A Startup Transforming Waste Wool to Green Building Gold

Posted on December 3, 2011

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Lambs at Amelia Trust FarmPriscilla Burgess has spent most of her career managing software and internet projects for mega-corps such as Cisco and GE.  Like many of us, she began to wonder if there was more to life, if there was some way that she could pay the bills and yet still create products that helped society.  On a whim, she traveled in Kenya and Tanzania with a photographer friend, but didn’t find what she expected; “I was expecting an epiphany, but instead I just realized that I couldn’t live in Africa” she says.  A social anthropologist by training, Burgess began to think about the ways that companies influence our lives.  “I came to realize that too many companies are wretched places to work, and decided that I could build something better” she adds.

Burgess concluded that she was looking for “deep green products that do the same work as regular ones”.  One methodology that helped in her search was ‘frugal innovation’, a philosophy which basically argues that we should use our imagination, not cash or other resources, to fix the issues found in underserved communities.  She studied LED lighting for some time, thinking that it could be a viable business model, but grew frustrated with its toxic manufacturing processes.  Venting to a sheep farmer school friend one day, she stumbled across a better idea.   Sheep farmers were either selling non-clothing wool to Chinese and Mexican buyers for low end uses, such as mattress padding, or throwing it away.

Burgess realized that the famed insulation properties of wool would make it a great substitute for fiberglass in building insulation.  There had been some attempts at a ‘green’ insulation using cotton, but the batts are not easy to install. They were heavy, which construction workers didn’t appreciate.  A couple of wool insulation products were on the market in Europe, but they weren’t a good substitute for fiberglass ones according to Burgess.  What’s more, insulation is a huge market; $7.1bn in the US alone according to the Freedonia Group.  Burgess began a research project, quizzing every sheep farmer and mill she could cold-call.  “Everyone knew about sheep genetics, no-one knew about wool” she found.  Working with an under-utilized mill, she developed an insulation batt of the exact dimensions – 16” x 8’ weighing 4.5lbs – of the industry’s dominant fiberglass insulation.  After a few years’ trial and error, the product came together; it’s priced to be competitive with existing products, uses no toxic chemicals in production, doesn’t sag in a building’s wall, and – best of all – can be easily installed.

Construction customers were initially bemused and then captivated by the product.  “When they realized that they didn’t have to ‘suit up’ to install it, they were excited”.  Accolades soon followed; for instance, Burgess’s company, Bellwether Materials, won the California Sustainability Award at the 2010 Cleantech Open, the granddaddy of cleantech business plan competitions.  The company is seeing interest from some large construction customers; “we’re scaling the business to sell by the million, not by the bathroom” Burgess explains.  The team is now four people strong.  In the US alone, there are 5mn sheep whose wool is suitable for the product, with many more in New Zealand and the UK in particular should they be needed.

The next hurdle for the company is reaching commercial scale production.  There’s a raft of expensive regulatory and certification tests and qualifications that must first be cleared; ‘green building’ certifications can cost anything from $2,000 to $20,000 a piece.  Next, Bellwether plans to work with under-utilized mills across the country as manufacturing sites.  Their initial target market is large construction projects, especially those for schools and hospitals where occupants are sensitive to air quality.  The Freedonia Group forecasts 7% growth in the US insulation market through 2014 from a recovery in the construction industry, and this tailwind will doubtless benefit Bellwether.

Beyond this, the retail market is tempting as the product is simple to install and so benign that you can use wool in bedding without certification in California.  “It’s a no-brainer for the DIY market” Burgess explains.  One challenge is in the packaging, as it’s been tough for the company to find a truly ‘green’ packaging material.

Eventually, Burgess would like to see the principles she used to create her business – especially the focus on using design to meet customer needs – being used as a model for other businesses.  She views it as key to allowing people to remain in rural communities and evade ‘office life’.  “It would be great to see copycat businesses all over the world” Burgess concludes.

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