Hong Kong - 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 biological sciences. Now she’s the CEO of Archireef, a climate tech venture that’s working to restore fragile marine ecosystems by using 3D printing technology and some good old-fashioned terracotta.

Coral 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 in just two months. “That was shocking,” says Yu, a 30-year-old doctoral student in biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “I’ve always known about climate change, but I did not know that it is happening at a pace where I can witness [the death of coral reefs] in such a short period of time.”

Working alongside David Baker, a marine biology professor, and other researchers at the University of Hong Kong, they tried a variety of different ways to restore the fragile marine ecosystem, such as planting coral fragments onto metal grids and concrete blocks. Yet, they found the baby corals would often become detached and die.

As frustrations mounted, the team finally came up with a solution: tiles made out of terracotta using 3D printers with carefully crafted designs that incorporate folds and crevices, enabling coral fragments to become attached to the seabed so that they can survive and grow. Yu says the coral seeded to their terracotta tiles have been able to achieve a survival rate of up to 98%.

With their prototypes in hand and driven by the urgent need for funding to scale up their operation, Yu and Baker decided to spin off a startup from the University of Hong Kong. The pair cofounded Archireef in 2020 as a climate solutions provider. With Yu serving as the startup’s chief executive, Archireef, which made the Forbes Asia 100 to Watch list last year, is working to rebuild the marine ecosystems degraded by climate change to achieve carbon neutrality.

“When it comes to climate tech, most people are focusing on reducing carbon emission,” says Yu in an interview from Archireef’s office in Hong Kong Science Park. “However, I would also like to emphasize that while tackling the root cause is critical and essential, it is also as important to do active restoration because nature recovery by itself is very slow and it’s not going to catch up with climate change.”

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