Backing Biomason to grow cement from bacteria leveraging nature
2150 leads Biomason’s $65m Series C to accelerate the deployment of their biological cement with 95% lower carbon footprint
At 2150, we back companies that address the world’s biggest problems, and one of the problems we care the most about solving is our global reliance on concrete, the second most ubiquitous substance after drinkable water. As we discussed in a previous post on our investment in CarbonCure, the cement and concrete industry generates a staggering 7–8% of world CO2 emissions and if the industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world after the US and China.
We have, therefore, continued to canvas the market to track technologies that can help us in our mission to decarbonise cement and concrete, and have landed on the theory that accomplishing this will require a “stack” of solutions versus a single one that will completely eliminate emissions. An obvious part of the value chain for us to hone in on was actual production equipment (the kiln and pre-heater/precalcinator) and energy use associated with creating cement. Cement, the binding ingredient in concrete, requires this kiln to heat its materials up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the most energy-intensive step in the cement manufacturing process and responsible for the greatest emissions, as seen below.
The main solutions put forward as pathways to decarbonisation for this step of the process were largely based around powering the plant with renewable energy or by switching to a zero-carbon heat source like hydrogen, but that still requires a vast amount of energy and their intense capital needs make it challenging for them to fit a venture-backed model. Changing the chemistry of cement is another alternative, but few solutions have been able to achieve price-parity with Portland cement. Finally, capturing CO2 at the source is possible, but at a staggeringly high CAPEX price and unlikely to be deployed across the tens of thousands of global cement plants.
As we continued mapping out promising technology attacking this problem we came across the North Carolina-based Biomason, a company harnessing the power of nature to “shut off the world’s kilns”. Novo Holdings, one of our LP’s and an existing investor in Biomason introduced us to Ginger, the founder, who is an architect turned biotechnologist and whose story we love.
Ginger’s father worked for the NASA space program and taught her and her brother how to cast concrete during her childhood, as he was building their childhood home himself. She’s been playing with a concrete mixer since she was a child and her fascination with it evolved into an interest in stones, seashells and corals that led her to question how these things were actually made in nature.
While doing her master’s in architecture, her thesis was based on “Material Choreography” where she experimented with salt and calcium carbonate to make temporary building materials. By the time she was working as an architecture Professor, she had labs set up in her spare room and kitchen to try and grow bio-based concrete. Michael, a fellow academic and researcher at the university, and now the CTO of Biomason, told us that they had to set alarms throughout the night to “feed the bio-bricks” and likened the experience to having a newborn child. He said that a big driver in automating the process was so that they could get their personal lives back, hence the birth of Biomason.
The Biomason team has been developing their technology for over a decade and it all hinges on a special bacterial strain they discovered in a cave in North Carolina that secretes calcium carbonate, a natural building material found in nature-based organisms like coral. Ginger and Michael optimized the strain in the lab to enable it to build to the specifications and requirements of Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC), and discovered it had even better performance, faster curing time, lower weight and greater compression strength.
The chemical process that occurs in Biomason biocement combines aggregate (limestone), bacteria, and nutrient feedstock. The bacteria are activated by the feedstock allowing them to do what they do naturally: duplicate and generate calcium carbonate crystals.
As nutrients are added, the calcium carbonate crystalline structure begins to connect as a network creating microstructure in the form of calcite polymorph, or cement replacement.
The process can be described as simply as “brewing beer with sand”, and completely replaces the kiln and calcinator with a bioreactor, reducing the CO2 emissions compared to OPC by about 75%. No heat is used and the process works in ambient temperatures. The bioreactor costs vastly less than the kiln infrastructure reducing CAPEX costs and lowering OPEX costs, as it includes less mechanical equipment while converting the factory into a lower risk category reducing insurance premiums. It also allows the cement production facilities to be closer to cities, closer to where the raw materials are generated, and saves on transportation emissions and costs. This adds up to double-digit gross margin improvement for cement manufacturers, an enormous cost-savings in an industry where margins are typically razor thin.
The company is first focused on pre-cast products and its bioLITH bricks, tiles and pavers are already being produced and sold at a commercial scale through their North Carolina 20,000 sqft plant. Clients include corporates like retailer H&M, who have installed Biomason tiles at their Swedish headquarters (pictured below) and are planning to roll them out across a number of stores.
By the end of this year they will have opened a new facility in Europe that will bring an additional 100,000 sqft of production capacity online. This will not only enable a massive scaling up in production, but will also prove out their abilities in tech transfer and licensing. And, they are also accelerating their technology platforms to enable broader applications in the concrete value chain, including ready mix technology, which would have up to 95% reduction in CO2 compared to OPC and would truly revolutionize cement production as we know it.
We are joined in this $65m Series C funding round by Celesta Capital, as well as existing investors Novo Holdings and Martin Marietta, one of the largest aggregate producers in North America.
Biomason is very public in its goal of eliminating 25% of global carbon emissions from the concrete industry by 2030. This would establish them as a gigacorn with more than 1GT CO2e savings . We are thrilled to aid them in that journey and to be able to play a role in paving the road (pun intended) to a new way of constructing our cities of the future.
We are truly excited to be backing a passionate leader like Ginger seeking to harness biology to tackle the havoc we have wrecked upon it.
2150 is a venture capital firm investing in technology companies that seek to sustainably reimagine and reshape the urban environment. 2150’s investment thesis focuses on major unsolved problems across what it calls the ‘Urban Stack’, which comprises every element of the built environment, from the way our cities are designed, constructed and powered, to the way people live, work and are cared for. Find out more at www.2150.vc