‘Big Idea’ winner ORA Estuaries creates artificial oyster reefs to restore coast

March 31, 2015 | Updated: 6:50 p.m., March 31, 2015

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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) - "Back when I was in college I was casting about desperately to find a career path that would put me in the same place as the oysters and the shrimp and the crabs and the red fish and I think I found it," says Tyler Ortego, Founder of ORA Estuaries.

It began as a graduate school project at LSU, fast-forward ten years and ORA Estuaries is not only in business, it's the 2015 winner of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week's Big Idea competition.

"The judges said it was coastal restoration, I think it's important to the city, it's important to them. I think the vote was for the coast," Ortego says. "We call it the oyster break, they look like massive round Legos they weigh between 1,500 pounds to over a ton depending on which one you use. They interlock so you get a variety of configurations and the engineering is built into the product so you as soon as you build it you have a wave-breaking structure and then the oysters take over."

Wild larva attaches to the concrete and starts growing, making the pieces heavier and even more effective against waves. "We make a special a special concrete we call 'Oystercrete' so it's got a surface texture that's really porous and gives the microscopic larva a place to establish themselves. It's got limestone aggregate to simulate oyster shells so they think they're actually growing on an oyster reef," says Ortego.

They've done four projects already and plan on doing four more this year, but restoring the coast is not a quick business, every aspect takes time.

"Our primary customers are government agencies, it's in one of the most regulated environments you can find so just getting the permit to build an oyster reef to protect the wetland you'd be surprised how much paperwork you have to go through to get that even when it's not contentious, for the easy ones."

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Slowly but surely the business is growing with interest from Texas to New York, all along the coast Ortego's big idea is catching on and the big picture is coming into focus.

"Hurricane Sandy woke up everyone -- Manhattan is threatened by sea-level rise not just those crazy people down on the bayou... I don't know if you remember all the talk after Hurricane Katrina, 'why would you even go back?' but it's everywhere," Ortego says. "Everywhere in the world people are migrating to the coastal cities, that's where the opportunity is, for whatever reason that's where they're going. They're going to have to be protected."