Why you should care
Because she wants to protect our underwater concrete jungle.
Shimrit Perkol-Finkel’s office sits in an industrial section of Tel Aviv, a few kilometers from the shorelines of the Mediterranean. Outside are warehouses, garages and a smattering of food joints. A concrete jungle, if you will.
From the midst of this concrete jungle, Perkol-Finkel, a 42-year-old marine biologist and CEO of ECOncrete, is working to save urban marine life by using a new type of concrete, one she and her business partner, Ido Sella, patented in 2011.
ECOncrete, founded in 2012, wants “to change the concept of urban marine nature,” Perkol-Finkel tells OZY, to show people “how to garden” marine life. “We don’t want to encourage anyone to build more,” she says. “But when there is a decision that there needs to be a structure here, let’s do it better.”
Doing it “better” means using a different concrete mix specifically designed for underwater structures. After months of testing, Perkol-Finkel and Sella came up with five mixes for the urban marine environment, putting them through a two-year validation period in locations in Israel and the United States. The results, Perkol-Finkel explains, showed the mixes helped “double the amount of species” living in marine settings. Existing artificial structures, she points out, destroy natural habitats, and if anything manages to grow there, it tends to be invasive and harmful.
Perkol-Finkel concedes that theirs is not a simple sales pitch to the venture capital community, but they are helped by the heightened focus on eroding coastlines.
What makes their concrete better? ECOncrete’s patented formula uses a smaller percentage — 10 to 50 percent less — of Portland cement (the most common type of cement for general use) and replaces it with byproducts and recycled materials from quarries that reduce carbon footprint and help seal problematic components within the concrete.
In addition to their patented mix, the company also designs the concrete block mold, creating a rough surface that can enhance marine life by trapping food and giving fish tiny spaces to hide. What’s more, the organisms that latch onto the rough concrete create a seal on the surface that, in a couple of years’ time, makes the concrete more resilient and 10 times stronger than standard concrete.
ECOncrete was helped by the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Support Program 8200 accelerator, winning its award for best startup in 2014. By then the company had raised $1.7 million in seed money and was running three pilot projects, including two at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York.
Looking ahead, the company will need to raise additional capital if it is to ramp up and compete for large-scale installations. Perkol-Finkel concedes that theirs is not a simple sales pitch to the venture capital community, but they are helped by the heightened focus on eroding coastlines and the threat of climate change. Moreover, Perkol-Finkel says their pricing is within the “margins of green construction,” with their mixes costing between 2 to 7 percent more than standard mixes; for larger projects the cost becomes nearly equal.
ECOncrete is certainly not the first to look at increasing marine life through the use of artificial structures, but creating a new concrete that can be part of larger infrastructures is what sets them apart. “Until now, [the] ability to enhance life on artificial substrates like an artificial reef was already out there,” says Perkol-Finkel, “but it wasn’t something that you can build a seawall or a port with.”
While adhering to strict standards for marine construction — meaning the concrete must be load bearing, support a lifespan ranging from 20 to 120 years or more and comply with rules set by marine engineers, ECOncrete has worked to make concrete for piers, seawalls, sea mattresses, tide pools and ports. Besides Israel, they operate projects in New York, Georgia, Florida and the Great Lakes region and most recently started working in the River Thames in London.
Leigh Trucks, former director of capital projects at Brooklyn Bridge Park, hired ECOncrete in 2012 for a pilot program to repair wooden piles supporting the park’s piers. The biggest challenge, Trucks says, was convincing their marine engineers that “this concrete was going to be structurally sound and that it was going to work.” Within the first six months, they were excited to see marine life growing on the concrete, although it may be years before the engineers have sufficient proof of the concrete’s durability.
More immediately, as the fallout from climate change mounts, Perkol-Finkel says their product can play a vital role. “Unfortunately, nobody can escape the end result that coastlines are being attacked by storms more frequently and more aggressively,” she says. Which means people are building defenses.
Perkol-Finkel estimates that 70 percent of those defenses are concrete-based, but ECOncrete offers a smarter solution because the marine life that grows on their molds provides added protection the way a coral reef strengthens a coastline. “After a big storm there is a lot of damage and we get more traction,” she says, adding that she and Sella feel like “storm chasers.”
ECOncrete partners with three companies to produce their cement, including Moore Concrete in Northern Ireland, which has been conducting trials over the past year on the mix’s effectiveness. Richard Whiteside, a sales manager for Moore Concrete, says environmental agencies in the U.K. and Ireland are impressed by the technology’s potential. “They have huge [coastal protection] problems and this is maybe a way of solving their problems,” he adds.
Perkol-Finkel, a native of Tel Aviv, began developing the concept for ECOncrete while doing postdoctoral work in Italy, on a Marie Curie grant. In the future, says the soft-spoken mother of three, “we want to change the way the coastlines look and function. We don’t want to see any more standard seawalls being built; we want all the seawalls to be built with texture and eco-design.”
Naturally, ECOncrete wants to be the one to deliver on that promise — there are firms making concrete and others designing artificial reefs, but theirs is the only company doing both. For now, though, Perkol-Finkel seems fixed on turning her vision into reality, even if it means bringing competition with it.