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Coral Vita cultivates $2M seed to take its reef restoration mission global

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Coral reefs all over the world are struggling to survive, with millions of people and billions of dollars in business that rely on them at risk — on top of the fundamental tragedy of losing such a crucial ecosystem. Coral Vita aims to modernize both coral restoration techniques and the economy surrounding them, and has raised a $2 million seed round to kick things off in earnest.

I wrote about Coral Vita late in 2019 when I encountered co-founder Gator Halpern on the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea. At the time, the operation was both smaller and under siege by Hurricane Dorian, which wiped out the team’s coral farm in the Bahamas — and then, of course, the pandemic arrived just in time to spoil the team’s 2020 plans along with everyone else’s.

But despite the general chaos of the last year, Coral Vita managed to start and at last close a $2M round, with the intention to come back bigger and better and demonstrate a new global model for the field.

“We decided rather than just rebuilding our pilot farm to that pilot level, we’d just take the next step forward in our journey. We really believe this is an opportunity to jump start a restoration economy,” said Sam Teicher, co-founder and Chief Reef Officer.

To picture how reef restoration looks today, imagine (Teicher invited me) an underwater garden near the shore, with floating ropes and structures on which grow coral fragments that are occasionally harvested and transported to the area in need of young, healthy corals.

Corals grow in a tank at Coral Vita in the Bahamas.

Image Credits: Coral Vita

“But when you think about the scale of the problem — half the world’s reef are dead and the other half are predicted to die in the next 30 years — relying on underwater facilities isn’t possible,” he said.

The plan Coral Vita has is to transition away from ocean-based farms to land facilities that allow for much improved yield and survivability, and employ advanced techniques to speed up coral’s growth and increase its survival rate. One such technique is coral fragmenting, developed by the restoration community at large, in which corals are broken up into tiny pieces, which can grow as much as 50 times faster in aggregate. And by doing so on land they can exert much more control over the coral’s attributes.

“We’ve got tanks on land with clean sea water pumping through and the ability, among other things, to control conditions,” he explained. “So if you think of what it’ll be like off the coast of Grand Bahama in 40-50 years, we can essentially simulate that to harden the corals against those conditions. Up front, an ocean-based nursery is much cheaper, but when you start thinking about the need to grow millions or billions of corals around the world, land-based facilities start to look a lot more realistic. The cost goes down with scale, too — ocean-based nurseries go to about $30-40 per coral; we can get it down to $10 as we get up to a hundred or a thousand tanks.”

Onlookers view the coral growing tanks at Coral Vita

On the left, a Bahamanian tourism official (far left) listens to Sam Teicher. On the right, Gator Halpern (center) talks with others before the pandemic.

Not only is the physical scale limited at present, but the income sources are as well: often it’s government money instead of the inexhaustible well of private cash. Coral Vita hopes to be able to change that by increasing and diversifying supply and going directly to those affected.

“We’re trying to transform the space away from grants and aid — we’re selling to customers that depend on the ecosystems of reefs,” Teicher said. “If you’re a hotel that relies on scuba or snorkel tourists, if you’re a coastal property owner or insurer, a government, a development bank, a cruise line, you can hire Coral Vita to restore the reefs that you work on.”

This superficially mercenary business model where commercially important reefs get priority wouldn’t be necessary, of course, if governments and industry hadn’t systematically neglected these reefs to begin with. Not that privately funded projects are somehow fundamentally tainted, but this type of restoration work tends to be seen as the milieu of nonprofits and government agencies. One might consider this approach a direct, if late, tax that cuts out the government middle man.

The fact is this is globally crucial work that needs to start now, not in five or ten years when the correct conservation funds are organized by concerned parties. Every month counts when reefs are actively deteriorating, and private money is the only realistic option to scale up fast and do what needs to be done. Plus, as the process becomes cheaper, it becomes easier to fund projects without commercial backing.

Corals grow in a tank at Coral Vita in the Bahamas.

Image Credits: Coral Vita

“On top of that is the ability to innovate,” added Teicher. “What we’re trying to do with this round is to make advances to the science and engineering, including 3D printing and robotics in the process. We’re launching R&D projects not just for restoration but protection.”

He cited Tom Chi, co-founder of Google X and an early advisor and investor, as someone who has pushed on the automation side, comparing the industry to agriculture, where robotics is currently having a transformative effect.

Proving out the scalable land-based farms opens up the possibility of a global presence, as well — lowering costs and lead times for corals to be brought to where they’re needed.

“We’re at a point where we need to rethink adaptation and how to fund it,” said Teicher. “The two year plan is to launch more farms in other countries — ultimately we want this to be the biggest coral farm that ever existed.”

Leading the $2M round was the environment-focused Builders Collective, with participation from Apollo Projects’ Max Altman and baseball’s Max and Erica Scherzer. Earlier investors (in a pre-seed or “Seed one” round) include the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, Tom Chi as mentioned, Adam Draper, Yale University, and Sven and Kristen Lindblad.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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President Joe Biden commits to replacing entire federal fleet with electric vehicles

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President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. government would replace the entire federal fleet of cars, trucks and SUVs with electric vehicles manufactured in the United States, a commitment tied to a broader campaign promise to create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry and supply chains.

