming thus far is

how do you fund large-scale restoration

projects the biggest project ever

you grew 40 000 corals again imagine

that almost like 40 000 saplings that

have been planted

funded by grant once then the grant

expired that was the end of the project

we need to be growing hundreds of

thousands if not millions of corals

every year at each farm

in every country with reefs and so we

then built those

scientific methods into our process with

the business model

working to unlock the funding to support

needed large-scale restoration

 

MW

wow wow that's intense so

now you're you're bringing this brand

new model

uh not just the technology but this

model that was previously done

in sort of one-off philanthropic uh you

know efforts and initiatives

into a scalable repeatable business

model what has that been like

uh you know this was something i'd asked

blaine about you know just just this

this whole idea of the blue economy

especially right now where we're dealing

with the pandemic around a virus it's

like

you know these science-based concepts

and ideas

seem to be very difficult for us to

frame well

and internalize from an economic

perspective you know what 

 

What has it

 been like for you

 trying to bring this to the market,

 educate people,

 the narrative, you know. Do the hotels get

 it right away,

 you know, or do they just take

 for granted that this thing that they

 monetize

 is always going to be there?

 

ST

It has been

 a journey.

 And you hit the nail right on the head

 with that piece -the education piece-

 for us.

 It's definitely a difficult challenge,

 but at the same time, an exciting one is

 we're not only building

 a company -which is difficult in its own

 right, any entrepreneur as you know can

 testify to that- and then an

 environmental and mission driven one.

 But also, when we're effectively building

 the market as we go, we're not

 disrupting something that exists. We're basically

 helping convince people that this is a

 huge asset that they depend on. So

 as a hotel owner, for example, if people

 are coming to snorkel and scuba dive

 and you don't have a reef, they're

 probably not going to come stay at your

 resort.

 Not to mention there's an insurance

 piece at play because if that reef is

 healthy, it's going to reduce wave energy

 so that if a hurricane comes through, you experience

 less damages from the storm. So we've had

 hotel owners who are like “I get it this,

 makes sense.

 We we need to do a project like this.”

 And we've had hotel

 managers in $1,000 Italian

 loafers and

 don't understand they have an asset in the

 ocean because they only see what's on

 land.

 So it does depend on who you're talking to,

 and it definitely

 continues to be a journey. But it does

 give us a sort of sandbox like approach

 where we can

 help create things the way we think they

 should be.

 Doesn't always happen, but you also -I

 think,

 when I say you, I should say like we- are

 all aided by the fact that right now, a

 lot of attention is being paid

 to this space. So the UN actually

 declared this is the decade of ecosystem

 restoration.

 There's a lot of major players who

 you wouldn't really

 think of as being progressive when it

 comes to climate action,

 like the insurance industry is actually

 developing a scheme where they're

 basically saying “hey coastal property

 owners, if you pay

 for reefs, your premiums may go down

 because this is going to result in

 less of a payout.” Foreign debt being forgiven

 in exchange for conservation, sustainable

 development.

 There's a lot of these things that are

 coming online as we build out the

 business, so

 there's a lot of connecting the dots and

 pieces. There's

 almost a political hat that has to be

 played, and which is

 kind of fun to to work in this space, and

 the global ecosystem. But there's been lows for sure, from

 hurricane Dorian, to the pandemic, to

 plane crashes, to business deals falling

 through.

 But it all is incredibly exciting to

 be able to help

 move this space in a way that needs to

 happen... In a way that's going to benefit

 so many people and do

 so in a collaborative fashion.

