Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2016 Best Industries report.
The handwritten sign hangs on the wall of an office in BioMason's Raleigh, North Carolina, headquarters: "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this." The quote comes from Matt Damon's character in The Martian, who, stranded on the dusty Red Planet, has no choice but to innovate to survive.
"Very inspirational," says Ginger Krieg Dosier, BioMason's co-founder and CEO, of the 2015 sci-fi film. "Lots of challenges that were taken as opportunities."
BioMason is a forward-thinking startup, but makes its products using a process that's millions of years old. Founded in 2012 by Dosier and her husband, Michael, the building-materials company grows bricks and masonry from scratch without the need for any heat. While traditional brick-making requires blasting clay in kilns at 2,000 degrees for several days--thereby releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere--BioMason injects sand with microorganisms to initiate a process like the one that creates coral. The technique takes four days, and when complete the bricks are strong enough for use in houses, commercial buildings, and other structures.
If this all sounds a little suspect to you, Dosier understands. But she's done her homework. "I knocked on a lot of doors of scientists and microbiologists," she says of her time spent researching BioMason's brick-making method, "and they were kind enough to not tell me I was crazy." Investors agreed: BioMason earned $2.8 million in seed funding, grants, and awards, most of it during 2013, including €500,000 from the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, with a jury chaired by Richard Branson.
Speeding up a natural process.
Dosier studied architecture at Auburn University and as a graduate student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. While working for an architectural firm in 2005, she was tasked with looking into green alternatives for building materials. When it came to brick and masonry, her searches came up empty. "That kind of stuck with me for a little while," she says.
She later moved to North Carolina's Research Triangle Park to teach architecture at North Carolina State University. In 2009, Dosier, whose mother was an engineer and father worked for NASA's shuttle program, started to investigate potential ways to make masonry more eco-friendly.
"I grew a deep love for coral," says Dosier, now 37. "I looked at how coral was able to make these incredible structural formations that could withstand water and erosion and began really researching how it was able to grow." She took her research to scientists in Research Triangle Park and beyond to see if the process could be replicated to create bricks. Dosier says their opinions were nearly unanimous: It could be done. It just hadn't been attempted before, at least not on a large scale.
"This required a rare combination of talents and areas of intelligence," says Patrick Rand, professor of architecture at N.C. State, who advised Dosier on the project. "She sparked the whole process by imagining that biochemistry could do in days what geological processes have taken millennia to accomplish."
BioMason's 20-employee team reveals the wide spectrum of expertise required: Their backgrounds range from biology to architecture, from fermentation to engineering. To make each brick in its facility, the company starts with sand packed into rectangular molds. The molds are then inoculated with bacteria, which wrap themselves around the grains of sand. With each bacteria-covered grain of sand acting as a nucleus, calcium carbonate crystals begin to form around it. An irrigation system feeds the bricks nutrient-rich water over the course of several days to facilitate the process. The crystals grow larger and larger, filling in the gaps between the grains of sand.
After three to five days, the bricks are ready for use. To ensure that the manufacturing process is as green as the product, the water is then reused for the next batch.
It's an advanced technique, but the blueprint has been right under our noses forever. If you've ever found a conglomerate rock on the beach, you've seen the result of a similar process. The hard natural material that holds the various rocks together is often referred to as "biological cement."
Making a dent.
About 8 percent of all global carbon emissions come from brick manufacturing, according to estimates from Dosier and the EPA. The pressure--and responsibility--to be green continues to mount as the average global temperature edges upward. Sustainable building materials, which include construction goods produced using green processes and those with reduced need for resources during their lifespan, currently amount to a $36.1 billion industry--one that's expected to grow by 10.6 percent annually until 2020, according to market researcher IBISWorld.
BioMason, like other startups that have popped up in the sector, is both seizing a market opportunity and filling a need. "I really wanted to pursue a different approach to how materials were made," Dosier says. "It just didn't seem right for us to essentially extract material from the ground and then fire it with quite a large amount of fossil fuel just to make a hard product."
Finding customers willing to switch from a product they've used for so long is a considerable challenge. "The design and construction industry is a big dinosaur," says Ihab Elzeyadi, a professor at the University of Oregon's Ph.D. in architecture program. "It moves very slowly. It doesn't embrace change very easily." Still, so far BioMason has managed to sign licensing agreements with two U.S.-based manufacturers of construction materials and is in talks with several more, including two European companies. (Dosier declined to name BioMason's partners.) BioMason's bricks should reach consumers by 2017. The company just received a $1.5 million investment from angel firm Acorn Innovestments as part of a $3 million fundraising round.
When BioMason moves into a new facility in Research Triangle Park in February, it will have the capacity to grow 5,000 bricks every two days. That's still relatively low production for the brick-making industry, but the company expects the pace will continue to increase.
Since BioMason is the first company of its kind, the burden is on Dosier to prove her product's worth. While there are industry standards for traditional bricks and masonry, no such measures yet exist for biological products. But she says once potential customers see the results of durability testing performed by third-party labs, they're convinced: The bricks have proved to be as durable as sandstone. They also can be shaped into multiple shapes and sizes, and are on track to be cost-competitive with standard bricks by the time they hit the market.
"Our goal is to impact. It's a global goal," says Dosier. "We wanted to do what had never been done before, to push the boundaries. And instead of being 'less bad,' we wanted to completely redo it--the hard way."