The commitment, if it bears out, could give a boost to U.S. automakers, particularly those that have diverse portfolios that include passenger cars, commercial vans and light trucks.

Biden made the comments prior to signing the Made in America executive order, which places stricter rules on the federal government’s procurement practices. The government has existing “buy American” rules, which states that a certain amount of a product must be made in the U.S. for a purchase to qualify for a federal contract.

Biden said this order closes loopholes and aims to increase purchases of products made in the United States. The executive order increases that product threshold and the price preference for domestic goods — meaning the difference in price from which the government can buy a product for a non-U.S. supplier. It also updates the process for how the government decides if a product was sufficiently made in America.

In the midst of his speech, Biden said the buy American directive would extend to the federal government’s massive fleet of vehicles.

“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers, creating millions of jobs — a million auto worker jobs.”

The opportunity is a large one. The U.S. government had more than 645,000 vehicles in its fleet in 2019, the most recent data available from the General Services Agency. Of those, about 224,000 are passenger vehicles and more than 412,000 are trucks.

“GSA is committed to exploring opportunities to leverage the purchasing and leasing power of the federal government to address the climate crisis, including greening the federal fleet,” a GSA spokesperson told TechCrunch in an emailed statement. “GSA currently manages over 224,000 passenger vehicles in its fleet to support the Federal Government’s mission. By leveraging clean energy vehicle technologies, GSA will support the President’s climate goals, while working with the American automotive manufacturing industry to ensure that these next generation vehicles are built in America by American workers.”

The directive won’t be easy to fulfill. Many of these federal vehicles are leased, which could slow the transition depending on the contract lengths. There are other obstacles, including charging infrastructure and supply. And while it doesn’t appear to be a requirement, Biden has publicly stated numerous times — including Monday — that he supports union automotive jobs.

Tesla is considered the dominant U.S. manufacturer of electric vehicles. However, the company’s lack of union workers and the higher cost of its vehicles — even the less expensive Model 3 — could be a barrier.

Ford and GM might not have a vast supply of electric vehicles at the moment, but they do have union shops and both automakers are investing heavily to expand their EV offerings.

GM launched a new business unit earlier this month to offer commercial customers an ecosystem of electric and connected products as part of the company’s $27 billion bid to become a leading electric automaker. The new business, called BrightDrop, will begin with two main products: an electric van called the EV600 with an estimate range of 250 miles and a pod-like electric pallet dubbed EP1.

GM has said it plans to bring 30 new electric vehicles to a global market through 2025. More than two-thirds of those launches will be available in North America and every one of GM’s brands, including Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Buick, will be represented, according to the automaker.

Meanwhile, Ford revealed in November a configurable all-electric cargo van called the E-Transit as part of its $11.5 billion investment in electrification. Ford has largely focused its electrification efforts on the consumer market, notably the Mustang Mach-E. The E-Transit, which will be built at its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri, is aimed at the commercial sector.

There are a growing number of newer EV entrants as well, including Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Fisker. Rivian is expected to begin producing and delivering its electric pickup truck in July, followed by its all-electric SUV. Rivian is also developing and assembling electric vans for Amazon.

Biden’s call to transform the fleet supports statements he made throughout his campaign. Biden pledged to “use all the levers of the federal government,” including purchasing power, R&D, tax, trade, and investment policies to position the U.S. to be the global leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles and their input materials and parts.

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Facebook News launches in the UK, the first international market for its curated news portal

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As the United Kingdom prepares to sharpen its focus on how it regulates big tech companies, Facebook is taking a big step up in the role it plays in presenting media to the U.K. public, and into how it works with the country’s media industry.

Today it is launching Facebook News in the U.K., Facebook’s first market outside of the U.S. for its dedicated, curated news portal — accessed, like the U.S. version, through a tab in the Android or iOS app menu.

The portal will launch with content from hundreds of local and national media organizations including Channel 4 News, Daily Mail Group, DC Thomson, Financial Times, Sky News and Telegraph Media Group. The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, STV and hundreds of local news sites from Archant, Iliffe, JPI Media, Midlands News Association, and Reach, as well as “lifestyle” titles GQ, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Vogue and others were announced in an earlier list of partners last year.

Again, as with the U.S. version, users will be provided a list of curated top stories of the day; a list of personalized stories based on news sources you might already follow or interests you have (these might be from publications you don’t already follow); and dedicated news sections for sports, entertainment, health and science and technology. Users can indicate when they like stories, or when they want to hide them to train the algorithms better.

Facebook has confirmed to us that it will be working with a service called Upday to curate the stories that appear on News. “The product is a mix of curated, top stories and personalized links chosen by algorithm,” a spokesperson said. Upday appears to be a joint collaboration between German publisher Axel Springer and Samsung, which also runs a news service on its phones powered by it.

