Meet the marine biologist turned entrepreneur restoring coral reefs using 3D printing and clay

Vriko Yu launched a startup on the back of her Ph.D. studies in the biological sciences. Now she’s the CEO of Archireef, a climate tech business working to restore fragile marine ecosystems using 3D printing technology and some good old-fashioned terra cotta.

By Zinnia Lee, John Kang and Shanshan Kao

doEstuary reefs, the delicate breeding grounds of marine life, take years to fully form. That’s why Vriko Yu was deeply concerned when, in 2014, she saw a coral reef community in Hong Kong die in just two months. “It was shocking,” says Yu, a 30-year-old PhD in biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “I’ve always known about climate change, but I didn’t know it was happening at a rate that I can see [the death of coral reefs] in such a short time.”

Working with David Baker, a professor of marine biology, and other researchers at the University of Hong Kong, they tried several different ways to restore the fragile marine ecosystem, including planting coral fragments on metal mesh and concrete blocks. However, they found that the baby corals often became detached and died.

As frustrations mounted, the team finally came up with a solution: tiles made from terracotta using 3D printers with carefully crafted designs that incorporate folds and cracks, allowing coral fragments to adhere to the seabed so they can survive and grow. Yu says that the coral seeds in their terracotta tiles were able to achieve a survival rate of up to 98%.

With their prototypes in hand and with an urgent need for funding to scale their operation, Yu and Baker decided to create a startup out of the University of Hong Kong. The couple founded Archireef in 2020 as a climate solutions provider. With Yu serving as CEO of the startup, Archireef, which made the Forbes Asia 100 to Watch list last year, works to rebuild marine ecosystems degraded by climate change to achieve carbon neutrality.

“When it comes to climate technology, most people focus on reducing carbon emissions,” Yu says in an interview from Archireef’s office in Hong Kong Science Park. “However, I would also like to emphasize that while addressing the root cause is critical and essential, it is also important to actively restore because nature’s recovery alone is very slow and will not catch up with climate change. change”.

Coral reefs cover only 0.2% of the sea floor, but they provide great benefits to the environment. About a quarter of the ocean’s fish depend on coral reefs for food and shelter at some point in their life cycle, helping to provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is estimated that coral reefs support $2.7 trillion annually in goods and services, including $36 billion in tourism.

However, coral reefs are extremely sensitive to warming waters. Corals can lose the algae that provide them with food when sea temperatures are unusually high – a process known as bleaching because it’s the algae that give them their bright colors.

According to a report released by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network last year, the world had already lost 14% of its coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. Another report published in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global scientific authority on climate change, shows that “almost all” (over 99%) of the world’s coral reefs will be lost if temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius.

Archireef operates on a subscription model, where corporate clients and government agencies pay regular fees to cover the cost of maintaining and monitoring coral restoration projects for at least three years. In return, Archireef provides them with a report detailing the ecological impact of their investment that they can use for their ESG reports and marketing materials.

It is estimated that coral reefs support $2.7 trillion annually in goods and services, including $36 billion in tourism.

Yu says Archireef is already profitable and its clients include Hong Kong companies such as jewelry chain Chow Sang Sang and property firm Sino Group, which is run by Singaporean billionaire Robert Ng.

“We are very sustainability-oriented,” says Melanie Kwok, assistant general manager of sustainability at Sino Group, in an interview at the company’s The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel Hong Kong. “We have played a role in protecting the ocean.”

Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel is one of six hotel properties owned by Sino Land, the group’s real estate company listed in Hong Kong. It opened in July 2022 and its 425 rooms and suites have sea views. “As you can see, all our rooms have ocean views,” says Kwok. “That’s why we have a role to play. We have a role to play in educating customers and stakeholders about the importance of ocean conservation so we can see and see this beautiful ocean together.”

Archireef’s terracotta tiles have so far been spread over about 100 square meters of Hong Kong’s waters. After laying the groundwork for growth in the city, Yu now has her sights set on expanding overseas – and it’s starting with Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, which is trying to diversify its economy before fossil fuel era is coming to an end.

The startup said it is working with Sovereign Wealth Fund ADQ to restore a 40 square meter stretch of water near the UAE capital, which will become the breeding ground for around 1,200 coral fragments. Last year, Archireef also set up a 400 square meter facility in Abu Dhabi after receiving an undisclosed amount of funding from ADQ. The facility will certainly boost the company’s international expansion by allowing it to mass produce its reef tiles.

The government of Abu Dhabi announced in 2021 that the UAE aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, making the emirate the first in the region to set such a target. It was Abu Dhabi’s commitment to sustainability that convinced Yu to set up Archireef’s first overseas operations in the United Arab Emirates, host of this year’s COP28 climate summit.

“When we were thinking about our expansion outside of Hong Kong, the UAE was really one of the strongest markets, not only because of the economic performance, but also the drive for sustainability,” he says.

Archireef’s ambition is not just limited to coral reef restoration. The startup is busy expanding its product line so it can also help regenerate species that create natural habitats for other organisms. These species include mangroves and oysters, Yu says.

Meanwhile, Yu is rushing to expand Archireef and deploy its reef tiles around the world, including the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. He is racing against the clock to protect coral reefs. “We’ve already lost 50% of the world’s coral reefs since 1950. And if nothing changes, we’ll lose up to 90% by 2050,” he says. “So if I can send one message here today, it’s this: Take the time to seize our last chance to reverse climate damage.”


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