From student to start-up preserve coral reefs with an ITC perspective

Become a high-skilled geospatial professional

Protect and preserve coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems.

Text: Rense Kuipers | Photos: Rikkert Harink

In less than a decade, ITC alumna Parya Pasha Zadeh went from student to teacher, from teacher to project officer and from project officer to entrepreneur. With her start-up Marmoris, she uses the foundations she learned at ITC to help protect and preserve coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems.

Right after she obtained her Master’s in Geo-information Science and Earth Observation in 2013, Parya Pasha Zadeh didn’t stay far from her alma mater. She was immediately offered a teaching position at ITC. After more than five years of teaching, she wanted to do something else, so she became a project officer at ITC. ‘I like being in academia, but I didn’t see myself getting excited about increasing the accuracy of a certain model with 2 percent. The thing I like most is seeing the bigger picture and making connections.’

Winning a hackathon

The time the pandemic started in 2020 and the world came to a standstill, that a new adventure suddenly beckoned for her. ‘I attended an online hackathon. One of the organisers was a non-profit organisation called Raising Coral Costa Rica, which presented a challenge for participants to map the sedimentation in coastal waters using satellite imagery. Our team won the challenge; 2000 euros and support for setting up our own business.’

 Shortly after that, the team applied for a spot in an incubation program of the European Space Agency. ‘Again, with success! We secured 50.000 euros and a spot in the program for two years. More importantly, we now had what you could call the ESA seal of approval. Now it was time to decide whether we would embark on this journey or let it slowly die out, as happens to most start-ups.’

Protecting coral reefs and other ecosystems

They chose the former – and so Marmoris was born. Pasha Zadeh chose to continue at ITC as project officer for four days a week. The other day she started working on Marmoris. ‘What lies at the heart of the company, is earth observation for sustainable development’, explains Pasha Zadeh. Marmoris specifically focuses on coastal ecosystems like coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass and kelp forests. ‘The biodiversity is extraordinary in these ecosystems, they contain the vast majority of marine life and are instrumental in storing carbon, for instance. But these ecosystems are also in decline, primarily due to human activity.’

With Marmoris, Pasha Zadeh uses a combination of GIS, remote sensing and artificial intelligence to help stakeholders like NGO’s, local governments and nature conservation organisations to make better decisions on the areas to preserve and restore.

‘Specifically using satellite imagery and open data, we can give these stakeholders valuable data-driven insights. That way, they can pinpoint the exact areas that are most effective to focus on.’

Meaningful work

Building a company from the ground up boils down to learning by doing, says Pasha Zadeh. ‘Before the hackathon, I knew little about coral reefs. And the applications of satellite imagery and data are so broad, that we could have gone in any direction. It’s easy to drift away, but we chose a key focus on coral reefs. What’s more important, we didn’t want to start a company just for the sake of starting a company. We wanted Marmoris to be environmentally impactful; to do meaningful work for a better world.’

 That comes with its own struggles, Pasha Zadeh knows. ‘As a company, you need to make money somehow. We’re now exploring a kind of freemium business model. But we also know that small NGO’s and local governments don’t have very deep pockets. So we have to be creative.’