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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Update 2023/3/5
Coral Reefs Restoration

brought to you in part by

Noah Trekker

Restoring Degraded Marine Ecosystems
University of Hong Kong spinoff Archireef creates habitat for threatened coral reefs

By Suzanne Forcese

“Our reef tiles have proven to be particularly successful in delivering 98% coral survivorship, two years after initial deployment, making this methodology four times more impactful than other methods.”-- Archireef Co-Founder and CEO Vriko Yu, PhD

Tiles are 3D-printed with a custom printer using an algorithm-based design and a robotic arm turning clay into a biomimicry pattern that helps coral fragments to attach and grow. The ocean-friendly tiles are based on a hexagonal modular system to allow easy expansion

Interview with Vriko Yu, Co-Founder & CEO, Archireef

WT: What is Archireef?

Yu: Archireef is focused on marine ecosystem restoration with the latest technologies in 3-D printing, IoT, and AI. Our flagship product is a 3-D printed reef tile made from terracotta clay designed to provide a durable foundation for corals to support their growth and long-term survival.

WT: In the face of rapid climate change, you have made it your mission to help restore life underwater. When were you first aware of this ‘call’?

Yu: I started diving at an early age. In 2014, while still a doctoral student in biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong, I had the bizarre experience of witnessing the disappearance of a small patch of coral community in just two months during our research project

This really motivated me to do something.

Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor but are home to more than 25% of marine life. They provide coastal protection, food, and medicine, altogether accounting for more than $200 billion US (about $620 per person in the US) per year.

Reefs shelter us from the effects of climate change by protecting our shorelines from floods and hurricanes, while delivering tourism opportunities and providing a livelihood for many.

The harsh reality is that 90% of coral reefs are projected to disappear by 2050.

Climate justice has been on the lips of many and in the past few years it has been included on the agenda of international conferences.

As one of the few female aquapreneurs, I feel very strongly about how women's empowerment can be leveraged to push for advances in ocean science. As an avid diver, biologist, and Ph.D., I have logged hundreds of dives around my hometown of Hong Kong, SE Asia, The Red Sea, and The Arabian Gulf.

Witnessing the impacts of climate change is a real motivator for me to not just join the global effort of marine ecosystem restoration but also to spread awareness.

WT: In the short time since Archireef was founded in 2020 you have made the Forbes 100 To Watch List 2023; you recently were recognized in Davos as a Top Innovator; you have been nominated for an Index Award 2023; in 2022 you won the She Loves Tech pitch competition; and you are gaining worldwide recognition for your University of Hong Kong spinoff tech start-up.

Describe the journey that took you from formulating your mission to becoming a highly respected aquapreneur and Co-Founder/ CEO of Archireef.

Yu: Working with David Michael Baker at the University of Hong Kong we were looking for the best structures that would allow corals to grow.

As a scientist by training, I have learned how to analyze and research a problem, to be able to brainstorm solutions, and then question and assess the results to find the definitive resolution. This skill aided me in the development of our 3D-Printed Reef Tiles after 8 years of R&D in the lab.

With Dr. Baker’s help in the coral biogeochemistry lab at U of Hong Kong, we co-founded Archireef to build dynamic ocean ecosystems for marine restoration using ecologically friendly materials.

WT: How did you build your team?

Yu: In the beginning, we had to produce and commercialize a research-based project to scale fast – this was especially challenging for me.

My team was built on the concepts of critical thinking and the ability to accept and integrate new perspectives and skill sets.

WT: Archireef focuses on restoring marine ecosystems like coral reefs with the power of architecture, science and 3D printing. As a University of Hong Kong spin-off, it would seem obvious to initiate your work in Hong Kong. What can you tell us about the coral reefs in Hong Kong?

Yu: Hong Kong is the best place to start in our opinion. It has more hard coral species than the entire Caribbean despite the once heavily degraded water quality.

If the corals here can be saved, we may be able to create new sites worldwide for ecotourism and provide employment by empowering local communities to become involved in our restoration activities.

What is more, we believe modularity and scalability are the keys to generating significant climate impact. A single diver can handle the deployment without the need for industrial machinery.

WT: Coral reefs are endangered throughout the world. What have been the factors that have endangered the coral reefs? Why is restoration a priority?

Yu: Apart from global warming, there are a lot of reasons why coral reefs are under threat, such as water pollution, unsustainable fishing practices and many others.

These apply to Hong Kong as well as the rest of the world. Coral restoration in Hong Kong is especially important since we are a densely populated city right by the sea. Restoring coral reefs is a high priority because by doing so we not only save coral reefs but also biodiversity.

According to the World Economic forum’s Global Risk Report 2023, biodiversity loss is among the top 5 global risks.

WT: What is required to stimulate a healthy restoration of the coral reef?

Yu: Archireef’s 3D-printed reef tiles are designed to stabilize rescued corals on loose substrates like sand or rubble and provide an elevated surface for them to settle on and regrow. 

Without a stable substrate, these corals are likely to perish due to sediment smothering or landing in an orientation where the coral polyps do not receive direct sunlight.

Aside from substrate composition, we also take environmental conditions into account, such as sunlight availability, salinity, and water movement.

To ensure the ecological benefits, our team conducts data modelling and inspection dives prior to deployment to identify suitable locations, as well as post-deployment dives and data collection to monitor and quantify restoration impact.

WT: Describe the technology that you developed with Dr. Baker.

Yu: Archireef’s other Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, Dr. Baker, investigated various methods to help create the ideal environment to help coral growth, prevent sedimentation build-up, and assist in their restoration.

After 8 years of R&D, we created the first 3D-printed Reef Tiles – our flagship product at Archireef and we are delivering promising results so far.

The tiles were fabricated utilizing a six-axis industrial robot with a 3D clay extruder attached that is based on a DIW method (direct ink writing). The project developed a unique fabrication method that balanced the tile’s algorithmic design with the clay 3D printing strategy and the drying and firing procedures to minimize cracking and deformation. With the beauty of algorithm-based adaptiveness and 3D printer versatility, the design can be tweaked for different environments and even organisms like mangroves and oysters.

WT: How is your technology different from other coral restoration projects?

Yu: There are many solutions to help corals; however, the materials used are either concrete, plastic, or metallic structures, which negatively affect the conditions of the oceans and life within.

Terracotta is biocompatible, chemically inert, and porous. It, therefore, has none of the negative chemical properties of concrete, while naturally having a surface micro texture that is attractive to sessile marine invertebrates like corals.

The porosity facilitates biocalcification such that good anchorage for the organism is made.

WT: Tell us about your projects so far.

Yu: We have swiftly moved from ideation and initial piloting in Hong Kong to full commercialization in 2022.

One of the accelerators for that development was the joining of Deniz Tekerek as our third Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer, who is also a serial entrepreneur with years of experience in the startup space.

Two years ago, we deployed our first set of reef tiles at Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park.

We have since signed corporate clients.

Archireef has also launched our extension to the UAE via the pilot deployment of our reef tiles in Abu Dhabi. This endeavour was backed by ADQ, one of the country's largest investment holding companies. 

This will be our first deployment in the Middle East.

On the back of the interest received from the UAE, we have set up our own eco-engineering facility in Abu Dhabi which will continue to serve as a sandbox to translate R&D into products that contribute to a healthier marine environment.

WT: Going forward...what do you hope for?

Yu: Going forward we hope to partner with more sustainably minded companies to save more reefs together.

Let us continue to connect with the ocean. We are surrounded by it and the more we understand its intricacies the better we can help.


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