 

MW

so

you know i do uh uh

healthcare venture capital for a living

and

that means i work with incredible

entrepreneurs bringing

new technologies new methods new

protocols

uh that will lower cost improve outcomes

and one of the biggest challenges is

that

um the healthcare industry is a you know

quote unquote high reliability uh

industry which means that

it's dealing with very very sensitive uh

uh subject which is the lives of human

beings

and so embracing innovation uh

has to go through paces right uh in

order for it to

to be something that can be adopted uh

and then

adapted into the existing high

reliability systems

so you know my question to you is in

this world of

uh ecological restoration which the u.n

has now said this is the decade of it

um you know it feels like this is

really important but it's also very new

right um so it's not like it's high

reliability there's no reliability

there's no there's no infrastructure for

it

how how does a startup

how is a startup received in this space

where

you know quite frankly it's like you may

be able to prove what you're doing from

a tech perspective

um and in this case i don't mean

technology like computers i mean you're

farming technology right you know

you may be able to prove that but the

long-term efficacy will the corals

last as long you know there's all sorts

of questions right at the end of the day

how how do how do you how do you deal

with that the the unproven-ness

of being a startup and innovating you

know trying to

to to help something so incredibly

important

 

ST

i kind of feel like neo in that scene

and the

with the big shootout and you know when

he's like dodging all the bullets and

it's going in

slow motion and you're just like wow how

is he doing that pretty cool and also

terrifying at the same time um

it's a good and it's a tough question i

mean

yeah like i said we're creating a market

that doesn't exist we're working with

high

political leaders and local communities

and trying to make sure that the water

quality is good at our farm

and so i guess the

the reality is that it needs to happen

no matter what

so i guess there's that kind of like

resolve

that it's just like i don't care if you

don't believe me i'm gonna

do everything possible to convince you

and if you don't there are other people

that are going to believe this and we're

going to keep

the point you actually said about

infrastructure is effectively

we're trying to deploy and develop the

infrastructure to support large-scale

restoration around the world

in perpetuity right but it doesn't exist

yet

and people are paying for it there are

hotels that are paying for it the us

government actually has

allocated funding for coral restoration

so you're seeing the market shift

coming but it is still native and

there's a lot of hats gator and i have

to wear that

require us to sort of change who we are

on the day and how we approach know our

audience

roll with the punches and so

it's not a fully definitive answer to

your question

but um that's kind of how we deal with

it is just this

recognition that we can't live in a

world without coral reefs and we're

faced with that reality so

we've got to just make it happen 

 

MW

how how

important has and and i i hate to sort

of say this because

you know this has happened in healthcare

right it's like

we've had telehealth technology uh

adequate telehealth

technology for a decade okay um but we

did not

have the regulatory uh support

to actually uh allow it to to be

widespread

widespread adopted you know all sorts of

really kind of ridiculous

uh legislature that would limit you know

doctors being able to serve patients

across state lines and

you know just really silly things right

but there but they're laws

that are basically they're preventing

progress but saying that they're there

to keep patients safe

right at the end of the day but they're

really there to prevent progress

um and then you have something like

covert 19 happen and then

all of a sudden those laws magically

disappear because

we need the doctors to serve the

patients wherever they are

right so so my question then for your

world is

as 

 

As unfortunate and devastating as

 the increasingly intense hurricane

 seasons have been

 right, how much is that driving

 willingness for people to come to the

 table and talk to you?

 And you know, because you talked

 about the importance of the coral reef

 in terms of,

 I forget the word you used, but you said

 basically it's got an important role

 when it comes to waves, right?

 

ST

Yeah coastal protection. So I mean, I was in

 this room during hurricane Dorian last

 year. I'm on the second floor of the

 house, we’re elevated.

 It was the strongest storm in the

 Bahamas... one of the most powerful in

 Atlantic history.

 We were ready to cut a hole in this

 ceiling to go up to the roof

 if we had to. We knew people were doing

 that on other parts of the island.

 Somehow the waves didn't rise here,

 but off the south shore of Grand Bahama

 which is kind of where we're located,

 there are mangrove forests.

 And there are coral reefs, and they saved

 people's lives.

 There’s no other way of saying

 that.

 One remote island to the east end -after

 we were doing a lot of

 humanitarian stuff after

 Dorian- they got the eye of the storm.

 And

 the storm changed direction, and

 we were a bit west of them.

 Everyone there, even though there was

 total devastation, we asked how

 are you still alive? And person after

 person was like, “it's the mangroves

 surrounding our island.”

 And 20 minutes away from this place,

 Sweeting’s Cay in McLeans Town,

 a very similar situation in terms of

 how the homes were built and who was living.