It is not clear what the financial terms of the deal is between Facebook and Upday, but reportedly, the licensing deals Facebook is cutting with publishers to place their content in News collectively run into the tens of millions of pounds, with the biggest publishers making millions a year from the the agreements. While those figures might pale to what Facebook makes in ad revenues globally — that reaches into the tens of billions of dollars quarterly — they represent significant sums for the beleaguered U.K. media industry.

People have long used newsfeeds on Facebook and other social sites to catch up with news while also browsing posts from friends, Groups and Pages that they follow. Facebook News aims to take that a step further, as a curated page for links and headlines from hundreds of publications in the country to provide users of its mobile apps a one-stop place to read the stories of the moment.

Social media continues to be a major source of news for consumers, but as we’ve seen, a very skewed and flawed source at that.

Within that context, Facebook says that its intention with Facebook News is to provide a more balanced and dedicated mix of news to people beyond what they might encounter in their newsfeeds, while also tailoring it to users’ interests.

It also helps that Facebook News provides yet another way for Facebook — which has made efforts in video, entertainment content, mentoring and job-hunting, Nextdoor-style community listings, peer-to-peer selling, and more — to continue diversifying away from the Newsfeed for those who have grown bored with that: now, people can come to the Facebook app to browse news, too.

Still, this international expansion has been a long time coming: Facebook News first launched as a test in the US more than a year ago, in October 2019, before rolling out to all users last June.

No word from Facebook on how many users or engagement the U.S. version of Facebook News has picked up, except that “it has grown steadily,” according to a spokesperson.

It’s not clear why there’s been such a long gap between its first efforts in the U.S. and the U.K. launch today, but Facebook has had more going on in addition to securing those licensing deals to roll out in this market.

Launching a new news portal, with the message that it’s designed to “help” publishers, takes on a new dimension when you consider that Facebook has also been in the crosshairs of regulators in Europe, who have been on a long-term mission to scrutinize the reach of big tech companies. In the UK, that is soon taking the form of a new “pro-competition” Digital Market Unit that will re-examine the role companies like Facebook and Google play in advertising, media and more. 

Whether those regulatory moves will impact how a service like Facebook News works, or what revenue cuts and usage data are shared with news partners, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it’s full speed ahead for more scaling: Facebook confirmed plans last year that its long-term aim is for a bigger international expansion for Facebook News, with the longer list of countries including Brazil, France, Germany, and India. In a blog post today, Facebook’s director of news partnerships in Europe, Jesper Doub, confirmed France and Germany were next in line for Facebook News, although no launch dates were specified.

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Daily Crunch: Twitter unveils Birdwatch

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Twitter pilots a new tool to fight disinformation, Apple brings celebrity-guided walks to the Apple Watch and Clubhouses raises funding. This is your Daily Crunch for January 25, 2021.

The big story: Twitter unveils Birdwatch

Twitter launched a new product today that it says will offer “a community-based approach to misinformation.”

With Birdwatch, users will be able to flag tweets that they find misleading, write notes to add context to those tweets and rate the notes written by others. This is supposed to be a complement to the existing system where Twitter removes or labels particularly problematic tweets, rather than a replacement.

What remains to be seen: How Twitter will handle it when two or more people get locked into a battle and post a flurry of conflicting notes about whether a tweet is misleading or not.

The tech giants

Walking with Dolly — Apple discusses how and why it brought Time to Walk to the Watch.

Google pledges grants and facilities for COVID-19 vaccine programs — The tech giant is one of several large corporations that have pledged support to local government agencies and medical providers to help increase vaccinations.

Facebook will give academic researchers access to 2020 election ad targeting data — Starting next month, Facebook will open up academic access to a data set of 1.3 million political and social issue ads.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Clubhouse announces plans for creator payments and raises new funding led by Andreessen Horowitz — While we try to track down the actual value of this round, Clubhouse has confirmed it will be introducing products to help creators on the platform get paid.

Taboola is going public via SPAC — The transaction is expected to close in the second quarter, and the combined company will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol TBLA.

Wolt closes $530M round to continue expanding beyond restaurant delivery — The Helsinki-based online ordering and delivery company initially focused on restaurants but has since expanded to other verticals.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Qualtrics raises IPO pricing ahead of debut — After being acquired by SAP, Qualtrics announced it would spin out as its own public company.

Fintechs could see $100 billion of liquidity in 2021 — The Matrix Fintech Index weighs public markets, liquidity and a new e-commerce trend.

Unpacking Chamath Palihapitiya’s SPAC deals for Latch and Sunlight Financial — There’s no escaping SPACs, at least for a little while.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Moderna says it’s making variant-specific COVID-19 vaccines, but its existing vaccine should still work — Moderna has detailed some of the steps it’s taking to ensure that its vaccine remains effective in the face of emerging strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that leads to COVID-19.

Original Content podcast: ‘Bridgerton’ is an addictive reimagining of Jane Austen-style romance — Did I mention that the cast is insanely good-looking?

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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