The Business of Saving Coral Reefs
Excerpts from original feature article by Stacey Lastoe at Utah Business Magazine about our partner, IntelliReefs.
The problem, as Melody Brenna sees it, is obvious: We trash our waters.
The founder of IntelliReefs, a sustainable marine-based solutions company based in Salt Lake City, does not mince her words when it comes to the planet and her beliefs around the unfortunate way many, if not most Americans, have turned a blind eye to this urgent environmental issue.
But Brenna and a small but mighty team of people are endeavoring to turn things around through something called Oceanite, a unique reef restoration system that uses site and species-specific marine mineral substrates to enhance the growth and resilience of at-risk species.
The innovative conservation efforts have the potential to combat overharvesting as well as climate change and helps with issues caused by pollution. Essentially, IntelliReefs’ marine solution is in a unique position to keep the ocean’s crucial life-giving services—oxygen and food—afloat.
Brenna was living in Texas when she was approached by coral reef experts who she says basically came to her and said: “If we don’t figure out ocean infrastructure and come up with a substrate, a testable substrate that can be deployed all over the world, we’re going to lose the reefs.”
Her Texas-founded company, Milestone Architectural Ornamentation, with the integral assistance of Dr. Konstantin Sobolev, IntelliReefs’ CTO and Co-founder, created an industry-first laboratory for the casting of reef restoration technology and nanomaterials. Over 20 years of research went into the creation of Oceanite.
The high-performance mineral mixtures can be cast into a myriad of designs and scaled up too, allowing for the creation of new habitats along coastlines. Since Oceanite is specifically tailored to the individual site, the species residing in the particular region, and the function of the species, its potential impact is significant.
The work of Milestone Architectural Ornamentation laid the foundation for IntelliReefs, which officially formed in 2017, about seven years after Brenna relocated to Utah from Texas. It wouldn’t be long before IntelliReefs would be ready to activate Oceanite and use it as a viable element to be cast and placed in the waters of the Caribbean where it would be used to improve the quality and diversity of oceanic applications. Brenna calls it “really forward-thinking science.”
“Have you seen ‘Chasing Coral’?” Brenna asks, referring to the 2017 Netflix documentary that followed a team of divers, photographers, and scientists on a riveting adventure to document the disappearance of the world’s coral reefs. Dr. Ruth Gates, a lead scientist in the film, analyzed IntelliReefs’ info back in 2017 or so, explains Brenna, and her direct and profound reaction was one that would help set off a chain of events to drive the coral restoration reef movement forward: “This will save reefs.”
From Lab to Ocean
Of course, it’s one thing to develop materials in a lab and analyze how they might behave in real-life circumstances, and quite another to take the bold steps toward seeing how they literally function in real-life scenarios—in oceans.
Thanks to a crackerjack team of scientists, biologists, and divers—plus support from the United Nations—IntelliReefs now has proof of concept.
Brenna, who cites some challenges to running a business in Utah, is nonetheless generally grateful for the overall support IntelliReefs has received and is quick to praise her team, many of whom do not live in Utah. Emily Higgins, IntelliReefs’ director of ocean science, is one of her “brilliant” colleagues. Higgins, who lives in Toronto, Canada, joined the team in 2019 after Brenna reached out to her to consult on how to optimize IntelliReefs’ methods around addressing the limitations of current coral restoration efforts, along with customer pain points.
Higgins describes her role as ensuring “the material science supports the biological science from the nanoscale to the regional scale to make real and desired changes.” She works closely with IntelliReefs’ team members to make sure the engineering and design of the installation meet client biological goals and conservation objectives.
Says Higgins, “I am also responsible for making sure that our team works with local academics and governments as effectively as possible to systematically monitor the ongoing success of our structures and wherever possible, innovate and iterate our solutions forward to anticipate future needs.”
Attempting to Save Coral Reefs
Ian Kellett is another supporter high on Brenna’s list of instrumental people devoted to reef restoration. A close IntelliReefs’ ally, though not a part of the IntelliReefs’ staff, Kellett has helped make the IntelliReefs’ vision “a reality.” Kellett, who Brenna describes as “this wild diver who just got back from 72 days on the most advanced marine science boat on the planet for a company called Ocean X… a rock star company” was on the first IntelliReefs’ deployment as well as the second.
The California-based expedition leader (along with a slew of other titles) is an ocean explorer photographer who has been committed to ocean solutions for 10 years with a particular focus on creating “media that influences positive behavior around the healthy and diverse oceans.”
