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Israeli Startup Looks to Nature for Concrete Solution for Marine Infrastructure

ECOncrete has created a unique line of concrete solutions that enhance the biological and ecological value of urban, coastal and marine infrastructure; while increasing their strength and durability.

With many World Oceans Day (June 8) events cancelled due to the COVID-19 lockdown, we can view this as an opportunity to reflect individually on how critical ocean health is to all of us — and what we can do to restore its resilience.

Coral reefs, oyster reefs, mangrove forests and rocky intertidal habitats are more than amazing, highly productive and diverse coastal ecosystems — they are also natural barriers that reduce risk and protect vulnerable coastal communities. However, with over 50 percent of the world’s population concentrated along coastal areas, severe stress on natural ecosystems is inevitable with this accelerated coastal development. Combined with growing threats of sea-level rise and increased storminess, coastlines around the world require development, retrofitting and intensive maintenance. Unfortunately, to date, coastal and marine infrastructure such as breakwaters, seawalls and piers have been designed and built with little or no consideration for marine life, leading to the poor ecological status of urban marine environments.

Seeing firsthand the extent of the environmental damage that human activity is creating along the coastline, Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel and her ECOncrete co-founder, Dr. Ido Sella, have made it their challenge to find a practical, scalable, environmentally sensitive solution that can reduce the ecological footprint of coastal and marine infrastructure — and thus, ECOncrete was born.

“We wanted to take our academic expertise and apply it to the real world, at scale, to really make a change and offset the enormous damages that people are inflicting on our oceans — but the path from PhD to CEO is not easy,” Perkol-Finkel said. “When I started diving (25 years ago!), I never imagined it would lead me to co-found a startup and take on some of the world’s greatest challenges like climate change impacts and loss of biodiversity.”

Israeli marine biologists that specialize in ecological engineering and nature-inspired solutions, Perkol-Finkel and Sella established ECOncrete in 2012 with the launch of a large-scale field experiment that spanned over two years and crossed three oceans — the Mediterranean and Red Seas and the Atlantic Ocean. The validation experiment included collaborations with NOAA’s Marine Sanctuary system, The Georgia Port Authority, NY Harbour School and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Since then, they have developed a unique line of concrete solutions that enhance the biological and ecological value of urban, coastal and marine infrastructure; while increasing their strength and durability — including Eco-Armor units and seawall elements, Tide-Pool Armor (which won the 2018 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge), and Eco-mats that prevent beach erosion and provide scour protection for offshore applications. All of these solutions are designed to provide shelter, habitat and even nursing grounds for different fish, oysters, sponges, corals and canopy-forming algae (depending on the local ecosystem), by mimicking natural features of intertidal and subtidal reefs. All of these solutions are combined with high-performance concrete that matches the industry’s standards.

The concept seems simple enough: transforming concrete, one of the world’s most consumed materials in the world, into a bio-enhancing material. As Sella explains:

“The idea is to tweak the concrete composition, texture and design, so that structures like seawalls or armor units that make up ports, marinas and city waterfront will enhance marine flora and fauna. Currently, such structures are made of standard Portland Cement-based concrete — which is strong and cost effective, yet is harmful to marine life. ‘Grey’ concrete structures support invasive and weedy species. With ECOncrete, we maintain and even increase the strength of the structure, but also generate a rich and diverse ecosystem.”

The technology harnesses natural processes such as biocalcification for the benefit of the ecosystem on one hand, and for the benefit of the structure on the other.

“The skeletons of oysters, tube worms, coralline algae and alike create a biogenic crust on the concrete that adds strength, and decreases scour and sensitivity to chemical erosion in a process called bioprotection,” Perkol-Finkel explains. “These same skeletons also create an active carbon sink, with every kilogram of calcium carbonate generated offsetting 300 gr of CO2 from our oceans. A kilometer of seawall on a typical Mediterranean coast will offset up to 2 tons of CO2 a year, equivalent to the sequestration of 100 adult trees.”

ECOncrete is scaling up; in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the company was able to secure over half of their $5M series A investment goal form Bridges Israel — an independent affiliate of Bridges Fund Management, one of the world's leading sustainable and impact investors.

Since being named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 best inventions of 2019, ECOncrete was recently selected as a finalist in the Ray of Hope Prize® — a $100,000 prize competition presented by the Biomimicry Institute. Perkol-Finkel commented:

“Being chosen as one of the Ray of Hope Prize finalists defines us as an industry leader and winning the competition will help us scale up our impact and set new standards for ecological engineering of coastal and marine infrastructure around the world. Ocean health and human health are entwined, especially today. A healthy, diverse and resilient ocean must be part of the post-COVID world. This is a historic opportunity to restart nature and really build resiliency into our communities, cities and oceans.”

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