Meet the marine biologist-turned-entrepreneur who restores coral reefs with 3D printing and clay

Vriko Yu founded a startup on the back of her Ph.D. Studies in Biological Sciences. Now she’s the CEO of Archireef, a climate technology company working to restore fragile marine ecosystems using 3D printing technology and some good old-fashioned terracotta.

By Zinnia Lee, John Kang and Shanshan Kao

CMouth reefs, the delicate breeding grounds for marine life, take years to fully form. That’s why Vriko Yu was deeply alarmed when, in 2014, she saw a coral reef community in Hong Kong die within just two months. “It was shocking,” says Yu, a 30-year-old graduate student in life sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “I’ve always known about climate change, but I didn’t realize it was happening at a pace I could witness [the death of coral reefs] in such a short time.”

Working with David Baker, Professor of Marine Biology, and other researchers at the University of Hong Kong, they tried different methods to restore the delicate marine ecosystem, such as: B. Planting coral fragments on metal grids and concrete blocks. However, they found that the baby corals often became detached and died.

As frustrations mounted, the team finally found a solution: 3D-printed terracotta tiles with carefully crafted designs that contain folds and crevices, allowing coral fragments to adhere to the seabed so they can survive and grow. Yu says the corals seeded on her terracotta tiles have achieved a survival rate of up to 98%.

With their prototypes in hand and driven by an urgent need for funding to expand their operations, Yu and Baker decided to spin off a startup from the University of Hong Kong. The couple co-founded Archireef as a climate solutions provider in 2020. With Yu as the startup’s CEO, Archireef, which made the Forbes Asia 100 to Watch list last year, is working to rebuild marine ecosystems damaged by climate change to achieve carbon neutrality.

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

Coral reefs cover only 0.2% of the sea floor, but they offer enormous benefits to the environment. About a quarter of marine fish depend on coral reefs for food and shelter at some point in their life cycle, helping to provide a source of food and livelihood for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. It is estimated that coral reefs provide $2.7 trillion worth of goods and services a year, including $36 billion for tourism.

However, coral reefs are extremely sensitive to warming water. 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.

The world had already lost 14% of its coral reefs between 2009 and 2018, according to a report released last year by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, showing that “virtually all” (more than 99%) of the world’s coral reefs would be lost if temperatures would rise by 2 degrees Celsius.

Archireef operates on a subscription model, with corporate clients and government agencies paying recurring fees to cover the maintenance and monitoring costs of its coral restoration projects for a minimum of three years. In return, Archireef provides them with a report detailing the environmental impact of their investment, which they can use in their ESG reporting and marketing materials.

It is estimated that coral reefs provide $2.7 trillion worth of goods and services a year, including $36 billion for tourism.

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

“We are very sustainable,” says Melanie Kwok, executive vice president of sustainability at Sino Group, in an interview at the company’s The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel Hong Kong. “We played a role in actually protecting the ocean.”

The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel is one of six hotel properties owned by Sino Land, the group’s Hong Kong-listed real estate company. All 425 rooms and suites opened in July 2022 and offer sea views. “As you can see, all of our rooms face the ocean,” says Kwok. “That’s why we have a role to play. Our mission is to educate our customers and stakeholders on the importance of ocean conservation so that we can all see and contemplate this beautiful ocean together.”

Archireef’s terracotta tiles have so far been scattered around 100 square meters in Hong Kong’s waters. Having laid the groundwork for growth in the city, Yu now has her sights set on expanding abroad – and she’s starting with Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, which has sought to diversify its economy away from fossil fuels era ends.

The startup said it is working with sovereign wealth fund ADQ to restore an area of ​​40 square meters of water near the UAE capital that will become the breeding ground for around 1,200 coral fragments. Archireef also built a 400 square meter facility in Abu Dhabi last year after receiving an undisclosed sum of funding from ADQ. The facility will certainly fuel the company’s international expansion by enabling it to mass produce its reef tiles.

The Abu Dhabi government announced in 2021 that the United Arab Emirates has a target of achieving 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 office in the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting this year’s COP28 climate summit.

“When we thought about our expansion outside of Hong Kong, the UAE really turned out to be one of the strongest markets, not only because of the financial performance but also because of the pursuit of sustainability,” she says.

Archireef’s ambition is not just limited to coral reef restoration. The startup is busy expanding its product range to also allow species that create the natural habitat for other organisms to grow back. Those species include mangroves and oysters, Yu says.

Meanwhile, Yu is in a hurry to expand Archireef and deploy its reef tiles around the world, including the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. She races against the clock to protect coral reefs. “We have already lost 50% of the world’s coral reefs since 1950. And if nothing changes, we will lose up to 90% by 2050,” she says. “So if I can convey one message here today, it is: Please take the time to seize our final opportunity to reverse climate change.”


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