Innovation Prizes to
Jump-Start Reef Restoration

Matthew Mulrennan,
Director, Ocean Initiative, XPRIZE

Scientists were wrong: The coral crisis happened much earlier than expected. It is happening now. We are losing about 100 by 150 m of coral reef a minute, and we have lost half of all coral reefs already. By 2050, 90 percent or more could be gone. About half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died in 2016 and 2017 because of record extreme heat, as the excellent documentary “Chasing Coral” depicts (https://bit.ly/2KRdzC3).

It’s important to have hope for coral reefs and create your own vision of the future for either your local reefs or coral reefs globally that is positive, replicable and scalable; a vision that you can sell to the world. Think of this as a business plan, which begs the question: Why aren’t there dozens of private companies involved with coral restoration since it’s so important for marine biodiversity and the 500 million people depending on coral reefs for fisheries, tourism, culture, coastal protection and livelihoods?

Comparatively, forest restoration is big business potentially worth $84 billion annually. Shouldn’t corals be part of this restoration economy?

With new major funding announcements such as the Australian government committing half a billion Australian dollars to save the Great Barrier Reef, a collaboration with insurance companies in Mexico funding coral restoration after storms, and a debt swap agreement in the Seychelles to fund marine protected areas, as well as new philanthropies entering the field, it’s clear we can’t just throw money at innovative ideas—we will need to highlight and grow innovations that produce results and advance business models that can sustain themselves.

Recent innovations are popping up to help corals. Some are still in the lab phase or need help scaling, but exciting progress abounds. These include a floating biodegradable film to protect corals from bleaching, electrifying corals to improve growth rate, improving the reproduction rate of corals in the lab from 0.2 percent in the wild to more than 90 percent in a tube, and assisted evolution to breed super corals in the lab resilient to extreme temperatures.

What if we can create a competitive market of start-up companies that use a combination of these innovations to repopulate, say, one coral every 6 sec. on par with reforestation rates (the current rate using divers is about six to seven corals per hour), or even planting a million corals that survive one year in an inhospitable location? Obviously, this needs to be done smartly, with strict rules to ensure these experiments cause more good than harm for the environment.

Big prizes with such audacious goals can draw out new talent and ideas, bring in interdisciplinary expertise, engage communities, and give innovative companies the global stage to match the challenge facing corals. Recently, XPRIZE asked the crowd for ideas in designing an XPRIZE for urgently needed, scalable innovations to restore and protect coral reefs (https://bit.ly/2LcDCjp). Tech opportunity areas include: coral restoration—mechanized planting, jump-starting growth with 3D-printed settlement structures, endangered species recovery, regenerating degraded corals, nursery design, fertilization/reproduction; local coral protection—enforce laws on dynamite fishing or marine protected areas, improve water quality, combat algal growth, eliminate invasive species, prevent sedimentation or anchor damage; and climate resilience—temperature control, disease resistance, breeding and genetics, reef mobility, assisted evolution.

Many coral restoration techniques to date are labor intensive, using divers; they are top-down, academic and expensive (full restoration would be trillions of dollars). In contrast, with strategic philanthropy and the prize model, we can grow proven, investable solutions to coral conservation and restoration. We can jump-start a coral restoration economy and unleash the power of the global crowd on growing an inspiring future for corals.