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This Israeli startup mimics mangroves, coral and oysters to create protective seawalls

The 2020 Ray of Hope winner, ECOncrete, helps concrete structures become stronger, have a longer service life and better cope with extreme weather events and rising seas.

An ECOncrete installation in Herzliya, Israel.

An ECOncrete installation in Herzliya, Israel.

The jumbled roots of mangrove trees buffer tropical shorelines from storms and erosion by slowing waves and capturing sediment. They provide habitat for diverse marine life as well, and for these reasons, they were an inspiration to this year’s top winner of the Ray of Hope PrizeECOncrete, a Tel Aviv-based company that designs and creates innovative concrete structures for seawalls and other coastal projects that mimic local marine ecosystems.

Awarded today by the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation at GreenBiz’s online circular economy event, Circularity 20, the Ray of Hope Prize celebrates and accelerates nature-inspired solutions that address the world’s sustainability challenges.

ECOncrete scored the top $100,000 prize, while Cypris Materials, a Berkeley, California, startup that produces novel paints and coatings that enhance energy efficiency without using toxic pigments or dyes, won the runner-up prize for $25,000. The two were selected from a pool of nine finalist teams, seven of which were led by women. 

It’s "a really great testament to how biomimicry brings different types of entrepreneurs to the field of innovation," said Jared Yarnall-Schane, entrepreneurship director at the Biomimicry Institute, in an interview.

"Any nine of them could have won the prize. It was a really competitive year," he continued. ECOncrete stood out for its "phenomenal team,” its incredible business potential and "how they really emulated Ray Anderson’s ethos of business as a force for good." 

We are going to change this very traditional industry of concrete and coastal construction.

With over 50 percent of the world’s population concentrated on the coasts, natural ecosystems are severely stressed. Sea-level rise and extreme weather events are driving an urgent need for the development or retrofit of seawalls and other structures, and ECOncrete’s ecologically sensitive materials are well-positioned to tap into this multibillion-dollar market. 

"Communities around the world are facing serious flooding challenges, and ECOncrete has demonstrated it can provide greater biological value when armored sea walls are necessary," said Deron Davis, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Georgia and a judge for this year’s competition, in a press release. 

A marine biologist, ECOncrete CEO and Chief Scientist Shimrit Perkol-Finkel grew interested in creating more environmentally friendly marine infrastructure through decades of studying artificial reefs. Diving in 30 countries around the world, she was disturbed to see how concrete structures harm marine ecosystems, even after decades in the water. Concrete’s harsh chemical composition and smooth, featureless surface impede native marine life and actually create the conditions for invasive species to thrive, Perkol-Finkel told GreenBiz in an interview.

Teaming up with another marine biologist, Ido Stella, she set out to study concrete and look for ways to manipulate it at the material, surface complexity and 3D design levels to make it more welcoming to a wider array of organisms. 

"We looked at skeletons of coral and oysters’ shells; they’re very rugged and are natural inducers for further biological recruitment," Perkol-Finkel said. "We wanted to mimic that more effectively, [rather] than making design features that are completely foreign to the marine environment." At the macro, 3D level, designing for actual habitats and niches, they looked at mangrove roots.

ECOncrete Brooklyn

An ECOncrete installation in Brooklyn, New York. Courtesy of ECOncrete.

The team landed on a proprietary technology that incorporates three science-based elements: a biological-enhancing concrete admix; rough surface texture; and locally attuned 3D designs that foster the growth of native plants and animals. By harnessing natural processes, ECOncrete helps concrete structures become stronger, have a longer service life and better cope with extreme weather events and rising seas. 

The organisms that grow on them act as an active carbon sink, offsetting some of the huge carbon footprint associated with concrete, which is 7 to 8 percent of global emissions. ECOncrete uses recycled materials when it can, which gives it a smaller carbon footprint than traditional concrete, according to the company.

The company has installations around the world — from the Port of Rotterdam to Israel to Hong Kong to New York City, where it built tide pool units and ecological pile casings at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Most projects have added on to existing infrastructure. 

Every two to four years, the team conducts research at its installations and publishes the results in peer-reviewed journals. "We typically get double the biodiversity, double the species richness and less invasive species," Perkol-Finkel said. Studies in the Mediterranean Sea show carbon sequestration potential at roughly 2 tons per kilometer of its seawall.

"As a group we’re very grateful for the award … and really proud to take the role of biomimicry leaders," Perkol-Finkel said. "We are going to change this very traditional industry of concrete and coastal construction. We’re going to change paradigms. For that we need a lot of education."