 They cut down most of their mangroves,

 and the death toll there was much higher.

 And so,

 no I don't at all wish for those types

 of experiences for anyone, but it's the

 fact of

 the matter is that it... you sometimes need

 a crisis to drive

 action. I'd be hopeful that the

 current

 global crisis we're going through

 -whether it's climate change or

 the pandemic- forces people to act. It

 unfortunately has not

 in many cases, but at the context of

 Coral Vita, at least

 a lot of our ability to communicate

 took a... it went up a level because we -not

 only from first-hand experience- but then

 you start

 that in with how big corporations like

 insurance companies

 are viewing those events. Yeah, it does

 have a dramatic force in terms of moving

 the needle.

 

MW

so uh you know we we definitely did not

time

this episode this way but last night was

uh a big night of news in the in the

bahamas i woke up this morning and

i was just looking through my google

feed and they must have known that i was

talking to sam

who's who's in the grand bahamas because

it was like hey uh the bahamas just uh

you know limited travel uh in and out uh

with regards to covert 19.

um and you know whenever i think about

those types of limitations

i always think about the the impact to

to businesses

so i was wondering you know if you could

talk a little bit about

what's actually happening there um sort

of what

what what you're experiencing and and

just just generally speaking like hover

19

in the bahamas for those of us who don't

don't know and don't have any point of

reference for it

so the borders closed originally in

march and in march and july

first when the borders opened back up

again there was about a hundred cases

throughout the whole country

and since july 1st we've had like 60 new

cases

um and

grand bahamas 50 60 miles off the coast

of west palm beach

and i am very proud to

be an american despite our our warts and

exteriors but at this particular moment

it is frustrating to

be an american abroad and seeing a whole

country suffer

because of my country's actions because

a lot of people in florida

came over here not masks wanting to have

a good time

and didn't respect the social distancing

rules and mask rules that had been in

place that people here had been

following

and now the country is shutting itself

down again and in the bahamas they're

reliant

i think 60 of the gdp is relying on

tourism so as a nation

especially with one tied to america this

is it's devastating

it's also pretty incredible that they

said americans aren't allowed to come

here but europeans

and canadians can wow um that's that's

fairly embarrassing

um but you know people are listening to

experts and listening to scientists and

it's

it's like i said at the beginning is i

want to be put out of my job i don't

want to be a coral farmer i hope there's

no more reefs

left to restore but because we're not

listening to experts and scientists when

it comes to climate change

things are getting worse and when it

comes to not listening to experts and

scientists

on the pandemic there are real world

consequences for that obviously in terms

of public health but here in the bahamas

for our business one of our revenue

streams like i said before was

you're looking for something fun to do

you come to our coral farm there's a

touch tank you learn about reefs you get

to maybe even go out and plant corals or

adopt them with our team

the way we're we're not getting tourists

anytime soon um

there are i i unemployment i think in

grand bahama

might be up to eighty percent oh my god

um

and we already were dealing with the we

still hadn't recovered from hurricane

dorian

so it's it's a big blow for sure

um and it's tough because a lot of these

island nations not just

in the bahamas but in the caribbean and

around the world they can't keep the

borders closed for two years but they

also don't really often have the health

infrastructure to deal with the

consequences of the fallout so i

i'm really hopeful that people will be

respectful of the places that they

the communities that they're in whether

it's their own or they're visiting them

because it it

has financial health and

you know spiritual implications too i

mean it's it's a big morale below for

people here that have

just been getting back online after

dorian and then the pandemic comes in

the first place and then we weather the

lockdowns and we were following the

rules

we opened the borders back up and we get

screwed again

uh and it's not just applicable to coral

vita it's not just applicable to the

baha'is

um and it happened last night that's

what the prime minister announced

so um that's the new reality

wow um yeah i uh 80

unemployment i mean that is just uh

i'm speechless that is a just

shocking yeah i i i mean it's

it might be 60 to 80 percent it

fluctuates but still is a

stupidly high number and yeah

we're we're very grateful not only

obviously to be in a position where we

were able to stay open even just without