His interest and expertise in storytelling and media (Kellett teaches a media class at the University of California, Santa Barbara) led him to be a sort of field producer for IntelliReefs Oceanite pilot. Like both Brenna and Higgins, he expresses genuine concern over the state of our waters. “Our food, our atmosphere, the diversity of the oceans are dependent on these [coral reefs] systems, and in particular, this coral substrate of diversity.”
“We stand to lose a lot,” says Kellett, who adds that most people just don’t care because they’re not divers, they’re not snorkelers, and they’re not really connecting the dots.
Part of his work, as a storyteller with the desire “to create and deepen an emotional connection between your audience and the natural world,” involves a more balanced relationship between humans and the oceans. This is true even in land-locked Utah due to the link between forest fires and air quality, explains Kellett.
However, it’s in the Caribbean, a region dependent on tourism dollars and a hub of related activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling, where people are really feeling the oppression, says Kellett. He adds that this, along with the very real destruction of coral, makes it a great place to begin the work of reef restoration.
“Basically all of the island nations who frankly are mostly closer to the equator, they’re in the direst position and the most in need of this tack, so that’s where we are going to start,” Kellett explains.
Thanks to an enormously successful pilot, IntelliReefs’ future—and that of Brenna’s children and grandchildren—is bright. We can’t let the coral reefs die; “if we let the whole system fail, we are so [expletive],” says Brenna.
Photos show the fish and biodiverse seafloor communities after two years of healthy coral reef growth on IntelliReefs in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten.
The Sint Maarten Oceanite pilot showed that “we have the good science, we have proof of concept,” says Kellett. The three reefs in the Caribbean, which have demonstrated the ability of Oceanite substrates to enhance biodiversity, create additional habitat on degraded reefs, as well as attract and support new coral growth, and foster a healthy reef community is just the beginning.
Paving the way to future reef restoration projects, Brenna says they’ve been approved by the Netherlands for a five-year research permit in the Caribbean. There’s also a documentary in the works, continued UN involvement, and conferences.
Kellett is encouraged: “We’re heavily engaged in some deep conversations with some big organizations and the investment opportunity, I think, is massive.”
**end of Utah Business Magazine article by Stacey Lastoe.
IntelliReefs' Next Steps are Making Big Waves
IntelliReefs CEO Melody Brenna shown here with Zeny C. Pallugna (Senior Tourism Operations Officer for the Philippines), Neil Frank R. Ferrer (Consul General for the Philippines), Jason Wairepo (IntelliReefs' Global Business Development Strategist), and Andrea Swensen (Reef Life Foundation's Development Director).
Ms. Brenna has built incredible traction for IntelliReefs in the global ocean space over last 5 years, speaking at international conferences (UN, EarthX, World Ocean Summit) and working closely with the World Trade Centre in Utah to speak with global ambassadors for countries that are prioritizing the Blue Economy, UN SDG 14 initiatives, and ocean science.
Brenna and IntelliReefs' Director of Ocean Science, Emily Higgins, just Co-Founded their first Canadian enterprise at the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE) in Halifax, Nova Scotia called IntelliReefs CAN to expand their research and technological applications of Oceanite to address coastal resilience, property protection, fisheries enhancement, and kelp & oyster bed restoration in temperate waters for the first time. Read more about the IntelliReefs CAN office here.
The Canadian office will be deploying IntelliReefs' new product line called "ReefShip" as a large scale coastal resilience test series. ReefShip was developed by IntelliReefs' "Maritect" Guyon Brenna to mimic the architecture, geology, and chemistry of natural reefs.
"ReefShip quickly builds 3D complexity and structure where it has been lost in order to feed and shelter fish," says Brenna. "Its simple design eases manufacturing and deployment time within a stable modular platform. ReefShip also creates a platform for collaboration with local restoration groups by providing an artificial platform for experimentation and restoration. The modular nature of the design enables deeply unique approaches to serving objectives. This allows for the freedom to make targeted and local solutions, housings for specific scientific equipment, and integrations with tourism and coral or kelp out-planting goals."
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Video: “Why Corals Love IntelliReefs”
High resolution photos are available upon request.
See more unique restoration solutions from Guyon and Stirling Brenna.
IntelliReefs are innovative reef restoration systems; the result of breakthroughs in science and nanotechnology, these engineered structures mimic established coral reefs to build an oceanic infrastructure that improves resistance to climate stressors and diseases