Here’s the list of this year’s other contenders:

Runner Up: Cypris Materials (Berkeley, California)

Pigments and dyes used in manufacturing — from textiles to automobiles to cosmetics — are frequently toxic to human health and the environment. Cypris Materials has developed a technology based on structural color found in nature — such as in the vibrant blue of a Morpho Butterfly wings — that eliminates the need for pigments and dyes in paints and coating materials. The technology has wide applications and is most immediately being tested for automotive use, cosmetics and printing. 

The startup first mastered the technology for heat-reflective (infrared) coatings on windows and rooftops. End users who paint their building will save as much as 20 percent on their annual cooling bill. That application is in five-year durability testing.  

Finalist: Helicoid Industries (La Quinta, California)

Helicoid Industries takes its inspiration from the predatory Mantis shrimp, which smashes its shellfish prey with a hammer-like club faster than a bullet flies. The shrimp can perform this feat hundreds of thousands of times without damaging the durable club. 

Researchers have identified a unique helical, or spiral, structure of fibers that provides the club’s strength and toughness. Helicoid Industries is applying this same helical design to composite materials, significantly increasing material hardness and toughness, allowing for longer lasting, lighter weight and more energy efficient materials. The technology can improve the efficiency of wind turbines and materially reduce the weight of airplanes. Production of Helicoid’s composite materials also uses fewer raw materials. 

Finalist: spotLESS Materials (State College, Pennsylvania)

Cleaning human waste residue from toilets and sanitation systems in water-stressed regions of the world requires precious water resources. It also requires labor and cleaning agents that may contain harmful substances. Such "sticky waste" situations aren’t confined to sanitation as surfaces everywhere get dirty, and cleaning them can be expensive and water-intensive.

SpotLESS Materials develops biologically inspired non-sticky surface coatings that repel liquids, sludge, bacteria and other types of contaminants to make cleaning less costly and more efficient. Its coatings have found uses in hospitals, homes and the automotive sector.

Finalist: Werewool (New York)

To reduce the fashion industry’s many environmental impacts, Werewool has developed a novel way to produce biodegradable fibers with tailored features, such as color, stretch or water repellency. Werewool finds proteins in nature that confer these desired attributes, isolates the DNA sequence of the protein providing the property, and uses biotechnology to create a fiber feedstock. 

The startup’s first application uses a red fluorescent protein found in discosoma coral that eliminates the need for toxic dye. The company’s preliminary life cycle assessment shows that, Werewool fiber has a 55 percent lower carbon footprint and uses 84 percent less water than polyester. It also doesn’t produce end-of-life microplastic pollution.

Finalist: Metalmark (Boston)

Globally, air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths every year and is linked to cancer, heart attacks, asthma and other chronic diseases. The Metalmark team has created 3D nano-structured materials that are unlike any other air purifier on the market, and help make clean air globally accessible and affordable. Metalmark’s materials are inspired by the porous, nanostructures found in butterfly wings. They clean the air not by trapping pollutants in a filter, but by breaking them down and destroying them. Its solution completely destroys volatile organic compounds (VOCs) without creating secondary pollutants. 

Pheronym (Davis, California)

Beneficial nematodes have long been a staple in organic pest control. The Pheronym team discovered they can increase beneficial nematode efficiency and keep parasitic nematodes away by emulating nematode pheromones. This natural form of pest-control is compliant with organic food production and provides a competitive alternative to synthetic pesticides.

Nanomik (Istanbul, Turkey)

Globally, one-quarter of food produced is lost to spoilage by microorganisms, and that has significant economic consequences, as well as health and environmental impacts. Chemical preservatives used to prevent food spoilage also have negative impacts.

Nanomik has created a biological preservative that prevents the loss of fruit and vegetables post-harvest, significantly extends the shelf life of produce and provides an alternative to chemical disinfectants such as chlorine. Its technology uses microcapsules, constructed from biological materials, that act as a natural delivery and communication system produced by all types of living cells. The microcapsules release naturally occurring plant essential oils and other natural antifungal molecules that form a protective edible layer. Its effects extend to cold-press fruit juices, freshly cut fruit and vegetable salads. 

change:WATER Labs (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

This evaporative toilet technology, iThrone, initially was sparked by the work change:WATER Labs CEO had done for NASA as she was looking at water treatment options for the International Space Station. 

Now change:WATER Labs is bringing its technology to countries that lack sewage infrastructure. The technology works similar to a mangrove plant, evaporating water out of the waste and shrinking the remaining solid waste to just 5 percent of the original volume. iThrone must be emptied once or twice a month, much less than other container toilets.

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