Diving Deeper: Talking with ECOncrete®’s Co-founders on the Ocean’s Value (Part 2)
In Part 1, we heard from the co-founders of ECOncrete®, the company that was awarded the 2020 Ray of Hope Prize® last week. Scientists Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, Ph.D. and Ido Sella, M.Sc. offer us more insight in the second part of our interview about how their diverse team comes together and what they hope to do with this year’s $100,000 grand prize.
Tell us a little bit more about your team. How did you all come together and what value comes with having diverse background expertise and cultures at the design table?
Ido: I think that interdisciplinary capabilities are what make ECOncrete unique. Our team works together on a daily basis. The marine and coastal engineers work hand-in-hand with the biologists, ecologists, geologists, and product designers to make sure our clients get an applicable solution that complies with the industry standards and provides proven ecological benefits.
A lot of our employees were students of ours or started working in the company as interns. We look for people that are open minded, work well in a team, and can provide added value to the company. When needed, our biologists can work in the concrete lab, or run onsite concrete testing, and our marine engineers can perform underwater coral surveys. I’m very proud of our team, which spreads over two sides of the Atlantic, while providing services as if they were based in the same office.
How do you balance each other’s strengths as co-founders and partners in the business?
Shimrit: We have been working together for over 20 years. When I started my PhD, Ido started his bachelor’s degree and helped me build my experimentation system, coming with a very technical perspective from day one. He never thought he was going to do a PhD, and I never thought the experiment’s concept was going to be a business. But once we started coming up with this paradigm of ecological enhancement of infrastructure, we knew it had to go commercial.
The beauty was that there was no fear, because we were together. We decided we’re going to go for it. We’re going to establish a company and go for those big solutions. And it was very natural for us to take our roles. I’ve always been timid but grew into a bolder role, and Ido grew into more of a technical position of how we develop our product commercially, ship it, make it logically productive, etc.
And together, we thought up ideas for new solutions and new designs that are sparked when we go diving together.
Ido: From the beginning we discovered that we complement each other from research to business development in a way that made us able to face new challenges efficiently and quickly. Our saying is that we probably share a lobe — Shimrit has the ability to analyze and react very fast to changes and new situations, and I’m good at pushing and getting things to happen on the field and project level. This is also something we utilize in our business development process: Shimrit will see the long term, and I’ll deal with the short term.
You have a whole suite of products — tell us about one in-depth that you think everyone should know about.
Shimrit: I think the Tide Pool Armor was a concept burning inside Ido and I, and we thought about it for a long while before it actually became a product. I’m happy to say that it evolved from its original form, which was already so beautiful, and a concept that came out of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. We upgraded the next generation to enhance both its structural advantages and biological components. It’s called the CoastaLock, and it’s basically a structure that interlocks as opposed to the original concept that was a standalone structure. Now you can play with the positioning of the system, like Legos, and create a lot of adaptability in the way the system interlocks. The beauty is that instead of only having the capacity to position the concave side upwards, with this new unit you could install the open face at 90 degrees so it’s an actual cave, or you can put it upside down and then it becomes an undercut (another type of habitat that allows for a very sheltered space), and you can play with all kinds of combinations. We’re very excited to see CoastaLock launch with the Port of San Diego this month.
Ido: Yes, this project coming to San Diego is the first installation of a new coastal defense unit designed for high level structural stability, while also creating a highly needed coastal habitat that retains water at low tide. The aim is to replace a section of old riprap, a rock slope that buffers waves but supports very little life, with the new bio-enhancing units.
How will this $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize help your company get to the next phase of where you want to be?
Ido: It is a great honor to receive the Ray of Hope Prize. It is an important stamp of approval for the company and the structural and ecological benefits we bring to the market. The recognition will help us reach opinion leaders, decision makers, and the academic community, and it highlights the importance of ecologically engineered solutions when today coastal development is only increasing worldwide.
Shimrit: Yes, it is an amazing honor and really goes beyond the money, which is also truly powerful. The money is a generous contribution, and we’re going to use it for very targeted campaigns. I am going to build a very specific plan for this project and how we can use it to resonate biomimicry within communities.
Biomimicry was a natural approach for us to take, so we never really thought of it as a distinct process, but we think our solution could demonstrate biomimicry and help others see the value. Being part of the competition helped us frame our work clearly in understanding the biomimicry value of this solution. By working with biomimicry principles, I see the potential in using the Ray of Hope platform as a way to spread the word on the significance of nature-inspired design.
What’s an area on your dream list that you would like to bring your solution to?
Shimrit: You’ll be very surprised, but I’ll tell you that I wish I wouldn’t bring concrete to amazing coastal places. Honestly, I wish places like Indonesia, Kenya, or Tanzania will not need to use our solution and more people would actually stay away from developing along the coastlines, or even just live one mile back and leave the coastlines to stay natural. There are alternative realignment schemes, or even in extreme cases, buyouts, to resettle coastal communities that can’t be protected from rising waters. This allows the ocean to behave naturally, and re-engineer the coast in a way that can defend communities further inland and restore natural barriers. I hope that undeveloped coastal areas will stay that way, but in places where we’re still determined to live on the waterfront, that we bring solutions like ECOncrete that can restore some of the lost ecosystem services, biodiversity, and beauty.
One such case where we anticipate further human intervention in marine systems, and that needs ECOncrete, is the ever growing offshore wind energy sector. This industry is going to be immense, and acres of seabed are going to be disturbed. Wind turbine bases and their associated scour protection disturb the seabed and the entire benthic community. This can have huge implications for local biodiversity, and in turn local fisheries and marine industry. For this kind of renewable energy production, ECOncrete can offer a real win-win solution with ecological scour protection units that help stabilize the turbines while creating a productive habitat.
If you could tell a class of 5th graders about why they should get involved in science or marine biology, what would you say?
Shimrit: Oceans are the closest thing that we have to outer space. It’s a universe that we know so little about, and we need to study much more. And it’s super interesting! The ocean gives us oxygen and food. It’s basically holding our planet together. Because the oceans give us so much, unless we understand and preserve them, we’re going to have a tough time surviving. There’s so much about our oceans that is still unexplored, and we’re constantly learning more about new ways to produce energy, medicines, and even our own history as people from the oceans. You can gain a lot of love and appreciation for life through studying the ocean, and all of us depend on the next generation to learn the science behind the problems we face today, think outside the box, and dream up new solutions to save our ecosystems.
You can follow ECOncrete’s work at ECOncretetech.com. Join us on September 17 for our next Biomimicry Fireside Chat and hear firsthand from Shimrit on how their solution is revitalizing coastlines across the globe.