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The startup combating rising sea levels with coral reef-mimicking 3D-printed seawalls

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

colorful corals
Image credit: Wix
  • As one of the most recognizable aspects of climate change, sea level rise is only expected to get worse as the world warms and emissions continue. However, as startups like Kind Designs are showing, there’s something we can do about it.

  • Seawalls are massive structures designed to prevent coastal erosion and protect coastal communities from flooding, however, studies show they pose significant threats to biodiversity and may even exacerbate the problem they are built to solve.

  • That’s why Kind Designs made a “living seawall” a 3D-printed version that the startup says is more affordable to communities and quicker to make than traditional models. Even cooler, Kind Design’s seawalls are made to mimic coral reefs.

  • Made in shapes that mimic the crevices of corals, Kind Design says the design encourages marine biodiversity. And the science backs it up. As one project out of the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, shows, after just 2 years, a living seawall in Sydney increased the biodiversity by 36%

According to Miami-based Kind Designs, the startup is the first in the world to 3D print seawalls that function as coral reefs with an embedded sensor system that collects essential water quality data, which, as the startup puts it, transforms seawalls into protective organisms that, aside from the seawall’s main function of keeping coastal communities safe, improves the quality of biodiversity and water.

Typically, seawalls are massive structures designed to prevent coastal erosion and other damage from wave action to storm surge, such as flooding, which Kind Design’s home of Florida is no stranger to.

Sea level rise is one of the most recognizable aspects of climate change and happens as glaciers melt and seawater expands as it warms.

As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports, over the last century-and-a-half, the sea level has risen 8-9 inches, and while that may not sound like much, the rate is accelerating the hotter the planet gets, and when combined with other factors like oil drilling and groundwater pumping, the rate is much higher than the global average in some areas in the United States, making flooding now 300-900% more frequent than it was 50 years ago.

And no, those numbers are not a typo.

In Florida, specifically, the Sunshine State is likely to experience at least 2 feet above 2020 levels by 2100 due to emissions, which will only be higher if emissions continue, NOAA oceanographer William Sweet told the publication Newsweek.

As a Yale Environment360 analysis shows, in addition to the adverse effects sea-level rise has on marine ecosystems, it becomes an environmental justice issue when projections show that 6 inches of rise by 2030, 2 feet by 2060, and 5 to 6 feet by 2100 could cause levels of flooding would “physically displace some 800,000 residents of Miami-Dade County,” while leaving a significant portion of the state “uninhabitable.”

Fort Lauderdale, Florida coastline
Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Image Credit: Daniel Halseth // Unsplash)

Those who will be affected are primarily communities of color and low-income neighborhoods because as opposed to the region’s prime waterfront property, these communities inhabit inland areas, but as these areas are continuously eyes by real estate companies, these residents are put at risk.

If that wasn’t bad enough, as Kind Designs points out on its website, those 3 to 6 inches by 2030 would also cause $11 billion in annual insurance losses, leading to the floods and mass migration of the future.

“I was just amazed at how expensive sea walls were and how big the market was, and the fact that Miami is by far the number one city when it comes to sea wall production globally,” the startup’s cofounder, Anya Freeman said via Opportunity Miami.

“The way this idea was born is just by living here and experiencing the rising sea levels,” she said in a video by the organization. “It’s really part of your day today as a Miami, Florida resident. The narratives seem to be you know ‘our city is sinking, enjoy Miami while you can because we'll all be underwater by 2060.’ And that didn't make sense to me.”

Kind Designs founder Anya Freeman with 3-D printing robot at their headquarters in Miami
Kind Designs founder Anya Freeman with 3-D printing robot at their headquarters in Miami (Image Credit: Kind Designs)

While seawalls largely protect communities from these kinds of devastating impacts, they have adverse side effects. As one study published in the 2016 issue of the journal Bioscience showed “Seawalls supported 23% lower biodiversity and 45% fewer organisms than natural shorelines.” Not to mention, other reports show that they can further increase the risk of erosion (the whole reason they were built to begin with).

That’s why GOVO Venture Partners, along with M4 Investing and the Florida Opportunity Fund, invested $5 million into the startup’s seed round, making it the third portfolio company to receive funding from GOVO, an early-stage focused firm based out of Orlando’s Winter Park since it launched in January.

“In response to sea level rise, government agencies throughout the world will seek to adopt policy and guidance for ecologically responsible sea walls,” Rob Panepinto, GOVO’s managing general partner, said in a statement. “By applying its proprietary and innovative technology, Kind Designs is setting the standard and solving a global problem,” he added.

According to Freeman the sensors built into the seawalls collect 15 different parameters — exactly the same that the counties collect manually — with 24/7 data. Freeman says that data it collects, for example, can help predict algae blooms, which, in Florida produces a potent neurotoxin that can cause human respiratory illness.

The startup claims this process enables its seawalls to be made cheaply, quickly, and more flexibly than traditional methods. Plus, Kind Designs also expects its products to outlast traditional seawalls which degrade after a few decades, while helping increase the area's biodiversity. Because of this, it hopes that one day, its type of seawalls will be mandated.

Kind Designs isn’t the only startup with ambitions to bring seawalls alive while reducing their environmental impact. Just last week, in fact, the world’s largest living sea wall was created in Plymouth in the United Kingdom. In 2022, the Smithsonian launched a pilot project to create one in San Fransisco Bay, and since has begun to lay experimental tiles.

Others working on similar projects a company aptly named Living Seawalls that started in Sydney Harbor, Australia, and has since expanded to three continents. Living Seawalls is the flagship program of the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, and like Kind Designs, its seawalls are made to mimic natural coastal formations like rocks and mangrove roots which as of its 2021 Earthshot finalist prize, resulted in 36% more marine life on Australia’s coast after just two years, with further increases expected through time.

According to Kind Designs, Florida will need 10,000 miles of sea walls to deal with the effects of climate change by 2040. With that kind of projection, the Miami-based startup and others have their work cut out for them.

But Kind Designs doesn’t plan to stop at the borders of the Sunshine State. In a statement on the seed round, Freeman said the team is “thrilled to have a Florida-based firm with deep roots in the community and government expertise lead our round, enabling us to protect all coastal cities with Kind’s Living Seawalls and grow far beyond our home state of Florida.”

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