Startup Biomason Makes Biocement Tiles, Retailer H&M Group Plans To Outfit Its Stores’ Floors With Them

By Amy Feldman – Jun 14, 2021

Biomason cofounder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier wants to dramatically reduce the carbon emissions from cement with help from biology.
Biomason cofounder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier wants to dramatically reduce the carbon emissions from cement with help from biology.

Ginger Krieg Dosier, cofounder and CEO of Biomason, has big plans for how her company’s bio-based tiles can replace cement. For the past nine years, the former architect has been developing a way to grow cement bricks and tiles with bacteria in order to replace traditional cement, the production of which, she says, generates more carbon dioxide than all but two countries, China or the United States. Now, a joint-development deal with Swedish retailer H&M Group to create low-carbon flooring that could be used in its new stores or to retrofit older shops, shows the outlines of the Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based startup’s future at a time when more corporations are paying attention to sustainability goals.

“This is a big commercialization year for us,” she says. “This is the breakout year.”

Last June, Biomason hired Bert Bruggeman, previously Tesla’s vice president of automotive manufacturing in charge of that company’s Fremont, California, plant, as its chief operating officer to oversee the scale-up of the company’s biocement with a new factory that has the capability of producing up to 1 million square feet of the material a year. The company has raised $23 million to date, including from Novo Holdings, the Danish investor affiliated with Novo Nordisk, and plans to raise additional equity this year. While still very early in its commercialization efforts, with revenue below $10 million, the big question is what it can sell as it ramps up manufacturing and licenses the technology (for which it has 16 utility patents) to larger tile manufacturers. The global tile market is $347 billion, while the global cement market is $400 billion, Krieg Dosier notes, while pressure from governments and carbon taxes, especially in Europe, should increase demand for more sustainable alternatives.

The deal with H&M Group, which has roughly 5,000 stores under its eight brands (including Cos and Weekday, as well as H&M), represents a huge leap forward for tiny Biomason, even though the two companies don’t expect to have a product ready for a store until 2022. Mattias Bodin, H&M Group’s circular innovation lab lead, says that the bio-based materials are an important piece of the company’s broader goal to use 100% recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030. “We are out to find solutions for the industry, not just for H&M. We never ask for any kind of exclusivity on the project. That I am sure is going to be beneficial for them,” Bodin says. In other words, if H&M adopts Biomason’s bio-based flooring for its new stores and to refurbish older ones, it could give a nudge to other retailers to do so as well.

“It’s almost a privatization of ESG rather than waiting for governments to mandate sustainable materials,” says Krieg Dosier, who for a time wore a piece of the company’s bio-based materials as a necklace. “It struck us as intriguing that the private companies were driving these sustainability initiatives.”

Krieg Dosier, 43, grew up outside Huntsville, Alabama, where her father worked on the NASA space program. He was a tinkerer, who built their home from stone and brick, and taught her and her brother how to cast concrete. “I grew up playing with a concrete mixer,” she recalls. Her fascination with cement soon combined with a love of rocks, seashells and corals after her first trip to the beach at age seven – starting the journey that led to Biomason. “That was the seed moment,” she recalls. “How is this natural cement actually grown? I didn’t understand how this is possible.”

She studied interior design at Auburn University and then got a master’s in architecture from Cranbrook Academy of Art where her thesis, “Material Choreography,” used salt and calcium carbonate to make temporary architectural materials. While at Cranbrook, she recalls, she would wander over to the science department of nearby University of Michigan and ask questions. “She’s amazing,” says Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks’ cofounder and CEO, who has a Ph.D. in biological engineering from MIT. “She’s an architect and had to learn biotech.”

While working as an architecture professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, she set up a lab in a spare room to try and grow bio-based concrete. “When I came home from grad school [at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London] our kitchen was a lab and our second bedroom was a larger lab,” recalls her husband Michael Dosier, 41, who ran the Sharjah university’s computer-aided architectural design labs and is now the company’s chief technology officer. Soon the mission had taken over their lives. “A lot of nights we’d be out at dinner and her alarm would go off and we had to go home and feed the bricks,” he says. “Out of personal survival, I was trying to automate the process so we could get our life back.”

Cement is one of the biggest culprits in carbon emissions globally, accounting for around 8% of global CO2 emissions, according to a report by London-based think tank Chatham House. To bring the cement sector in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, its annual emissions will need to drop by at least 16% by 2030, even as global cement production is slated to increase, according to the report. “Cement and construction are really hot topics right now,” says Krieg Dosier, noting that Bill Gates’ recent book on climate change, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have And The Breakthroughs We Need called it out as well. “Concrete is the second most-consumed substance beyond water. It’s in building structures, driveways, paving, foundations. It is massive.”