having revenue we had enough runway we

raised from our investors

we're actually in the middle right now

of raising an investment route to expand

our farm here into the biggest

farm in the world for coral reef

restoration but the government also gave

us an exemption to keep

operating so it's a big part of our

model to

uh take a community-based approach as

much as possible

ultimately the reefs matter most for the

people who

are on them or near them um so most of

our staff

is bahamian and we aren't doing the

education stuff in addition to the

tourism stuff right now but at the very

least we're able to keep

our staff employed um which a lot of

people aren't able to do right now

because of what's happening

uh you know i i can't help but just

think about

i'm enjoying covering uh this this blue

economy stuff and this climate change

stuff because

it's not very charged at the moment you

know what i mean uh you know there's

much more charge around

around the pandemic and and uh such an

incredible opportunity to learn from

innovators such as yourself who

who are having you know continuing to do

the work but i can't help but draw the

parallels between

um you know our our failure to sort of

connect

the the guidance of scientists with how

we're going to fare economically

right you know and and us us seeing

the economy as somehow this like

separate and different

and maybe even like competitive uh

philosophy or or entity from science

you know where they're not they're

they're connected

and um it's just uh

yeah it's it just makes you wonder about

about about humanity that

we uh on these issues of climate change

and

and public health you know we can't

connect the dots we can't

um adhere to guidance of of of

scientists and this is at an individual

level but it's also at a corporate level

right you know what i mean i mean

you know often so many of the big

offenses are really happening at the

corporate level you know

um yeah it's it's on me it's on

government business and media leaders

to get us working on climate change and

the point you raise is it's it's super

frustrating but that's actually

why i still remain optimistic and

excited is because i come at this from

the perspective again

grounded in a love for nature and

wildlife

but also appreciating that's not good

enough for most people and that the

economic case

is it's actually a no-brainer there was

a study that came out from the world

resources

i think last week that for every one

dollar you invest

ocean protection it's five dollars in

dividends

um i i could rattle off a lot of stats

right now but the end of the day

it's a huge economic opportunity and

it's also

an imperative for our own well-being to

take care of the planet right we do this

we create more wealth it doesn't mean

jobs disappear

uh in on the net but i mean i don't know

i'm just looking at the mindset where

i don't you don't weep for horse and

buggy drivers and switchboard operators

and there needs to be a just transition

for people that do get left behind but

we shouldn't be

relying on 19th and 20th century

technologies and systems when we know

not only are 20th century ones better

for us health wise and for the

environment

but also our massive economic

opportunities it's just

it's right in front of us and that's

where the blue economy like you said it

isn't as politically charged

we can do amazing things to protect the

planet that ultimately sustains all of

us while creating

amazing economic same go it's like yeah

why aren't we doing this let's go

the failure is not an option here also

at the same time because

we're on the clock when it comes to the

losing these ecosystems

so there's that impetus yeah

then we have amazing ecosystems for our

kids to be able to visit and

grandchildren and so on and

it's uh it's what we got to do well sam

thank you for doing the work thanks for

sharing the story and also giving us the

update on what's going on the bahamas

totally appreciate it 30 minutes always

goes quick here man so we'll have to

sort of bring you back

uh to give us an update on how things

are progressing there

i was a pleasure to be here if anyone

ever wants to come down and plant some

coral with us

we happen to have you in the bahamas and

uh you can check us out at coral vita

reefs and marcus yeah it was

a pleasure thanks for having me on and i

hope you have a great rest of your day

thanks man

so like sam said go follow him at coral

vita reefs

on twitter on instagram crawlvita.com

that's where you can keep up with them

the innovation that they're providing

and the story they're trying to tell to

get people aware

of the importance of restoration of the

coral reefs

again my book create and orchestrate out

now go pick up the copy

uh subscribe to the podcast marcus

whitney's audio universe everywhere that

you get your favorite podcast and follow

me everywhere online at marcus whitney

that's it hope you have a wonderful rest

of your monday and i will see y'all back

here tomorrow

come on let's build a new normal

 

Leave a Comment