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May 2020   |   Volume 21 No. 2

Sink or Swim?

Members of the Soonlution team – (from left) Calvin Ma Hui, Meko Law Ho-ka, Dr Thiyagarajan Vengatesen, Abigail Zhao Ziwei, Tsun Shueman, with a prototype of the raft.
A newly designed shellfish culture raft could help Hong Kong’s beleaguered oyster industry stay afloat.

A course on aquaculture was the inspiration for HKU students to design a new kind of raft for cultivating oysters and then launch a start-up company, Soonlution, to develop and market it. Called the Modern Shellfish Home (MSH), it is specifically designed to withstand typhoons, to allow automatic rotation of the oysters for optimum feeding and to have a remote control function. 

The Soonlution founders are: Chief Technical Officer Abigail Zhao Ziwei, who was responsible for the design, production and testing of the rafts during the research and development (R&D) phase; Chief Executive Officer Meko Law Ho-ka, Chief Financial Officer Calvin Ma Hui; Chief Communications Officer Zachary Mok King-him, and recent addition Tsun Shueman as Product Director. 

The course that inspired them, ‘Oyster Aquaculture: Business and Technology’, is taught by Dr Thiyagarajan Vengatesen (Dr Rajan) from the School of Biological Sciences, and looks at how Hong Kong’s 700-year-old oyster industry is transforming to meet the challenges of the modern world and achieve sustainable aquaculture. 

Ms Zhao said: “Most of our members have a background in ecology and biodiversity, which is amazing but we wanted to explore the interdisciplinary knowledge that goes beyond pure science, and Dr Rajan’s course led us into the aquaculture industry.”

Problems and answers 

According to oyster growers in Lau Fau Shan, they lost up to 80 per cent of their rafts during Typhoon Mangkhut in September 2018. Having inspected the different types of oyster rafts in Hong Kong, Zhanjiang and Qingdao, the Soonlution team found that, ironically, the most commonly used type of floating bamboo raft was also the most vulnerable to typhoons. 

They also researched ‘thinning’ of oysters caused by overcrowding when farming. In pursuit of higher income, oyster growers would try to grow as many oysters as possible to increase yield, but this compromised quality. The final problem was that very few young people are joining the industry, which traditionally is very labour intensive. 

Soonlution’s answer, the MSH, is an innovative shellfish raft design, which comprises three innovative protective systems. “The first is a typhoon resistance system,” said Ms Zhao. “During typhoons, the MSH will sink into the sea, avoiding direct contact with the wind and waves at the surface.” 

The second is a transportation system, which rotates the oysters on the raft automatically and regularly, so that all oysters are filter-fed adequately to maintain consistent quality. “The transportation system also assists partially with convenience and safety,” said Ms Zhao, “since oyster growers can now load and unload the oysters from a single standing point.” 

Finally, there is an off-field monitor and control system. “Through a combination of sensors, satellite and remote control, oyster growers can access environmental data and operate the MSH through an app,” explained Ms Tsun. “The system will also connect to the official weather platform for information on typhoons and natural hazards, and suggest corresponding actions to be taken.” 

Soonlution will start product testing next year with their industry partners in Hong Kong and Zhanjiang, who have agreed to let them carry out tests in their waters. And the industry is certainly interested. “Since we devised our design after listening to the needs and challenges that oyster farmers are facing, we are basically providing a solution that they have longed for,” said Mr Law. 

“In fact, we received far more support and praise than we expected, including from the world-renowned oyster sauce brand Lee Kum Kee who have told us they would be interested in following our development and perhaps even buying our product in the future.” 

In the meantime, they are finalising the prototypes this year, and conducting field tests to collect feedback from oyster growers. After gaining the patent, they intend to launch MSH to the market officially from 2022. 

“Through HKU, we have received both advisory and financial support,” said Mr Ma. “Dr Rajan has been Soonlution’s consultant and inspiration from the start, and has shared with us his personal network in the oyster industry. We have also been selected to join the iDendron seed programme, which provides invaluable tips on running a start-up, getting funding, applying for patents, etc. In addition, we have received TSSSU@HKU [Technology Startup Support Scheme for Universities at HKU] funding which is vital for our R&D of the oyster raft.”

“While we initially set up Soonlution because of the innovative raft design, we went above and beyond soon after and are looking across the different stages of aquaculture production,” added Mr Mok. “There are many more problems – or should we say opportunities – when it comes to boosting aquaculture production, workers’ safety, and environmental sustainability. Once the raft production line is up and running, we are planning to venture into other types of shellfish aquaculture.”

Most of our members have a background in ecology and biodiversity… but we wanted to explore the interdisciplinary knowledge that goes beyond pure science, and Dr Rajan’s course led us into the aquaculture industry.