Cement, the binding ingredient in concrete, is an environmental problem because the process of making it requires a kiln to heat its materials up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Biomason’s factory, by contrast, makes biocement tiles by injecting aggregates with microorganisms to stimulate activity similar to that which produces coral naturally. The entire process in a factory that looks like a concrete block plant mixed with hydroponics takes about 24 hours. The resulting tiles and other pre-cast products, which it sells under the name Biolith, contain about 85% granite from recycled sources and 15% bio-cement. “We look to the blueprints that nature gives us to rethink concrete,” Dosier says. “Whether we’re looking at a coral or a seashell or exoskeletons or limestone rock, it’s fundamentally the same material.”

After the couple moved back to the U.S. and founded Biomason in 2012, they started with demo products, which they showed off at the Cooper Hewitt in New York and the Museum of Design Atlanta. One of the company’s first commercial projects, in 2015, was at Dropbox’s San Francisco headquarters, where their tiles were installed as paving for an exterior courtyard. Another big-name customer, Martin Marietta, has since installed Biomason’s tiles outside its headquarters. As with other startups that have developed bio-based materials, it’s been an arduously slow process to scale up and commercialize.

“The most challenging thing for us in the early days was the naïveté we had around the big idea,” Dosier says. “We grew some bricks and thought, ‘Okay, we’ve done it.’ We thought, ‘Okay, somebody is going to be interested in this who knows how to scale the technology and they’re going to do it.’ We realized very quickly that we were going to have to be the ones that did it.”

“We look to the blueprints that nature gives us to rethink concrete.”

In December 2019, Krieg Dosier flew to London to present at the Biofabricate conference for those making products with biology. An H&M Group project manager ran up to her after her talk, and showed her the tiles the retailer was currently using from photos in his phone, she recalls. H&M Group had intended to scout out textiles as part of its sustainability push, which calls for using 100% recycled or sustainably sourced materials in its collections by 2030, up from just 35% in 2017, but became intrigued with Biomason’s materials. “The idea with Biomason is not something we would’ve come up with ourselves,” H&M Group’s Bodin says. “What is interesting about the Biomason technology is that they are using microbes. Microbes seem to be the next big thing.”

Last year, the Swedish retailer installed a kitchen floor made of Biomason’s materials that looks like a gray-brown stone at its headquarters as a test. The two have now set up a joint development project (at a cost that neither side would disclose) to come up with bio-based tiles or other flooring that could be used throughout H&M Group’s eight retail brands, potentially with a different look for each one. “It’s about fitting in with a range of aesthetics,” Krieg Dosier says. “A year ago we weren’t thinking about large, thin tiles, and that has led to potential licensing with partners that already make tiles.”

The pandemic last year was tough on Biomason, as universities and work campuses that were potential customers closed down. Like millions of other small businesses, it took out a Paycheck Protection Program loan. “We needed to reevaluate our channels,” Krieg Dosier says. “It was great to take a step back. We know now the commercial building sector had to slow down, but that doesn’t mean it stopped.”

With the hiring of Bruggeman, who had been on sabbatical after leaving Tesla, Biomason is now scaling up its capacity. Last summer, it opened a new, 20,000-square foot plant and is now working to ramp up production from 100,000 square feet of product per year to its eventual capacity of 1 million square feet. Krieg Dosier’s plan is to open multiple plants in locations around the world that could be five times that size. Because the materials are heavy, the factories need to be located near customers.

With a number of potential customers in Europe in addition to H&M Group, Biomason is now in discussions with a partner that it declines to name about opening a manufacturing facility on the Continent later this year. “By the end of next year, we’ll have three [factories], then we’ll ramp up quickly,” says Bruggeman, a native of Belgium who has also worked in the semiconductor and solar industries. “Over the next five years, there will be tens of them.”

Where the first bio-based bricks were all about function, the company’s current lineup of pre-cast tiles come in different colors (natural to dark grey) and finishes (brushed, honed or polished). It can also add surface aggregates, such as recycled glass and copper slag, to give the tiles a more sparkly look. “We have so much more flexibility in color, size, shape,” Krieg Dosier says. “We’re not just going to make one product.”

Different functionalities are also in development. Biomason worked with the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on an underwater cement that continues to take CO2 from the sea water and to grow over time. That product could be used to protect shorelines, or for dams or bridges, where erosion is an ongoing problem. The company has a pilot project at Pine Knoll Shores, N.C., a coastal town that’s working to protect and restore its shoreline with state funding.

But whatever shape or form the product takes, Krieg Dosier’s goal is the same: to reduce the environmental impact of cement. “From the beginning it wasn’t how we can start one plant. My goal is to take 25% of CO2 emissions from cement by 2030,” she says. “Our planet doesn’t have time to wait.”

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