Harry Darkly, Chief Operating Officer at Biohm, talks to UKGBC about what they do and what innovation means to them.
September 26, 2022
What is your elevator pitch?
Biohm is a research and development-driven company that creates regenerative, high-performance materials and products for the built environment. We allow nature to lead innovation with the goal of revolutionizing the construction industry to create a healthier and more regenerative built environment. We place natural systems at the heart of our inspiration, in other words biomimetics. This combines circular economy philosophies with human-led design and future technology. The idea is to create a step change in building technologies and materials as well as manufacturing methods – leading the whole sector towards a more circular future. We have developed manufacturing processes that harness the power of nature to transform production by creating low-energy, carbon-negative, or at worst carbon-neutral, closed-loop systems. We couple this with our biotech technologies in manufacturing to capture hard-to-reuse organic waste and excess synthetic resources, waste from the construction, agriculture and food sectors. This is what is then bio-manufactured into our products.
Based on these principles, we have developed an organic insulation panel from Mycelium (the root structure of fungi). Current tests show it outperforms many synthetic alternatives, and we can do this at a competitive price because we don’t rely on any manufacturing, but rather natural processes to grow materials. The most important factor in the types of buildings that Mycelium products can be implemented is related to its fire resistance. It is a natural material and the best it can achieve is a Class B fire rating which limits it to a certain building height. We have also developed an organic waste biocompound we call Org that uses organic by-products such as food waste to create natural, regenerative materials to save on semi-structural wood and leaf materials. plastic, such as MDF and plywood. .
These larger scale construction materials are currently going through the testing and accreditation process which is a very lengthy process in the construction industry. As we go through this process, we have used our ability to offer services to industry to help them focus on creating circular systems with their waste streams and help them decarbonize their operations. We also manufacture bespoke interior items such as lampshades and acoustic panels to market certain aspects of technology that are established and do not require the testing that building materials must undergo.
Who is your target audience?
It’s a mix of different companies. We have worked extensively with land management companies, the largest in the UK. Similarly, real estate developers, those who do large real estate projects, are also very enthusiastic and understand the certification process and EPDs and are ready to think a little more about their procurement. We have a lot of contact with individual buyers. This is a very wide range between multinational construction companies and national property developers, small-scale property developers and individual owners.
How did your start-up get to where it is today?
The initial idea came from our founder Ehab. Seven years ago, he conducted a research project on waste streams in the construction sector, from materials delivered to site to demolition. In line with many other studies, he discovered many wastes that cannot be reused or that people are unwilling to reuse. This led him to investigate how waste can generally be reduced in construction during the first phase of a building’s life. He developed a building system called Triagomy designed to fit together without any fasteners or fasteners. It can be disassembled at the beginning of its life so that it can be moved, reconfigured or (at the end of its life) be removed/reassembled elsewhere if the parts are still viable. One of the biggest questions in our testing is what was this system going to be made of? It was then that we turned to biomaterials. Ideally, at the end of their life, we would like these materials to be used in products higher in the hierarchy or, at worst, to be naturally composted. We are developing rigid panels that we want to transform into a plant-based concrete material to be part of this system, as well as the Mycelium insulation. We started with a building system and then refocused our efforts on what the building blocks of a regenerative building system look like.
We just had our first round of funding. We’ve been in a few programs and a number of accelerators: people who have helped us focus on our materials, how we actually run a business like ours, as well as programs that have really brought us into the circular economy, particularly in and around London (eg Re:London a few years ago). The programs helped develop strategy around bringing products to market. It was more business oriented. One of the programs was really looking at our business function and how to operate in that space, how the parties work, more about defining our business model and our proposition to investors. When you’re a start-up, you’re pretty naive about that.
What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation is about understanding the system in which you operate. It’s not necessarily about creating a different product, but about creating a product that really solves all the problems with its production, its use and its end of life, so that you’re not just sending materials to the world without worrying about what happens to them. Innovation, in this sense, is about creating something regenerative. As exciting as new things are, you really have to move beyond sustainability with everything we do. Personally, I don’t find the idea of sustainability particularly inspiring. It’s just a matter of saying, “Let’s not make it worse.” It’s not exactly a call to action. Doing regenerative processes, making things better than they are today, that’s where it all has to be.
How hungry is the built environment for innovation?
It’s a mixed picture. We spoke to organizations where this is at the forefront of what they want to accomplish on their journey over the next few years. We also spoke to organizations that struggle with innovation in general, but with new technologies in particular. There’s a lot of will there, especially from individuals in businesses. More generally, adoption is a bit slow. I don’t think companies think it’s not important, but a lot of them are very large organizations that are taking a long time to recover for a whole host of reasons. In general, there is certainly an acknowledgment that things need to change, but it is a bit mixed as to how this change is achieved.
What needs to change to further encourage innovation?
Standards need to evolve as quickly as the world around them. It’s definitely something we’ve been through, the standards for what we do aren’t necessarily there yet. Without this, the industry is not certain to need new materials. The two must walk hand in hand into the future. The will is there, but the system needs to catch up a bit. Fluidity with standards and the organizations that set them is important, to be more aware that new materials are on the horizon and their role in adapting them. Without this hosting, there will never be the kind of membership needed to make a real difference. Construction is very heavily regulated, which means everything is very slow.
What are the biggest challenges you have had to face as a start-up?
Its many facets. Some of the things we’ve experienced are a lack of understanding of what biomaterials are and what they mean. The glacial pace of change within the sector is another challenge. Although not something we have experienced, there may be the challenge of industry-wide skills shortages. Funding has never really been an issue for us. We’ve been incredibly lucky with our investors, but it’s certainly something that others have faced, especially with more traditional forms of venture capital funding – understanding biomaterials is a severe anathema to them. The interplay between the immediate goals of any venture capitalist is profit or the possibility of selling the business at some point. Doing things for our own benefit doesn’t really fit the long-term view of the climate emergency, which can mean that short-term profit isn’t really a reality.
What is your advice for new innovators and start-ups in the built environment?
Tenacity, you will get there. It’s a long walk and you have to be prepared for it. Spending as much time as possible to understand how the system works as it is complex beyond my initial imagination. It’s a challenge, understanding what you need to do, especially in certification as a start-up, sometimes overwhelming. I would suggest reaching out to organizations willing to help, people like the BBA who are returning to their original purpose of bringing exciting new innovative materials to market rather than just serving the innovation of the bigger company. Contact organizations like this as soon as possible. That’s how we did a lot of our market research. Other startups that develop their product and then consider certifying it can often run into all sorts of surprises that they weren’t aware of.
What’s next for your business?
It’s about manufacturing on a large scale. Have our products accredited. We have a number of exciting partners that we’ve had conversations with about developing this. Once we get accreditation, we need to get the funding to build full-scale production facilities.
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